Whoonga, also known as nyaope or wonga, is a dangerous drug that started to feature in South Africa around 2009. It’s typically a mix of black tar heroin and various additives, which can range from pharmaceutical drugs to household cleaning chemicals. These additives are used to increase the volume of the drug and enhance its effects, but they also make it highly unpredictable and hazardous.

Originally known as ‘Sugars’, the drug was renamed to Whoonga around 2010 to evade police crackdowns. By 2016, it became a significant challenge for drug rehabilitation centers in South Africa. Whoonga, also referred to as Nyaope, rapidly spread from the impoverished townships of Durban across the country, causing widespread devastation. This highly addictive drug is a cheap cocktail costing about R20 per hit, composed of lethal substances such as rat poison, brown heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine\, household detergents, ammonia, and chlorine. Typically smoked several times a day, users mix the toxic powder with tobacco or dagga.

It is believed that addiction to this hazardous substance can occur after just one use, primarily due to its heroin content. It is known to produce intense euphoria, relaxation, and a reduced appetite, but these effects only last a few hours  which mirrors the duration of high that users experience with heroin. The heroin in whoonga binds to opioid receptors in the brain, leading to intense euphoria and a profound sense of well-being, which are characteristic effects of opioid drugs.

The drug is usually smoked, often mixed with cannabis, but can also be injected. It’s relatively cheap, but since users require multiple doses a day, the expense adds up quickly. As a result, addiction often leads to criminal activity as users seek ways to finance their habit.

There are claims that whoonga contains antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) used to treat HIV. However, laboratory tests and police reports suggest these claims are unfounded and likely part of an urban myth. The misconception persists partly because some users believe the ARVs enhance the drug’s effects and misdirected rehab centres and reporters in South Africa republishing articles without checking the facts. Withdrawal symptoms are severe, including excruciating headaches, stomach cramps, night sweats, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, and muscle tension.

The use of whoonga is not without consequences. Short-term effects wear off within a day, but users often experience painful withdrawal symptoms like stomach cramps, backaches, anxiety, and nausea. Long-term use can lead to more serious health issues, including internal bleeding and stomach ulcers, which can be fatal.

Nyaope addiction frequently leads to a deterioration in personal responsibilities and social relationships. Users often neglect or abandon their education and employment, increasing their financial pressures and often leading to criminal behavior to fund their addiction. The highly addictive nature of nyaope can also drive individuals to commit violent acts, including against their own family and friends. Moreover, many users suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, complicating their addiction and treatment. These dual diagnoses can interact in ways that exacerbate both the mental health issue and the substance abuse problem, making treatment more challenging and less effective. Educating young people on the dangers of nyaope is crucial to prevent addiction and its extensive harmful effects on mental, physical, and social health. Signs of drug abuse include changes in behavior, physical health, and social activity, all of which can significantly disrupt life and relationships.

The death of a key drug dealer in Pietermaritzburg exacerbated a shortage of whoonga, leading to a significant increase in crime as addicts return to their townships seeking alternative sources. This shortage has not only driven up the price of whoonga but also introduced a less potent variant into the market, compelling addicts to commit more crimes to fund their increasingly expensive habit. Residents have expressed concerns about rising burglaries and thefts, particularly of copper taps and pipes, as addicts desperately try to satisfy their cravings. The situation has prompted local security firms and police to heighten their vigilance, but the community remains deeply affected by the dual threats of addiction and related crime.

In response to the growing whoonga crisis, a team of academics and storytellers initiated a project in 2014 to explore more empathetic approaches to addiction through theatre. Collaborating with local artists and researchers in Durban’s most affected areas, they developed “Ulwembu” (“spider web” in isiZulu), a play that portrays the complex web of relationships and challenges surrounding whoonga use. By engaging diverse community members, including users, police, and health workers, the play aims to foster understanding and empathy, challenging the typical stigma associated with drug use. This theatrical approach has not only influenced local perceptions but has also gained attention from policymakers, with plans to bring the discussion to international stages.

Legally, the South African government has been working to address the whoonga problem by amending laws to strengthen enforcement against its possession and trafficking. This includes efforts to prevent the alleged diversion of HIV medications into the production of whoonga. The opioid epidemic, commonly discussed in the context of countries like the United States, has a counterpart in South Africas widespread abuse of a heroin-based drugs.

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Founded in 2008, WeDoRecover has evolved from an advisory service for addiction treatment into a comprehensive provider of care, following its 2019 merger with Changes Addiction Rehab in Johannesburg. Specialising in connecting patients to top-tier addiction treatment centers in the UK, South Africa and Thailand, WeDoRecover supports individuals globally, including those from the United Arab Emirates and Europe. Accepting both South African medical aid and international health insurance our organisation facilitates access to high-quality treatment for substance and alcohol use disorders, offering individualised care that addresses the physical, mental and social needs of patients.

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Rehab care is a good option if you are at risk of experiencing strong withdrawal symptoms when you try stop a substance. This option would also be recommended if you have experienced recurrent relapses or if you have tried a less-intensive treatment without success.


If you're committed to your sobriety but cannot take a break from your daily duties for an inpatient program. Outpatient rehab treatment might suit you well if you are looking for a less restricted format for addiction treatment or simply need help with mental health.


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