Simon Howell
Simon Howell

Naming, shaming and drug policy in Cape Town

Approximately six months ago, the City of Cape Town began a poster campaign, explicitly aimed at highlighting the prevalence and social consequences of drug use in the city. The posters all feature a stern-looking local celebrity – most often Chester Williams, Patricia de Lille, and Ian Bredenkamp – with the following bold words:

I am [insert celebrity’s name] and I have a drug problem. I don’t use them, but they still affect me. If you have a drug problem or know someone who needs help, call now …

When I first saw them, I reacted with anger. I thought they were a banal solution to a massive problem, a symptomatic reaction to a complex social phenomenon that could be seen as yet another product of ineffective legislation and a lack of critical thought. However, to the city’s credit, the posters have been backed up by a substantive effort to deploy reduction and rehabilitation-orientated measures and programmes aimed at curbing the production, distribution and use of drugs. Whether these policies and prescription will be effective remains to be seen – as the US found out, “combatting” or curtailing drug use requires not only a lot of money, but also a lot of time.

Indeed, it has become increasingly evident that the psycho-structural antecedents that contribute to and sustain the cyclical nature of addiction need to be addressed in confluence with more reactive policies, such as policing measures, helplines, rehabilitation programmes, etc. In other words, the regulation and reduction of illegal drugs requires policies aimed at addressing far deeper social problems – economic inequalities, political disenfranchisement, and the spatial design (and resulting exclusion for many) of our cities being the most pressing. In this the posters are then right. Drugs do all affect us all. One would think that any drug policy would therefore focus on those problems.

At present, however, it is often the police who are at the forefront of the “fight” against drugs, when they should be the very last resort. The fact that it is the police who are, more often than not, called upon as the state’s primary weapon in “combatting” illegal drugs points not only to an implicit continuation of the logic of the “war on drugs” – in which illegal drugs are “fought” through physical interventions – but that these interventions are normally reactive – they rely on any drug-related criminal activity already having taken place. This, in turn, does not undermine the factors that continue to sustain illegal drug-related phenomena, which in turn requires more policing, and so the system continues ad infinitum.

While De Lille’s posters have come under criticism from a number of direction – not least the citizens of Cape Town who have taken to creatively amending the posters through the use of graffiti so that some now read “My name is Patricia de Lille and I’m addicted to sucking the lifeblood of the poor” – it is the way in which the posters articulate the “problem” that concerns me. The posters are paternalistic in tone, in which stern-faced celebrities look down upon the wayward druggies. While I recognise that the posters are backed up by very real measures aimed at reducing drug use, I can’t help but think that this (implicitly moralising) paternalism frequently justifies the continuation of reactionary measures while the causes of drug use remain untreated. The recognition of a problem is one thing, but creating effective and effective policy measures aimed at addressing the contributory factors that sustain illegal drug use is another.

The posters, in short, can easily be interpreted in a fashion that is in opposition to their intention – they can be seen as just another attempt to whip the bad people into shape, implicitly blaming those damn druggies for their own lack of moral fibre. While individual volition plays a prominent role in drug use, so too do the structural antecedents mentioned above. The City of Cape Town has, in short, done well in recognising the social nature of drug addiction. What is required now, however, are less posters and more sustainable policies aimed squarely at substantively changing the dynamics of the city, which play a root role in the proliferation of illegal drugs.

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    • Will

      Nice article, though I tend to think that the police should not even be a last resort.

      As for the creative amenders of the posters, it’s probably the tokolos.
      Nice to see some graffiti around town that is actually saying something.

    • Eugene

      The single biggest drug problem is the fact that they are illegal, which causes more problems than the drugs themselves.

    • Momma Cyndi

      You’d think they could find at least one celebrity who had fought drug addiction to advise them. Not like there aren’t a few!

      Drugs and prostitution have been ‘fought’ for decades (if not centuries). Fighting it isn’t working. Did the prohibition experiment teach governments nothing? I am also not too sure about the state sponsored rehab. It seems a rather ‘one size fits all’.

      Whilst I do agree that living in a leaky shack with no food and no hope probably is the over riding reason for drug use (heck, I would escape that any way I could too, so I can’t judge), I also have to wonder if our mental health doesn’t also play a big part. I know of quite a few state doctors who are coke addicts and most cops live out of the bottom of a bottle. Is the drugs nothing more than ‘self medication’?

    • Myrtle

      Thanks for stating the facts so succinctly.
      1. Drugs make you “feel nice”.
      2. Addiction is a failed copying mechanism and the result of suppressed trauma.
      3. Imagine if, just for one week, everyone replaced the word “drugs” with “escape mechanism”!
      Keep telling it like it is!

    • Simon Howell

      @Momma – That is exactly my concern: the relationship between structure and agency in drug addiction. I have found that the relationship is frequently articulated as an ‘either/or’ when I believe it is complex interaction, on that is contextual and sensitive, and which needs investigating. Separating the strands, is however, the hard part and will require some serious work. And funding. The latter obviously being the more difficult.

    • Perry Dace

      Very insightful, by which my mean, you agree with me in almost every particular :)