Whoonga: The Cruelest Drug of South African Slums

This guest blog was written by Jeanette Strydom, the relationship officer at Africa Health Placements, a member organization of GHC based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — “Whoonga” is a new, deadly drug which is slowly becoming common in South African slums. It was first reported in Durban – but has since spread to other parts of the country. Not only is this drug easily accessible, it is sold very cheaply.

It is a concoction of various substances: rat poison, soap powder and the main ingredient – anti-retrovirals (ARVs) or AIDS medication.  Whoonga is distributed as a fine white powder which is added to marijuana and/or tobacco. This mixture is smoked – the result is said to be one of the most lethal drugs in the world.

Whoonga is highly addictive, even after only one hit, and leads to violent side-effects such as anxiety, aggression, stomach cramps, slowing down of the heart rate and lungs. If taken in overdose, heart and lung function reduction becomes fatal. The resulting withdrawal symptoms reportedly involve both extreme craving and pain, which are only temporarily relieved by fresh doses of the drug. A few users have alledgedly died from crippling stomach cramps and acute pain.

Though one hit costs only R20 (about US $3) a whoonga addict needs several hits per day, and users are typically too poor to afford the drug out of legal income. Addicts therefore turn to crime to raise the money to secure a regular supply.

Since the use of whoonga has come to light there have been several alarming reports indicating that AIDS patients are being robbed of their ARVs when leaving their local clinic, leading to sporadic intake, or them going without. Other patients are willing to sell them – free ARVs are now valuable for reasons other than their intended purpose — to save lives. Corrupt health workers and clinic staff have also reportedly been selling ARVs illegally for the whoonga market.

If all of this is not shocking and saddening enough, several addicts intentionally seek to become HIV positive enabling access to a steady supply of ARVs, for free – therefore not having to worry about sourcing, funding or committing crime in the process.

This drug has created a great deal of media attention – and is greatly feared for its social implications. Substances such as rat poison, soap powder and ARVs cannot be banned as they are legal substances.

According to a report by Al Jezeera, earlier this year, “Backroom experimentation produces an ever-changing array of concoctions that offer a cheap and lethal high. With South Africa finally making inroads in the battle against HIV and AIDS after years of denialism, this is a dreadful blow.”

South African authorities are aware of whoonga. The police and the National Addiction Council have said on several occasions that they are doing what they can. With limited resources to turn the tide on ignorance among the ill-educated, officials admit efforts to promote awareness are not enough.

One group is making a difference — Project Whoonga needs all the help it can get.