Crystal meth abuse: Zimbabwe’s hidden social time bomb

·7-min read

A young man sprawls on a local drug dealer’s decrepit beige sofa, lights up the bottom of a carefully cut fluorescent light bulb and, using an improvised pipe, takes a deep puff of the small rock of cheap synthetic methamphetamine, known as crystal meth.

After a few minutes of smoking the illicit drug, Tendai* seems disconnected from the world, lost in euphoria as the psychedelic effects of the crystal meth begin to kick in.

Unemployed and struggling to make a living, he has no idea what the day holds for him.

Such is the plight of millions of young Zimbabweans who have fallen victim to a worsening political and economic crisis that has left them with little hope for a better future in the country.

When President Emmerson Mnangagwa assumed power, after deposing the late, long-time ruler Robert Mugabe in November 2017, the whole nation hoped for a new beginning under his stewardship.

For the first time in the country’s turbulent political history, opposition parties and the incumbent ruling ZANU PF (Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front) rallied behind him and the military, in the quest to create a new Zimbabwe.

In his 2018 election manifesto, he promised a return to the rule of law, the creation of millions of formal jobs and fronted a ‘Zimbabwe is Open for Business’ policy to attract investment.

However, in August 2018, such hope was dashed when civilian protests against the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission's delay in announcing election results were brutally cracked down by the military, resulting in the death of six civilians.

The country has descended into economic freefall, with the Zimbabwe dollar continuing to crumble stoking fears of an imminent crash.

Additionally, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions estimates that the unemployment rate is hovering between 70 percent and 80 percent.

Fearing the prospects of participating in Zimbabwe’s often-perilous political fray, more young people are resigning themselves to fate and turning to a new form of lethal escapism: methamphetamine.

Crystal meth abuse is adding to a recipe of social problems accompanying the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, as fatalities steadily rise.

“Jazzmen all over the scene”

The Africa Calling podcast spoke to some drug users and runners in Masvingo, a city located in south eastern Zimbabwe. Drugs move quickly in the high density slums, located near an old bus rank.

At a popular nightclub known as Father’s Bar, young people gather to buy ice cold beers and dance the night away.

Standing at various corners inside and outside the bar, men are selling cigarettes, eggs and sweets. But also crystal meth, known in street lingo as “Guka".

The drug peddlers are called jazzmen, and they tell Africa Calling that they are making huge profits.

“We, the jazzmen, are all over the scene," says Philip*. He usually invites regular customers to smoke the drug in his house, behind locked doors.

“The crystal palace, the big stone which you’ve all heard about, is smoked by ghetto youths. Most of them are going crazy, they don’t have any life direction,” he tells us.

He explains that the sneakers hanging from power lines leading up to his house is a code to show a drug dealer is nearby.

Profit margins are so good, he isn’t ready to quit this line of business any time soon.

"My product is the real deal, one sachet is going for US$5 (€4,75), the smaller one US$3 and so on; I have different prices for everybody. There are so many drug dealers and peddlers, there’s no stopping this drug, it’s everywhere,” he says.

Philip says that the hallucinations and feelings of pleasant relaxation his clients feel each time they smoke the drug drives them to keep coming back for more.

Hitting it in the light bulb

“It all begins and ends in the light bulb. Most of my clients love my drug because [it means] they don’t sleep, it makes them work. Crystal meth is no good for people who don’t work, that’s what they say,” says Philip.

“I’m in business as a supplier, I’m a jazzman. That’s all I have to say about this wonder drug,” he adds.

Drug user Tendai says that he gets his crystal meth fix from jazzmen working around the bus rank, usually at US$5 for a sachet. He buys and smokes it with friends who put in "a dollar each".

“Finding money to buy the drug is the biggest challenge, so most of us end up stealing from people,” says Tendai.

“My friends sell their own clothes while others steal property from their parents' homes, just to get high. Relatives end up hating us because most of us don’t get along with them,” he says.

“When we go home, we just go back for the sake of formality and family rules, but most of the time we will be at specific and planned places, smoking marijuana and crystal meth,” he added.

Last-ditch efforts

Crystal meth is a highly potent and addictive manmade stimulant that can lead to violent behaviour. Many people interviewed by Africa Calling reported getting hooked from the first time they smoked it.

Drug abuse in Zimbabwe has become a huge social problem over the years but the government is only now embarking on anti-drug abuse campaigns.

Statistics compiled in 2021 by the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network revealed that 60 percent of psychiatric admissions were due to drug abuse. Eighty percent of these were people aged 16 to 25, including schoolgirls.

And while crystal meth was once a drug for Zimbabwe's affluent, middle-class families, it has now spread into the slum areas of the country’s cities.

The government runs four major psychiatric hospitals, but they are in a dilapidated state and staff are poorly-paid.

The Ministry of Youth recently organised an anti-drug abuse march in the city of Masvingo – part of an effort for the city to achieve middle-income economy status by 2030.

Anti-drug campaign spokesperson Jeff Warara tells Africa Calling that apprehending drug dealers would partially solve the problem.

“We are trying to see how the use of drugs by young people affects the attainment of Vision 2030. The government has established an inter-ministerial committee to spearhead the fight against these drugs," says Warara. "Drug peddlers will be arrested so that there is a reduction in the use of that drug."

Tackling unemployment

Masvingo City Council is also trying to curb the use of crystal meth which it associates with a rise in crime rates and gender-based violence.

“We are trying to create some employment for the youth because some of these problems are being caused by a lack of employment," says Collin Maboke, the city's mayor.

"We are also having some campaigns at ward levels,” he says, adding that ward leadership and church leaders are helping to spread the anti-drug message.

“Obviously this drug abuse is increasing the crime rate, including the abuse of properties because once you become addicted to such drugs you become a very dangerous person to the community,” says Maboke.

Most of the crystal meth is illegally imported into the country from neighbouring Mozambique, Maboke says. The council is therefore asking the Zimbabwe Republic Police to set up roadblocks along the Mutare-Masvingo highway, which connects with the Mozambican border.

Faced with a collapsing economy, a shrinking industrial base, and increased international isolation over human rights abuses, the government already has its plate full.

It needs to work alongside NGOs to tackle the issue of drug abuse. But with political bickering and jostling taking centre stage as Zimbabwe heads for general elections in 2023, this seems like a fleeting illusion.

*Names have been changed

This article was originally heard on RFI's Africa Calling podcast.

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