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The Seeing Trails Issue

Mom’s Last Resort

Ellen Pakkies, a Lavender Hill mother whose 20 year-old son Abie exemplified the zombified, kleptomaniac ‘tik monsters’ that prowl the streets of Lavender Hill, had tried everything she could think of to get him off the junk.

It’s no secret that tik—a cheap and dirty form of crystal meth smoked through light bulbs—is ripping apart the Cape Flats like nobody’s business. The ubiquitous demand and ease of production, coupled with its aggressive high, make it manna from Thugg Heaven for the rip-roaring gangster trade in the Western Cape. Just over two years ago a story that put a human face on this statistical plague made national headlines. Ellen Pakkies, a Lavender Hill mother whose 20 year-old son Abie exemplified the zombified, kleptomaniac ‘tik monsters’ that prowl the streets of Lavender Hill, had tried everything she could think of to get him off the junk. But after more than six years of living hell, she decided she could take no more. On a cold morning in September 2007 she tied a rope around Abie’s neck, and strangled him to death. Amazingly, Ellen was sentenced to a mere 280 hours of community service and a three year suspended sentence by the Cape High Court, owing in part to massive support from her community. She subsequently became an unlikely heroine for parents of addicts throughout the country, and is currently working on her dream to build a private rehabilitation centre. VICE spoke to her on the two-year anniversary of the groundbreaking trial’s conclusion. Vice: We hear a lot about the whole Cape Flats tik epidemic thingy in the news. How bad is the problem in your own neighbourhood, Lavender Hill?
Ellen Pakkies: I actually don’t know how to explain the extent of it. But you can say that almost every household has a problem and those who think it isn’t there must beware, because it will creep in slowly. I don’t wish it upon anyone, but that is how it is. Some youngsters use tik and their parents don’t know how to deal with it, so they start using it too. All order is lost in the home. The younger children drop out of school and start hanging around on the street so they find glue, which ushers them into other drugs. So you knew of other mothers who were in situations as desperate as yours?
Yes, I still know a whole lot! I’ve been to talks in countless places in the Western Cape and found just as many mothers in the same situation. What options do they really have?
As a mother, you have to ask God for help. Ask him every morning to give you strength, because this is an impossible task for parents to go at alone. Sometimes it feels like, as far as my experience, that the church is there, but not the people. You mean you have to cure your child on your own?
Yes, but not everyone is strong enough. Some parents are in denial over their children’s drug use, but you cannot offer them the same methods you use for your child. For example when my son started using drugs in the house, I put him out in the yard. I built him a room there, but other mothers will judge you for putting your child out—they take it the wrong way. Each person must use their own initiative to figure out the best way to help their child. Still… it’s not easy. What was Abie like before he started tik?
Abie was a very sporty boy, good at any sport: cricket, soccer, anything. He played and shared with other kids easily. He wasn’t shy. When did he start using, and how did it change him?
From 14 it all started going wrong, actually even before then, but I didn’t realize because he lived with my mother. On weekends he would stay with me where I worked. He started stealing money constantly then, that’s when I knew there was a problem. He also didn’t want to go to school anymore. Tik changed my son drastically. He was a monster. His behaviour changed so that I didn’t recognise him anymore. Life was hell on earth. He broke in through the windows daily, he stole clothes right off the washing line. We started fighting like people who didn’t know each other. I took him to the police and he’d tell them he broke in because he was hungry, but I told the police that it doesn’t make sense, because if he was hungry why did he break into my room and not the kitchen? Everyday there was a new problem and I always tried my best to help him get off these drugs, but it just got worse. I did enquiries at the courts for help, even the magistrate, because my son was jailed and in court so often. But he just got right out, sometimes without me putting up bail. No one could help me.

Crime scene photos courtesy of South African Police Services

Can you please describe the events of that fateful morning?
I was used to little sleep. I worked difficult shifts and even when I got home I was guaranteed no rest, because in my back yard Abie would be stealing pipes, taps or meters, so there were always unnatural noises all through the night. When I heard Abie jump over the back wall that morning, as he always did to get to his place, I jumped out of bed. I wanted to talk to him. When I got to his room I found him lying on the floor and I asked him: “Why are you lying on the floor? You have a bed.” He didn’t answer me, so I said: “Can I bring you some tea?” I offered because it was cold outside and I never knew whether he was in a house or on the street somewhere. He just said “mmm” and I left to make the tea. My husband hadn’t left for work yet. By the time I returned with the tea, Abie had found his way to his bed. I just stood there and watched him sleep. My husband came to the back to say goodbye before he left for work and I followed him through the house to lock the front gate. On my way back I saw the rope by the computer and took it with me. I wanted to go talk to Abie. About what?
About this tik problem. I wanted him to stop. I wanted him back. In his room again, I just stood and watched him. Just as I gathered enough courage to put the rope around his neck, he woke up. I was standing over him at the foot of his bed, rope in hand, and he grabbed a plank and swore at me. Through his shouting I told him: “Abie, don’t swear at me, put down the plank. I just want to talk to you.” I asked him as I had so many times before, “Why don’t you appreciate what I do for you?” and “When are you going to stop using tik?” Then he told me “Mummy I’m going to give it up!” That’s when I pulled the rope tighter. The rope cut into my hand, but I pulled it tighter still. I then tied the rope to the end of the bed and asked: “Father, forgive me for what I have done.” I stood there for a while and just watched him again. Then I left to get dressed for work. Before I left for work, I went back to his room to see how he was, because to me it looked like he was asleep; he was so calm and peaceful. But I had to go to work—I was a caregiver for the elderly and if I didn’t get to work my patients would go uncared for. I went to the station where people from work were waiting for me and I greeted them as usual, I didn’t want anyone to know what happened. I decided I would go to the police station after work. How did the neighbourhood react to the murder?
Of course everyone was there to see what happened. Most of them said, after it was all over, that they never saw Abie acting strange. Everything happened in the yard. He would jump over the wall to get to his room; the front of our house was closed off to him. My home literally looked like a prison. There were a lot of people at the funeral, and they all had something to say, but I didn’t pay any attention. People gossip. I have endured abuse my entire life and I have lived through the worst. I was never one to fight back or speak ill of others. Did the outcome of your case have any impact on the situation in Lavender hill?
Plenty mothers talk to me after I’ve had a talk in their area and say that it has made a difference in their children’s lives, but I don’t feel that that is enough. There are so many mothers who are being destroyed because of drugs; they can’t handle their own children. There are young men raping their mothers, young girls having babies by older men and selling their bodies for this tik. Were you prepared to serve hard time for what you did or do you think you deserved such a lenient sentence?
When everyone was pointing at me I just said: “May God’s will be done.” I knew I did wrong and even if I had to I was prepared to go to prison. Yet I thank God that he opened the doors of prison for me. How is life at home now?
It is peaceful, and I can use my own bathroom now. I don’t go into my yard that much anymore, perhaps if the sun is shining. (Abie) used to live there you see, but I’m working on that. I still miss him. On the 12th of September (last) year it was two years since his death. Every day I’m reminded of him, even though he isn’t there any more. Still I see him every day around my neighbourhood, the youngsters look just like him, and the things they are still doing… So I see him almost every day.