Parasites: A social geography of heroin, estrangement, and gendered sociality in South Africa

Principal Investigator: Mark Hunter

Department: Human Geography

Grant Names: SSHRC ; Insight Grant ;

Award Years: 2017 to 2022


Beginning in 2010, South Africa’s second biggest township, Umlazi, was shaken by two powerful forces: first, thousands of residents, mostly young men, became addicted to a low-grade heroin drug known locally as whoonga; second, a process of estrangement began as whoonga addicts came to be labelled by some community and family members as amapara—a new word some believe derived from “parasites” because addicts were characterized as sucking resources from communities and families to fuel their addiction. Whoonga took hold of South Africa with devastating speed, taking a wrenching toll on communities throughout the country. Yet research to date about whoonga in South Africa is primarily focused on medical aspects including its risks to health. Using innovative research methods, including ethnographical, geographical, and historical approaches, this study proposes a social geography of the making of amapara and asks how users might or might not become estranged from the intimate spaces of their families and communities. The study asks who uses whoonga, and what is different about the sociality of whoonga compared to the sociality of longstanding drugs including alcohol and marijuana. By tracking the lives of families and whoonga users over multiple years, this study will collect unique social science knowledge on the sociality of the drug.