Independent Appeal: Offering hope to the drug-addicted children of the townships

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The Independent Online

James was just 13 when he saw his mother's boyfriend stab a teenager 17 times with a kitchen knife. The victim was the man's nephew and had been caught stealing money to buy tik a highly addictive amphetamine ravaging townships in the Western Cape.

Tik pronounced "tuk" in South Africa's townships is more correctly known as methamphetamine. Originally developed as a slimming drug for affluent but overweight Americans, it is usually sold in drink straws, costing as little as R20 or 1.40 a hit. It normally appears as a white or semi-transparent, odourless powder or crystal with an acidic taste.

The drug is heated sometimes using the lightbulbs of traffic lights or cars when users cannot fashion a small glass pipe for the purpose and the fumes then inhaled.

It produces an immediate hit lasting about 45 minutes. Like many similar drugs it fills its user with feelings of confidence, power and sexual prowess.

But it is highly addictive and has serious side-effects, which include manic physical activity, rapid speech, aggression, confrontational behaviour, decreased appetite, a dry mouth and tremors.

James, who had also been raped, was left severely traumatised by the murder he witnessed and risked falling into the clutches of local gangsters who control the lucrative tik trade. Instead he was directed to a freight container measuring 39ft by 7ft, next to a litter-strewn field, directly under the flight path of Cape Town International Airport.

Inside were staff and volunteers of the New Life Community Project an initiative set up by Gerrie Smit, a professor at Stellenbosch University, to help children like James who have been left emotionally scarred by drugs and crime, and prevent others from entering that dark world. It is funded by the International Children's Trust (ICT), one of the charities being supported in this year's Independent Christmas appeal.

Using an informal home-based education, the workers identify vulnerable children and try to work with parents to shield the youngsters from what is happening in their streets and often within their own homes.

It's not easy. Townships on the Cape Flats are a world away from the glitz and wealth of nearby central Cape Town where tens of thousands of tourists visit the well-stocked shops, restaurants and attractions such as Table Mountain, Robben Island and the V&A Waterfront. In the townships, alcohol and drugs are rife with whole families often blighted by abuse. Outside the decrepit homes, violent gangsters vie for business with shootings and stabbings commonplace. The state's remit through police and social services makes little impact so it's often down to charities such as the New Life Community Project to offer hope.

The ICT, which is based in Peterborough in the UK, secured $100,000 (50,000) from an unnamed oil firm to fund the expansion of the project, spread over two years.

The R24,000 container in Uitsig, Ravensmead, opened six months ago and another is about to open in the same township in the new year. Children who turn up or who have been referred are offered basic education either in the container or in the homes of local staff.

The operational co-ordinator Kelly Swart explained: "A lot of the children have seen and experienced things children should not even be aware of. Often their parents take drugs or are alcoholics and so can't look after them.

"Many of them don't have a birth certificate so can't register for school. But they need education, even a basic one. We can't offer them a full education because we're not teachers, but we can help them learn and make it fun and give them love."

Her boss, Professor Smit, started the project 12 years ago after witnessing police rounding up street children only for them to escape from the back of police vans. He spent two weeks sleeping rough to get a better understanding of their problems and then set up the home education projects.

Mrs Swart said: "We offer them another life which doesn't involve drugs or crime but it's hard because we cannot shield and protect them every second of the day they can't stay with us. They have to go home at the end of the day and who knows what is waiting for them there.

"Last year we knew of a little boy of five years who was told by his parents not to come home unless he brought home five rand. Where's he going to get that? If he can't get it from begging, he'll steal it and that's what we try to stop by working with parents."

But it is the tik trade which represents the biggest threat. Andreas Pluddeman, a senior scientist at the alcohol and drug abuse research unit at Cape Town's Medical Research Council, said the number of inpatients at city clinics had risen from one per cent of the total drug referrals in 2002 to 40 per cent last year.

Similarly, a survey of 4,600 high-school pupils aged 15 in 2005 revealed that 12 per cent had tried the drug.

Mrs Swart and her team realise they cannot help every child in the townships but they are proud of making a big difference to the increasing number of vulnerable children who visit the container and use the home schools.

They offer hope where previously there was none. With more funding they could touch a greater number of young lives and give the chance of a normal life away from tik and other drugs. "We are very grateful for the money because it makes such a big difference to these kids' lives," added Mrs Swart. "If we had more, we could do more for them."

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