SIMON Swart started drugging in his early teens and he had been through 15 rehabilitation centres before he died, alone in his room in a backpacker lodge in Central, a fortnight ago. But there was much more to this young man.
His father, John Swart, a retired bank manager, spoke to The Herald in a heartfelt effort to communicate something of this, to reveal something of the book they were going to write together – and to alert families and youngsters out there to be alert to the perils of drugs.
Simon was bright, articulate, friendly and well-mannered before he started experimenting with drugs, and in the brief respites when he was “clean”.
Despite his battle with addiction, he was ambitious, and one of his dreams was to complete the Bible college diploma course he had started in Durban, and to work as a youth pastor.
He often spoke of his “born again” experience and, even in the worst of times, he spoke of his relationship with God.
But he had been hooked on hard drugs since his early teens. In the past 11 years, he had been through 15 rehabilitation centres. Each time, within varying periods, never exceeding a few months, he succumbed again to his craving.
In the end, on Sunday April 10, after speaking earlier that morning on his cellphone to his Dad, he bought a small amount of heroin, and retired to his room in Find Me a Bed Backpacker Lodge, in Park Lane.
He was found dead the next morning, lying on his bed, with the remainder of the heroin plus the paraphernalia of the addict – the syringe, the spoon and the foil needed to heat up and administer the drug – on the table beside him. He was 26 years old.
Also lying there was his insulin medication for his diabetes, which he had suffered from since he was a toddler.
Simon had attempted suicide numerous times over the years. But his Dad said there was no indication in this instance to conclude that Simon intentionally took his own life, and he firmly believed his death was accidental.
The official cause of death must still be determined but, in his view, Simon’s death might have been related to a diabetic coma, to an accidental overdose or to a supplement mixed into the drug – which is a not uncommon and sometimes lethal practice used by dealers.
“But it was the drugs that led him into the hole he was in and, having lost my son, the younger of my two boys, what I want to do is to create awareness among parents of the dangers that drugs pose.”
No family is impervious to the threat of drugs, he emphasised.
”Parents need to be very aware of the dangers of drugs and accept that their children will be exposed to drugs no matter what. If you work from that base, then you are on the right track towards helping your children make the right choices.”
“To think that drugs are only prevalent in unemployed communities, amongst gangsters, in prisons or in clubs, for instance, is naive, he said.
“They are easily obtainable in many places from Central to the beach front, from taxis to schools. Drugs cut across class, income and social groupings.
“As parents who grew up in a different era, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend what the youth have to contend with today. The easy availability, the large volumes and the variety of drugs in comparison to 20 or 30 years ago is frightening.”
Parents need to be alert to the early signs, and they need to then take immediate action, he said
“Denial is your worst enemy as the problem will deteriorate and the consequences will then be harder to deal with.
“Speak to your child and focus on the problem. Make them understand that your actions, however harsh, are taken out of love, and in their long term interests.
“Kids are mostly not mature enough to understand the full implications of drug abuse. They fall victim to peer pressure and are exploited by the dealers.”
Simon started smoking dagga around the age of 12 and was probably on hard drugs by the time he was 14. While some argue that dagga is not chemically addictive, it is “psychologically addictive” and provides a stepping stone to stronger drugs, he said.
Clearly filled with grief, but just as clearly without self-pity, John described how he and his wife got divorced when Simon was 12. Simon stayed with his mother in Pinetown but later, at the start of standard 9, re-located to PE, to live with his Dad and his older brother.
He was enrolled at Victoria Park, but it was a difficult time. John needed to travel a lot and Simon caused “a fair bit of grief” at VP. Still, his father tried to teach him that he had to face up to his problems, and could not run away from them.
So, when he decided after the first day of the second term that he had enough and refused to go back, “bailing” out of something tough for the umpteenth time, it was another clarion call, his Dad said.
“Much was to do with self-esteem, which goes for a ball of chalk when you are on drugs.”
In Durban, Simon tried for several years to get his matric, but it eluded him because each time he would bail just before writing his exams.
Then he signed up with a Bible college and, in a positive step forward, was awarded his certificate, the first step towards achieving his goal of graduating as a youth pastor.
But he was never free of the drugs and over the years he experimented with the full gamut from mandrax and LSD to ecstasy, crack, sleeping tablets, valium, cocaine, tik and heroin. There were periods when he seemed to be “clean” but then he would start drugging again.
On drugs, he was a completely different person to when he was “clean”, John said.
“He became devious. He would steal. You could not sit down and have a conversation with him because he was so pre-occupied with getting his next fix. You would leave the room for a few minutes and come back and he would be gone. Different drugs would also alter his behaviour in different ways.
“Tik, for example, would make him insanely paranoid. Once he was with me and he got it into his head that the police were about to arrive at my house. I watched my son with a screwdriver rip up all the carpets of his car to remove drugs that were not there. Neither was there a policeman in sight!”
In 2008, he attacked his father. He had written off a car which his Dad had bought for him. His Dad took him to a psychiatrist but instead of working with her to get to the root of the problem, he became obsessed with getting her to prescribe subutex, a drug used sometimes to wean addicts off heroin.
“I said no because I knew the evidence of how this drug itself can become addictive and it had been prescribed to him before.
“We argued, and the next thing I knew he tackled me. It was a great tackle. Joggie Jansen would have been impressed. He drove me over a water feature and through a picket fence.
“Then he hit me. I was left with black eyes and a ripped tendon in my elbow. But this was not the real Simon. The violence was a by-product of his frustration in not being able to obtain drugs.”
John managed to get Simon enrolled at Nieuwefontein, a rehabilitation centre near Hanover, in the Karoo, where he spent six and a half of his best months. However, with three months of the agreed term still to go, he managed to get himself discharged, and the vicious cycle started again.
Simon had always struggled with his parents’ divorce and had yearned for the family to be re-united. His diabetes compounded the problem and he suffered from depression. While drugs probably played a big role, it is known diabetics tend to be more prone to depression.
While recognising this, John said he had tried always to teach Simon that while it is often easy to blame someone else for your problems, “life is about choices and taking responsibility for one’s actions”.
Yet, parents can do much to head off those problems before they mushroom into something unstoppable, he said.
“Engage with your kids. Get them to confide in you. Teach them to have the courage to say no. Encourage them. Get them involved in sport and church youth groups. Don’t be afraid to ground them if they deserve it. Educate them about the dangers of drugs. Do not give them excess money.”
Supporting this structure and discipline at home, corporal punishment needs to come back in schools, he said.
“I’m not advocating that teachers should be allowed to beat up kids but, handled correctly, corporal punishment was and could still be effective. By banning it, we have not done our kids any favours. It was one of the ways schools used to reinforce the importance of a value system. One of the key failings with drug addicts is the loss of values.”
Ironically, John spent a brief period working in Nigeria a couple of years ago, the home country of many of the drug dealers which plague Port Elizabeth and which may indeed have supplied the last batch of heroin to Simon. But he met many good people there and it is clearly wrong to generalise as not all Nigerians are drug dealers or criminals, he said. “Similarly, not all drug dealers in SA are Nigerians by any means.”
He said his great sadness was that he knew his son had much more to offer than what he was able to deliver, shackled as he was by the drugs.
“We had discussed a book I was going to help him write about his experiences. Simon shied away from that opportunity I think because he felt he needed to be clean before doing so.
That was an opportunity lost. But I can speak out now in his memory and, hopefully, my words will have some positive impact.
“There are many Simons out there. If even two people are helped out of all the people who read this, we will have achieved something.”