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Cultural practices hamper anti-drug campaigns

The Swazi tradition, which allows the cultivation of marijuana as a cash crop in homesteads, is hampering efforts to rid the kingdom of drug abuse and trafficking
James Hall

The consumption of marijuana-“dagga” as it is known in Southern Africa and insangu in the SiSwati language-is such a well-entrenched part of Swazi culture that the small log enclosure where the headman of a traditional homestead escapes the burdens of life to enjoy a pipe has been lovingly recreated at Mantenga Cultural Village.

“My job is to sit here and smoke my pipe, and allow the tourists to take my picture,” says Samkelo Nsibandze, a 64 year-old Swazi who is employed at the village, one of the kingdom’s favourite tourist attractions. Dressed in traditional attire of antelope loin skin and beaded anklets, he sits cross-legged on a grass map within the narrow circular enclosure, and takes a draw on a clay pipe filled with fragrant weed. “It is pipe tobacco this time,” he winks. “But there are times when I put in real dagga, the Swazi way.”

Nsibandze may have one of the most pleasant jobs in Swaziland, by his own definition, but the ancient habit of indulging in the intoxicating weed that grows wild in the country’s mountains has come up against the agenda of the South African and Swazi police to eradicate traffic in the weed.

Combined efforts from both the nation’s law enforcers have located and destroyed 50 per cent of the marijuana crop in Swaziland’s mountainous northern Hhohho region, where the capital Mbabane is located, according to the Royal Swaziland Police Force. The Council Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse estimates that 70 per cent of the peasant farmers in the region grow marijuana as a cash crop.

Sipho Vilakati, a former MP who represented the area in parliament, says, “In fact, these poor farmers complain to us that their livelihood depends on dagga cultivation, as there are no alternative crops.” The Ministry of Agriculture since 1998 has tried to introduce new cash crops that thrive in the mountain climate, but local farmers have complained that an inadequate road system kept them from delivering their produce to market.

Drug dealers, who finance marijuana cultivation by giving the farmers seed money to grow the illegal crop and then purchase the weed at maturity, have never encountered difficulties getting the product to market. Swazi marijuana is shipped through South Africa, where it finds its way to Hillbrow and other Johannesburg neighbourhoods, en route to Europe, particularly the Netherlands, where “Swazi gold” is valued by connoisseurs for its alleged combination of mellow taste and powerful intoxicating effect.

“Swazi traditional beers have very little ‘kick,’” says Charles Mahlalela, a 52 year-old tree cutter in the Hhohho region. “But our dagga is powerful.” Mahlalela, like most middle-aged men, has left his marijuana-smoking days behind him. Swazi women hardly indulge, while younger Swazi men when they are financially able turn to commercial beer brands and alcohol. Town youth prefer designer drugs available at club raves in urban areas.

No data is available on the effect of a 50 per cent reduction in the kingdom’s marijuana crop is having on consumers in Johannesburg and Europe, but local growers are at a crossroads. They no longer have the excuse that poor or nonexistent roads prevent the transport of legal crops to market. The same new roads that bring police in to destroy marijuana crops identified by their airborne South African counterparts in spotter planes allow access to towns.

Some former growers are taking advantage of the agriculture ministry’s advice about new crops, and assistance with marketing. Some farmers are forming co-operatives, drawing irrigation water from the Maguga Dam that was responsible for the area’s new roads.

However, others are finding a crafty new way of countering the current marijuana shortage, which has doubled the weed’s price on the streets of Mbabane. They claim marijuana cultivation and consumption is their cultural right, as exemplified by the traditional headman impersonated by Nsibandze at Mantenga Cultural Village.

“Smoking dagga has always been the privilege of the Swazi head man,” says Clement Dlamini, 27, who says he is a moderate smoker. “The white man’s law cannot deprive us of what is ours. It was God who put insangu in Swaziland.”

Responds police inspector Elliot Dube, “God also put the malaria virus in Swaziland, but we’re doing our best to get rid of it.” Dube says Swaziland could not overturn anti-drug laws that date from the colonial era even if government were inclined to do so.

“Swaziland is a signatory to international treaties aimed at stopping drug trafficking across borders. Dagga is big business, and these farmers are being exploited by South African drug kings. South Africa wants a stop to it, too.”

Police say they already look the other way when it comes to “one or two weeds growing in the backyard of some rural homestead.” Small cultivation for family use has indeed been part of Swazi culture, although few families practice this today. What won’t be tolerated, law enforcers say, is the growth for sale of marijuana under the pretext that the business represents cultural preservation.

With the assistance of South Africa's police, eradication efforts have never been more successful. The construction of the Maguga Dam in northern Swaziland provided a new road network in areas previously inaccessible - prime marijuana cultivation land where South African drug lords have secured their supplies.

A series of raids at the beginning of the year resulted in the destruction of 2,500 hectares of marijuana fields, which were identified by South African police helicopters. Swazi police then sprayed defoliants on the plants, whose cultivators fled to the hills while the operation was in progress.

However, rains immediately following some raids washed the chemicals off the plants, and instead destroyed weeds on the ground that competed with the marijuana. Agents of the drugs lords who finance the cultivation also instructed farmers how to wash the plants to rid them of defoliants.

It is winter now in the Southern Hemisphere, and farmers in Swaziland’s High Veld must contemplate what crops to plant when rains again return in September. “We are poor people, and whatever we can grow that will earn us a meager living we will grow,” said Amos Ndzibandze, whose small farm is tucked away in the hills above Maguga Dam.

Until economically attractive crops can wean farmers from illegal marijuana cultivation, the intoxicating weed will be more than a relic from Swazis’ cultural past. It will remain a nuisance for law enforcers today.

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