Co-authored by Kirsten Harris

Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs” in 1971. However it was Reagan who took the “war” to “the streets” by implementing a number of detrimental economic and social policies that further divided America along racial lines. Under Reagan’s leadership, Nancy Reagan implored nice middle-class white kids to “just say no” to drugs while the inner city slums, inhabited by the disenfranchised black population, expanded at an outstanding rate. The drug of choice in these slums was crack cocaine – cheap, easy to make, and easily available, its use and abuse became totem for articulating the difference between the leafy suburbs of middle-class America and the grinding poverty and filth of the inner-city slums.

Along with crack came a number of other descriptors that linked the use of crack with specific “types” of people: crack whores, crack skeezers, crack addicts, and crack babies. Pictures of the typical crack user emerged – dirty, defiled, dangerous, hypersexualised and an economic burden, generally inhabiting the sodden streets and roaming in gangs looking for their next (white) victim. Something had to be done. Thus under Reagan’s authority, and guided by an understanding that a “war” against drugs could somehow be won, the fear of crack authorised the use of military tactics against the poorest people in the country. It also authorised the unsolicited and random searches of specific “types” of people, the raiding of places of residences, and turned citizen against citizen in the hope that some would become informers. All of this was, as ever, completely ineffectual, cost millions of dollars, incriminated forty percent of the young black male population of the US and did nothing to decrease the trade in drugs.

South Africa now has its own “scourge” or “epidemic” in the form of “tik” (methamphetamine). While its use and production has expanded beyond the Western Cape, the media has described it using the self-same tropes that were used to articulate crack in the US. We now have “lolly lounges”, “tik babies”, and “tik whores/girls”, all presided over by the general fear of the “Numbers” gangs. These articulations of the “tik” problem have inadvertently authorised extremely heavy-handed police measures, the random searching of persons and property, and unsurprisingly, the use of the military and their resources in the “fight”. Scenes have emerged that look much like they looked like 20 years ago – heavily armed police officers and the military stalking between dirty blocks of flats somehow expecting drug dealers to pop up from nowhere. In amongst this is the vehicular symbol of apartheid, once again deployed – the Casper. The net result is that the constitutional dictum of “innocent until proven guilty” has been reversed if you are a young “coloured” male living in the “Cape Flats” – you are guilty until proven innocent.

Of course, we are not ignoring the fact that both crack and “tik” are extremely dangerous drugs. There are definitive links between the production, distribution, and use of these drugs with violent crime, gangsterism, theft, assault, and the sexual crimes. Drugs, in short, are bad. Yet the government has failed to learn the lessons that history has to offer, lessons that are directly applicable to the present problem of “tik”.

There are definitive reasons why the “tik” problem emerged so prominently in specific geopolitical areas of the Western Cape. It is no coincidence that the use of “tik” exploded in the very areas that continue to be politically marginalised and economically excluded, the very same areas created by the apartheid government. Zille was wrong to blame apartheid for the “tik” problem – what is to blame is the present government’s inability to provide measures and policies that will actively transform the geopolitical configurations of our cities that continue to haunt us. And that applies to the whole country.

Due to this, we must be so careful in how we describe the “tik” problem, and all those who are involved. “Tik” generally affects those who are already significantly marginalised and disenfranchised – throwing the military at them is not going to solve anything. As with the gangs, drug abuse often emerges because of deep-seated problems in these communities, problems that can be solved, at least partially, if we think critically about our political, economic and social policies. Alleviating poverty, for instance, would be the most effective measure against “tik”. Giving people an effective political voice would go a long way in undermining the gang activity in these areas. Encouraging cooperation between the police and the community, involving community leaders, and providing spaces for social cooperation are immeasurably better strategies than shooting at gang members.

All of this, however, only becomes possible once we begin to think critically of the way in which we articulate drugs, and drug users. Change, in other words, needs to begin from the bottom.


  • Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.


Simon Howell

Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD...

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