What historical past teaches us in regards to the design of the brand new hashish legal guidelines in South Africa

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From the early 20th century, state approaches to dagga control were deeply entangled in racist colonial and apartheid policies

Author of the article:

Promise Waetjen • • The conversation

Release date:

November 30, 2020 • • November 30, 2020 • • Read for 5 minutes • • Join the conversation FILE: A man holds a sign that says FILE: A man holds a sign reading “Dagga is my right” in front of the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg on September 18, 2018, as South Africa’s Supreme Court is ruling on a law banning cannabis use. Photo by WIKUS DE WET / AFP via Getty Images

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South African cannabis policy is currently at a crossroads. In 2018, the Constitutional Court effectively decriminalized private cannabis use. Since then, the government has continued to grapple with regulating this plant and its products, locally known as “dagga”.

A cannabis law was recently tabled in parliament to clarify legal reforms. However, medical and civil rights groups advocating rights-based approaches remain aware of the ongoing potential for discrimination. They argue that doing so will benefit the wealthy and negatively impact vulnerable communities who may not have a place to grow crops at home and are criminally fined for smoking cannabis outside the home.

Much is at stake in a cannabis industry valued at over $ 300 billion worldwide. South African boutique manufacturers are already looking for legal loopholes to supply cannabis products to young, urban middle-class consumers. Some government officials see Dagga as a ticket to economic growth. It does this through agriculture and medicines that can be marketed for pain relief, sleep, and skin care.


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But would further liberalization lead to a “corporate conquest”, as some development practitioners fear? If so, what will happen to people in rural communities who have earned risky livelihoods for decades by illegally growing dagga? The story provides vital insights into the social justice issues at stake in current political debates.

Our recent study using police statistics from the mid-20th century reveals trends in the arrest and seizure of cannabis by geographic area. It shows that the South African apartheid state pioneered supply-side drug control strategies targeting rural cannabis growers in the poorest parts of the country.

Listening to the lessons of history means protecting and promoting the interests of those people who nonetheless, through indigenous knowledge, entrepreneurship and effort, have developed a thriving national cannabis economy.

What police records reveal

From the early 20th century, state approaches to dagga control were deeply entangled in racist colonial and apartheid policies. These retained spatial subdivisions based on race and ethnic classifications. However, segregation created conditions in which the illegal commercial cannabis cultivation and trade could develop and flourish.


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“Tribal” reserve areas have long been the protected or undiscovered spaces for dagga production. These “homelands” were mostly rural areas reserved for the majority of black South Africans to live under different chiefs.

Officials informally tolerated dagga in “tribal areas,” even after they were banned in 1922. For over two decades, policing has focused largely on keeping cannabis and cannabis smoking out of white-ruled cities.

This changed under a new political regime. In 1948 the National Party was elected by white voters. Even before it passed its first apartheid law, the new cabinet commissioned a formal, nationwide investigation into “dagga abuse”.

Since the 1930s, when more colored people moved to the cities, there have been calls for such an investigation. Liberal activists and welfare officials viewed dagga smoking as an obstacle to progressive reform, urban safety and class rest. In the late 1940s, before the National Party’s victory, the government increased the police force.

However, a moral and political urge for order has been sparked in African nationalism. The authoritarian tactic supported an agenda based on Calvinist principles, modernist ambitions, and a white supremacist vision. The political will and the means to stamp out Dagga increased.

In 1952, the Departmental Committee on Dagga Abuse published its report. It was recommended that the trade and use of cannabis be restricted. Most consistently, she advocated a focus on the sources of cannabis supplies for the urban market.


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Police units were now routinely used to destroy cannabis cultures. Much of it was grown in or around impoverished “tribal areas” by poor families, especially women.

Two decades before US President Richard Nixon popularized the term “war on drugs”, South Africa had adopted a systematic supply-side approach to cannabis law enforcement aimed at producers.

A drug war

The number of arrests and quantities of cannabis seized by the police increased dramatically from the middle of the century. The vast majority of arrests continued for possession. But police raids in rural areas resulted in enormous amounts of dagga being confiscated in the decades that followed.

In addition to the numerical evidence, other historical documents point to other extreme consequences of the target for cannabis production. In 1956, a raid near Bergville in the east of the country exposed the increasing violence in these encounters between police and communities defending their precarious livelihoods. Five police officers were brutally killed by parishioners. In retaliation, 22 people were sentenced and hanged by the state.

The relative size of the cannabis economy in South Africa is a notable element in this story. In 1953, United Nations records comparing cannabis seizures in 46 countries for six years showed that South Africa accounted for 50% to 76% of the world’s total reported.

What that teaches us

The takeaway here is twofold. It’s not just a story of victimization, it’s also a story of resilience. On the one hand, the notorious nature of the colonial and apartheid police was a visible demonstration of the state power of the white minority. At the same time, the statistics show both the persistence of indigenous dagga practices and the steady growth of a national cannabis agribusiness. This was developed through the entrepreneurship of marginalized people under socially depressing and criminalized conditions.

Policy makers need to listen to the voices of the people most affected by government drug control. It also means looking for voices that have been silenced by history.

In the South African history of cannabis, the mid-century change in police strategy is a critical episode.

It also shows South Africa as a precocious case in the broader and global chronology of the “war on drugs”. Along with other research, a historical picture contributes to a growing body of international evidence showing state drug wars as an ineffective and socially devastating response to the realities of substance use.

Promise Waetjen, Associate Professor of History, University of Johannesburg.


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