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A Descent into Hemp Hell 2021: A Tragi-Comedy in Slow Motion bought to you by the Government of South Africa

Read about hemp in South Africa


The long read by Cannabiz Africa publisher Brett Hilton-Barber


Poor Dr Thabo Ramashola, Agriculture’s Director of Plant Production and the affable fall guy for the National Cannabis Master Plan (NCMPv5).  How do you clarify a confusing document to impatient stakeholders, hungry for the promises they’ve been fed for years on end? The short answer? You can’t. 

Friends of Hemp co-founder Ayanda Bam let the Doc off the hook on the Cheeba Africa Hemp Opportunities Webinar (22 July 2021): “It’s not your fault Thabo, DALRDD inherited a non-starter” he said sympathetically.

The Doc did his best to talk the proverbial room up: “The beverage and food component of the hemp industry could be a huge opportunity for South Africa” he said cheerfully; “If we handle this well, well it could be a big winner, I mean, food is eaten all the time”.


Issues ahead, hard decisions to be made

“But”, he said, “there are a few policy issues that lie ahead; some hard decisions that need to be made as to where the industry is to go”.  That’s government-speak for “government has no idea where the industry is going, and no-one has been empowered to make any decisions”. 

Remember, SA has been working on a hemp policy since the first hemp trials started in 1999, that fateful year that Thabo Mbeki became president and we signed off on the controversial arms deal. 

Since then, SA has lost any hope it may have had of being an international hemp leader. Despite the enthusiasm of optimists like Hemporium’s Tony Budden (“Hey, let’s look at the benefits of second mover advantage, guys”), we are now so far behind the curve that we may actually be at the beginning of the next one!

“This is all very frustrating! There have been so many years of waiting!” lamented Philasande Mahlakata, Eastern Cape community activist representing rural cannabis farmers. 

“We were so encouraged earlier this year when we heard that hemp was moving from SAHPRA to DALRDD; we thought we would finally be free from Section 22, but it was not to be, now all we can see is more red tape!”

“We are committed to getting the industry going and not put too much red tape in the way”, the Doc said, talking himself up now, as it became clearer and clearer that Red Tape 2021 had already strangled SA Hemp Season 2021. Thank you and goodbye.


Looking for hope but only seeing issues

So looking ahead to SA Hemp Season 2022: there is still time to 

  • disentangle SAHPRA and DALRDD, 
  • push through the necessary legislation to cut Red Tape 2022;
  • get the NCMP through Nedlac and signed off by the presidency;
  • put in place time-lines for permit approvals, 
  • register SA Hemp 1 and 2 and make seed available, and 
  • designate specific parts of the country to cultivation.


If only it was that simple. 


At the core, the big problem is not Red Tape, it is hairier and scarier. Is the hemp industry in South Africa viable at all?

“I am somewhat more pessimistic than the other panellists” Bam said, introducing a small herd of White Elephants into the room.

He pointed out that southern Africa’s climatic conditions make it impossible to grow cannabis with a THC level of 0,2%, the current industry norm. The 0,2% level, by the way is completely arbitrary – the psychoactive elements of THC only kick in at 1%.  The 1% THC level is where international standards appear to be heading, but the unnerving reality is that South Africa will be prone to producing rogue THC levels in our hemp! Kinda fits in with our national psyche.

To make matters worse, Dr Ramashola let slip that that the Industrial Development Corporation indicated last year that it was reluctant to back hemp projects because the high barriers of entry made the sector unviable. Bam said the short-term hemp funding climate was shaped by the fact that government had no money and that mainstream business was reluctant to invest in an industry based on a plant classified as a narcotic 


Reasons to be cheerful 1-2-3

Budden wasn’t be put off by such despondency. “The reality is that it will take years to build the full hemp value chain, particularly where textiles are concerned. Right now though, we’ve got to focus on the easier-to-process stuff; like using hammering mills to extract fibre quickly and cheaply to be made into insulation or building materials; we’ve got projects like that in Malawi”.

He said the Department of Trade and Industry had visited his Hemporium outfit a month ago: “They are looking at coming to the party at a high level and we’ll see what they can do about investment in processing. We should also be looking at products that require the least investment to get going, the most obvious being in food and construction”.

But, he had a steely plea for the Doctor: “Thabo, you have to fly this flag. Our hemp farmers have to be able to sell their flowers and not just plough them back into the soil. Farmers need to use the whole plant and you musn’t disadvantage them from extracting CBD from their hemp. Hemp farmers need to be able to use the cannabinoids in their plants for commercial gain”.

Philasande Mahlakata agreed the new hemp permits should allow farmers to utilize the whole plant.  “As farmers it is our job to make efficient use of the plant from the roots to the tips. It does not make sense for government to give us permits to use only part of the plant”.

She enthusiastically supported the idea of growing hemp for building materials. She said that Budden, who lives in a house wholly made of hemp, had opened her eyes to the possibilities of the hempcrete universe and beyond. 

“The community could grow their own houses” she said, “hemp houses are more resilient and comfortable than conventional ones, plus if there’s a natural disaster and your house falls on you, it won’t kill you!”.


So much potential, so much red tape

Bam said the hemp market needed to be developed so that there was not over-concentration, entrenching SA’s existing inequalities. He agreed with the Doc on the food and beverage opportunities of hemp, particularly for human nutrition and as a protein source for livestock. Textiles, he mused probably represented the single biggest hemp opportunity but that this was a long-term proposition.

Clara Norell, of Swedish Hemp  Industries, an ardent proponent of full-plant-usage, is big on long-term propositions. She urged South Africa to go for the low hanging fruit but not to lose sight of the bigger picture: “Why can’t you grow hemp to build RDP houses? There are also massive opportunities in manufacturing and processing auto-parts from hemp – the car industry in SA makes up 10% of GDP and this should be part of the development of the hemp sector. It could help SA achieve its 2030 National Development Plan goals.

Obviously, this is all beyond the poor doctor’s remit to implement, and his discomfort was evident with the frustrated calls for urgent action from the webinar participants. 

At the end of the day, he said, the whole thing was out of his hands.

“The Drugs Act is the problem and that’s with the Justice Department”, he said, displaying a little of his own frustration at Red Tape 2021, “

All that is needed is to change the wording of the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act to redefine hemp as an agricultural crop and not a narcotic; otherwise the department was good to go in implementing a new hemp framework.

That shouldn’t be a problem, changing the wording in the Act? Surely the Minister of Justice can organize the necessary enabling legislative processes at the stroke of a pen?  

Dr Ramashola sighed: “Last year we became aware of a legal challenge underway questioning the Minister’s authority to change the Act (which itself is under constitutional challenge from elsewhere) and so ……. we don’t know where this thing is going”



4 Responses

  1. It is great to see the enthusiasm for the potential of the beverage and food sector, however if this sector is to flourish we need to see the Directorate of Food Control (under DOH) participating in these webinars.

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