Thembisa Waetjen, Associate Professor of History, University of Johannesburg
Johannesburg University academic Thembisa Waetjen says cannabis reform favours the rich at the expense of the poor and asks how the stakes got so high, and so unequal. He finds the answer lies in apartheid-era attitudes towards cannabis which prevail to this day, in that policy still discriminates against black South Africans.
This article by first appeared in The Conversation on 6 January 2023.
Cannabis is being commercialised into a multibillion-dollar global industry and South Africa wants a piece of the pie. In his 2022 state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of developing a hemp and cannabis sector to boost the post-COVID economy.
Poor rural communities in South Africa have long cultivated cannabis in illegal conditions of risk. They now face losing out to corporate interests and the wealthy.
How did the stakes become so high - and so unequal?
My recent historical study helps answer this question. It reveals how an apartheid-era drug law incited a "war on drugs" that was in effect a "war on cannabis".
In 1971 a law was passed that subjected the cannabis plant and its products to the strictest possible controls. This set in motion a structurally racist policy that continued well into the post-apartheid era.
Apartheid's 1971 anti-drug law
In 1971, South Africa's apartheid government passed the Abuse of Dependence-Producing Substances and Rehabilitation Centres Act. Lawmakers boasted it was the toughest anti-drug law in the Western World. The law's main target was white "hippy" youth.
The law followed recommendations by a state-sponsored inquiry, the Grobler Commission. The commission focused only on white South Africans' misuse of synthetic and pharmaceutical drugs such as LSD, Mandrax (methaqualone) and heroin.
Though the commission did not in fact turn up evidence of an extensive drug abuse problem, it nevertheless recommended tough suppression.
To the ruling National Party, the use of drugs by white people appeared to threaten Afrikaner religious culture and the future of a white South Africa. They hyped the drug problem as a form of terrorism that is more dangerous than the armed terrorism we are familiar with on our country's borders.
This language of crisis enabled the apartheid lawmakers to borrow from the country's draconian anti-terrorism laws, such as the 1967 Terrorism Act, used to put down anti-apartheid activism.
Like the anti-terrorism legislation, the 1971 anti-drug act provided for harsh minimum prison sentences and detention without trial for purposes of interrogation. It also removed the court's discretion in sentencing for drug offences.
When it was debated in parliament, the principle of "toughness" appealed across party lines - except for the lone voice of the Progressive Party MP Helen Suzman. Suzman observed that although the Grobler Commission excluded research on substance use by the majority black South Africans, the law would nonetheless apply to them.
Similarly, she argued, the commission had not investigated cannabis - a substance considered by many to be less socially harmful than legal alcohol or tobacco. Yet it was to be scheduled in the new law as a "prohibited dangerous drug", along with heroin and cocaine.
Lone voice of reason
For centuries in Africa, including parts of South Africa, the cannabis plant had important indigenous cultural value and was cultivated for a variety of social and pharmacological uses.
Cannabis was first criminalised in the country in 1922. But drug policing remained relatively weak for three decades. In the gap, and with growing urban markets, commercial cannabis livelihoods emerged to combat growing rural poverty.
In such conditions - as Suzman pointed out - punitive drug control, created to combat white pill-popping, was clearly going to fall on black South Africans for cannabis offences.
Suzman fought hard. She pointed out that a "Marijuana Commission" was under way in the US, documenting how the supposed dangers of cannabis were greatly exaggerated. She argued for a less criminalising status for cannabis in South Africa.
Her views were defeated and apartheid's extraordinary drug legislation was easily passed. Cannabis was classified among those substances marked for strictest suppression.
The law's impacts
This decision proved to be a watershed. The effects of the 1971 anti-drug law were immediately evident, falling disproportionately on black South Africans. Cannabis accounted for well over 95% of drug-related arrests and convictions across all "race" groups.
In a 1972 assessment by the Natal Provincial Supreme Court - in the case State v Shangase and Others - judges showed how prison terms of two to ten years were being imposed even for the petty possession of single cannabis "zol" (joint).
The "rehabilitation centres" part of the 1971 law applied only to white offenders since - as Suzman had pointed out - the segregationist state did not provide drug treatment programmes for black people. But, even for convicted white users, sentences involving treatment applied in less than 1% of cases.
Paradoxically, but unsurprisingly, illegal cannabis cultivation increased within the segregated spaces of apartheid.
An illegal crop in high demand was profitable to grow, and even more so to trade. Helicopters spraying herbicides and multiple checkpoints raised the stakes of drug politics for all parties.
The laws's embedded racism meant that as tough drug suppression continued after apartheid ended, its racist effects also continued.
A reckoning with history is needed
The 1971 anti-drug law was replaced in 1992 with a Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act. The new law maintained harsh sentences and cannabis remained illegal. The African National Congress, which came into power in 1994, reproduced the heavy-handed tactics it had inherited from the apartheid National Party: militarised suppression, spraying and incarcerations.
In 2017 and 2018, the government's cannabis policy was successfully challenged in the courts, on grounds of cultural and religious freedom. This also opened a window for liberalising cannabis as a commercial venture for certain products. Yet the actual policy remains unclear and contested.
Apartheid's 1971 law, and the parallel growth of an illegal economy, shaped South Africa's unequal cannabis landscape. Now, in an opening cannabis economy, rural cultivators remain in a vulnerable position against more powerful interests.
Decolonising drug-related knowledge and policies in South Africa requires a deeper reckoning with history, including from apartheid into the present.
*Quotations from the Debates of the House of Assembly, Hansard (Cape Town: Government of the Republic of South Africa, 5 May 1971.