International TV audiences were gripped by the outrageous exploits of Walter White, a New Mexico chemistry teacher turned flourishing crystal meth manufacturer in the award-winning Breaking Bad series.

The show was strewn with messy killings and hailed as television's greatest ever drama.

But on South Africa's sprawling Cape Flats, arid plains where three million mainly mixed-race people known locally as Cape Coloureds live alongside smaller black communities just beyond the elegant seaside city of Cape Town, there is no TV glamour about crystal meth, or tik as it is known locally.

The highly addictive drug emerged eight years ago on the Cape Flats and since then its use has increased dramatically, with devastating social consequences. It has triggered a sharp increase in ­criminality - in a country already plagued by high crime figures when it comes to rape, carjacking, house invasion and murder - overwhelmed prevention and treatment initiatives, and thwarted efforts to cope with the HIV/Aids epidemic.

"It is the greatest challenge we have ever had to face," says Grant Jardine, until recently director of Cape Town's drug counselling centre. Gunmen in Cape Flats' many criminal gangs regard tik as an ideal tonic in preparation for a hit: as Breaking Bad devotees know, crystal meth removes inhibitions, sharpens senses and fuels aggression.

Andreas Plueddemann, senior alcohol and drug abuse scientist at the South ­African Medical Research Council, says the Cape Flats and surrounding areas have the highest proportion of crystal meth addiction in the world, 10 times higher than the Johannesburg area 800 miles to the north-east. "It is a crisis which nobody knows how to deal with completely and effectively", he admits.

The "tik nightmare" drove Ellen Pakkies, a resident of the Cape Flats township of Lavender Hill, to an act that perhaps only the fictitious Walter White could match. She murdered her 20-year-old tik-addicted son, Abie, after suffering six years of abuse at his hands.

Abie, whose behaviour became psychotic from his addiction, attacked his parents with scissors and a breadknife and set fire to their curtains when they refused to give him money to buy tik. He stole their clothes and the glass from their windows to finance his habit. His father, Odneal Pakkies, a car guard, got Abie a job with him, but the youngster stole the ­vehicles' light bulbs to fashion "pipes" from which to smoke tik. Abie, addicted from the age of 14, was banished to a shack in his parents' back yard.

One day, Ellen Pakkies found stolen goods in Abie's room. She snapped, tied a rope around his neck and strangled him before surrendering herself to the police. In court, his mother, a 52-year-old former nurse, said she had lived in constant fear of her son. The judge handed her a three-year suspended sentence plus 260 days of community service, ruling that she, not her son, was the victim.

"I just wanted somebody to help me," she said. "But there was nobody. And so I gave up. I put extra courage together and just put the rope around his neck, pulled it tight and said, 'Father, forgive me for what I did.' And I was standing there just looking at him, because he was lying so peaceful."

She now runs the Ellen Pakkies ­Foundation, which counsels mothers of addicts, but her ordeal continues. Another son has become a tik addict, and a tik junkie grandson was recently shot dead in a Cape Flats gangland feud.

The social catastrophe wrought by crystal meth is felt more harshly on the Cape Flats than anywhere else on earth. Two-thirds of adults in its townships are unemployed and one-quarter are HIV positive. Nowhere is safe from tik and tik crime. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world.

At Cape Town's drug counselling centre, its new director, Ashley Potts, says one in five children on the Cape Flats, some as young as six years old, are on tik. Two-year-old Caleb Booysens died after his tik-addicted mother, Chantal, subsequently convicted of murder, fed him for days beforehand with tik.

Venetia Orgill, who works with a Cape Flats NGO named Discover Your Power, has also seen close up how crystal meth destroys life. Her son, Troy, committed suicide after he became addicted. "Right now there are a quarter of a million people - children, husbands, wives and even teachers - on tik in the Western Cape [the province embracing Cape Town and the Cape Flats]," says Orgill.

"We were the mothers and fathers who first heard about tik. Our children weren't sleeping, they weren't eating and they were aggressive - so we approached social services for help and started counselling. In 2004, 12,000 Cape Flats schoolchildren were using tik, and within five years the figure had risen to 69,000." The figure is higher now.

Alex Crawford, Sky News' Africa ­correspondent, recently got close to one of the Cape Flats' tik-driven criminal gangs, "the Americans", in Lavender Hill. "Once you are a member, you are in it for life," one such gang member - tattooed with "USA" and other American symbols - told Crawford. "There's no way out."

All the men she interviewed from the 100-strong gang were out of work. Many had been in prison and they admitted to robberies, muggings and murders to feed their drug habit.

Ringo, the Americans' deputy leader, demonstrated to Crawford how he lit the drug in a "pipe" made from a lightbulb, from which the metal threading had been removed, before drawing on it deeply. "We have to have our tik every day. If we don't get it, we get very aggressive. But with tik we can do anything. I would kill Eyes [the gang leader] and not even worry about it."

Other gang members heated crystal meth in their pipes before taking long drags on the white fumes. The effect on some, said Crawford, was immediate and dramatic. More than one slumped and had to be caught by gang members as the drug took hold. "He's hurting, he's hurting," they squealed as they saw the drugs hit the spot with one gangster.

The local name tik, or "tuk-tuk", is derived from the noise the smouldering drug emits from the pipe as it is smoked. Tik is sometimes injected for an even more rapid and intense high. There are hundreds of local names around the world for crystal meth - blue acid, crank and white bitch are among the more colourful.

Mitchells Plain is the largest township on the bleak Cape Flats. Home to about one million people, it began as a dumping ground for "coloureds" who make up about half of Cape Town's population. Like elsewhere on the Flats, it is gripped by the tik epidemic.

Local resident and anti-drugs campaigner, Naeelah Scott, says her ex-husband twice tried to murder her as his crystal meth addiction turned their marriage into a living hell. For a long time she dared not let her teenage son to go to the local store on his own for fear he might be lured or forced into addiction. She initially tried to support her husband, but divorced him after the murder attempts.

Scott, a beautician who is regularly threatened by drug lords, laments that tik is eating away at the heart of her ­community. Violent crime, domestic abuse, prostitution and school truancy are on the increase. Asked what proportion of youngsters use tik, she says desolately: "The majority." She adds: "This is the worst drug ever that hit Cape Town," where abuse also of heroin, cocaine and alcohol has been rife for decades.

Scott says gangsters entice schoolchildren with free tik samples to get them hooked. She accuses Mitchells Plain police, plagued by allegations of corruption, of turning a blind eye to the crisis and allowing the drug lords to operate with impunity.

Scott and other activists say there are multiple problems associated with crystal meth. It is easy and cheap to produce - as Breaking Bad demonstrated to worldwide TV viewers - and is often sold in drinking straws for as little as the equivalent of £2. Cape newspapers report tik-related crimes on an almost daily basis, ranging from muggings on Table Mountain to drug-crazed teens attacking people with pitbull terriers.

Equally severe drug problems plague the young and poor in other teeming South African cities, where the drugs of choice are different than in the Cape.

In Johannesburg, black youngsters are smoking nyaope, a new cocktail whose ingredients include rat poison, heroin and HIV/Aids anti-retroviral drugs.

In Durban, a similar drug cocktail known as "whoonga" is the current popular choice. Durban has many HIV patients and queues at clinics for anti-retroviral drugs have become targets of violent raids by whoonga addicts, who like to lace their cocktails with anti-retrovirals to achieve extra "hallucinogenic highs".

Treatment centres in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, woefully under-funded by the state and under-staffed, are overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of addicts seeking help.

A large group of mothers from Soweto and nearby Eldorado Park, another "coloured" township, recently published in national newspapers a long letter they have sent to President Jacob Zuma describing the pain and trauma they go through with addicted relatives. "Mr ­President, you need to get your hands dirty and actively assist," they begged.

"We don't trust anyone anymore. Everyone is corrupt. Help us lock up these murderers, drug dealers for good."