The Marijuana Board of South Africa (MBOSA) has called for the official recognition and commemoration of 22 Zulu cannabis growers who were sentenced to death after the “Bergville Dagga War’ of 1956. It has also called for an immediate halt to cannabis-related arrests, and have accused the police of ongoing violence against the Rastafarian community and other non-violent cannabis consumers and growers.
This is part of its response to the South African government’s latest rendition of the National Cannabis Master Plan which was the subject of a virtual stakeholder workshop on 30 March 2021.
Bergville was a turning point in the SA war on drugs
MBOSA has highlighted the Bergville Dagga War of 1956 as a turning point in the apartheid government’s war against drugs. The state unleashed its full power against cannabis growers after five policemen were murdered in an ambush near the prime cannabis growing fields of the lower Drakensberg escarpment. As a consequence 23 Bergville community members were sentenced to death and were hanged in Pretoria in 1957 on 21 March, ironically a day that is now celebrated in South Africa as Human Rights Day.
By way of background:
Based on new policy recommendations drafted in 1952, the National Party stepped up a search and destroy campaign against illegal cannabis growers. This was in response to international concern that cannabis was becoming a widely traded international narcotic and that there was a South African connection. Well, that’s being a bit modest.
In 1953, United Nations records comparing six years of cannabis seizures for 46 countries showed South Africa accounted for a mind-blowing 50% to 76% of the world’s reported total. Not that the amounts were a lot by today’s standards: about 2,45 million pounds (1,4 million kgs) according to the Star Newspaper (23 March 1956). In short South Africa had already moved into pole position in the interntional illegal cannabis market after WWII, and that there was a sophistication to the supply chain that at that time evaded the local authorities.
Rural KZN is one of SA’s oldest cannabis growing areas
According to newspaper reports, the story went like this: a small police reconnaissance team met resistance from a hostile community when they came across an extraordinarily large grow-op in the KZN foothills. They retreated to get back-up. The cannabis growers, after consulting a traditional healer, or sangoma, decided resistance was the best option because there were onerous client obligations that had to be met. The warriors set up an ambush in anticipation of the return of a more robust police force, which duly arrived.
The police returned in strength and walked straight into the ambush. Five policemen died, butchered brutally to send a signal to officialdom to stay out of the Bergville/Winterton area (Editors note: to this day this remains a key point in illegal exports from Lesotho to Richards Bay, according to Interpol),
“Exhume the bodies of the dagga warriors and return them to their families
Two of the five police victims were white. In Apartheid South Africa, this triggered a massive retailiation against the Bergille cannabis growers who dispersed into the forests to avoid capture. Reports from the time suggest community members all surrendered after
police captured a number of children. At the subsequent trial, known as Impi Ye Ntsago, 22 of the Amakhosana aseMangwaneni (Winterton), the warriors who defended the dagga fields, were sentenced to death and hanged at what was then Pretoria Central Prison.
MBOSA secretariat Steven Khunou said the bodies of the men should be exhumed and returned to their families. He says they died in the defence of Zulu cultural and political freedom and that there should be commemorative plaque with their names in bold. Those who died were mainly from the Mdluli and Hlongwane clans.
The full list of those executed 63 years ago on what is now Human Rights Day, were:
- Mantongomane Mdluli
- Ndobolo Mdluli
- Nhlozana Mdluli
- Bhobholwana Mdluli
- Mantweshu Mdluli
- Mbulali Mdluli
- Mandolozane Ndaba
- Xhegu Mbatha
- Mhambawodwa Mdladla
- Nhlangwini Hlongwane
- Ndolomane Hlongwane
- Mgqolobane Dlamini
- Magangeni Kubheka
- Mganda Mdladla
- Kamu Hlongwane
- Nhlansi Hlongwane
- Babalane Hlongwane
- Mdlayedwa Hlongwane
- Jubhela Mahlobo
- Thela Dlamini
- Mshudeki Mthembu
- Nsingizi Khumalo
Khunou said ANC operative Solomon Mahlangu was also executed on 21 March and the precedent was there as he was exhumed and commemorated.
Historian Ashly Morris notes: “The violence of this confrontation and of its aftermath marked a new register of the government’s commitment to cannabis prohibition. While envisioned initially as a temporary measure, crop destruction and surveillance of large-scale transport from sites of production to those of consumption, became a mainstay of cannabis policing in South Africa into the twenty-first century.”