To set the background, I am a 63-year-old, white (if that makes a difference) South African. Rather than choose the way of invisible pensioner, I was conned into writing, and when this opportunity came along, felt calling to become vocal. Been smoking dope since about age 15, and have luckily escaped the lifetime branding of “criminal,” enjoying some marked physical benefits. My stand on the often times thorny issue of “should we, or should we not” is: I am a believer!

The International Herb in the Republic of South Africa is called dagga –Afrikaans pronunciation [/ˈdaχa/]) –and has been a part of the landscape since long before Jan van Riebeeck (Dutch navigator) dropped anchor in Table Bay. Dagga was well known to the indigenous Khoikhoi (native people of Southwestern Africa), largely for medicinal purposes.

Time passed, and social use among mainstream society seemed to have become more prominent during the Great Depression (1929 to 1934), although, even then, the main use was medicinal. The 1960s happened, and it became more well known, and by implication, more policed, more debated in public, and more of a social phenomenon. In the period of 1911 (formation of the Union of South Africa) to 1994 (first democratic elections in South Africa), the government was extremely Church-oriented. Specifically, the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinistic voice that frowned on any form of enjoyment.

Dagga was outgunned from the get-go, but managed to get a foot in the door. In 1928, marijuana was added to the Controlled Substances list, which made it illegal to own privately, even if it did grow wild in your garden. Possession in those early days was punishable by a fine of five pounds — probably an Urban Legend, the jury was instructed to disregard this — which soon could escalate to jail-time.

The mid to late 1960s and beyond did not leave South Africa unaffected, and dagga was there for the long-haired peaceniks to enjoy, albeit in between the Yellow Jackets, Purple Hearts, Black Bombs, and other chemicals that abounded in that era. A schism originating during the Great Depression placed dagga firmly in the ranks of “that’s for the poor people, dear!” but nonetheless, those of the “Hippy” era that did not, at least, sample it are markedly few and far between.

The perceived class-gap that existed between those that did smoke, and those who chose to abstain narrowed significantly in that time, but still remained to some extent. The market hardened and became a thriving, non-tax-paying business. Police counter-measures stepped up accordingly with literal tons of confiscated dagga being burned, and the dispensing thereof moved underground. What was once an extra five Rand (the official currency of South Africa) being slipped to a petrol station attendant for a brown-paper-wrapped cylinder, became slit eyed middlemen with large bulges in the armpit.

Subsequent to the 1994 General Election, dagga usage became more casual, although the old laws still remained in effect. In 2018, the Constitutional Court approved it for recreational and medicinal purposes, and gave the South Africa Legislature two years to draft the required legislation.

In the interim, South Africa has undergone a major political paradigm shift, with a serving State President being pressured into resigning, and more and more graft, corruption and mismanagement being uncovered on an almost daily basis. The active members of parliament seem to be too involved in protecting their tenure to fuss about such trivialities.

Issues to be clarified: what constitutes private space (wherein one may indulge); what is the legal limit within which one may operate a motor vehicle; what controls are required for medicinal use; what quantity constitutes “personal use;” and a host of other details. Big Pharma (no details released) have expressed an interest in acquiring a license to manufacture dagga-based treatments.

The man on the street? He just carries on! Those who acquired prison records during the pursuit of innocent fun have long since learned to shrug it off; the outlook has evolved into a cynical “let’s see what happens.” Pending the resolution of outstanding issues, weed usage has become largely a matter of discretion for the arresting officer.

Very much in step with other countries, dagga usage seems to have settled into a comfortable niche where it can be tolerated at cocktail parties, and there is some social status to be found in becoming a self-proclaimed expert in the myriad traditions that have suddenly surrounded the art of smoking. “You gotta pass it to the left,” “if you hog the joint, you get busted,” and a tome full of other sayings that have never crossed my path in almost 50 years of participating.

Those given to cheap displays accessorize with plated roach clips, and the conversation could as well be grounded in a wine tasting. “A nice, young, strain,” “A hint of fruit in the background,” and “should age well” are examples. In the Correctional Services facilities, trafficking is rife; the pain of a razor blade with accompanying application of ball-point ink, for a prison tattoo, is dulled with generous helpings.

Far from the world of gangsters speaking from the corners of their mouths, from socialites speaking in effected tones, and lonely old men with prison tattoos, a wizened old man squats in the sparse shade of a stunted thorn tree, surrounded by the giant dunes of the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa. He has been following a wounded Gemsbok (large antelope) for more than six hours at a steady lope, and now septuagenarian joints are creaking in protest. From an animal-skin bag around his waist, he removes a fire-blackened tin mug, which he places on the ground and surrounds with kindling. He pours a small libation of water from an ostrich-egg, then adds a handful of dried, green twigs and leaves. A chunk of granite, and a length of steel help spark the kindling into fiery life as he settles back to watch the mixture. The kindling is just enough to bring the water to a boil; he leaves the mixture to infuse as it cools. Then, he drains the cup in a single motion, spits some of the solid matter out, and returns his primitive kettle to its bag.

In smooth motion, he returns to his feet, and resumes the trail. The antics of the “civilized approach” to a natural, beneficial herb would only confuse him; he has no need or desire for confusion. Those that deprived others of physical and psychological benefit in the past, may do well to consider the price to be paid for an approach grounded in fear, ignorance, and self-interpreted belief.


Derek Reyneke