Series on Drugs in

17 November 2005

Series on Drugs in Mail and Guardian
Johannesburg, 27 July 1997


The crop that clothes, feeds and and educates ... is illegal

Focus on drugs: Be it dagga or cocaine, from KwaZulu-Natal to Colombia the only way poor rural communities survive is by growing illegal crops.

Eddie Koch and Enoch Mthembu

THE lives of three people who live in different places along the banks of the Tugela, a majestic river that dissects some of the most rugged and the poorest parts of KwaZulu-Natal, epitomise the many paradoxes that surround one of the few cash crops that are booming in South Africa's agriculture sector: dagga.

Let's call them Mfana, Mama Xhulu and Zacharia.

Mfana is an exquisite example of the contradictions that characterise government policy on the dagga industry. He works for the Department of Justice as an interpreter at a small magistrate's court in the Tugela district, one of the places where thousands of people are charged and convicted for growing the weed that abounds in the valleys and kloofs of the river.

Yet back at his little home near the courtroom, bushes of mthunziwenkhukhu (an isiZulu word for cannabis that means "shade of the fowls" because of the chickens' habit of lying in the shadow cast by dagga plants in these arid places) wave in the wind outside his bedroom window.

"Yes, I smoke it," says Mfana. And, in anticipation of a question about how he reconciles this with the role he plays in the criminal justice system, adds: "Let's say the stuff just grows here by the will of God and I was unlucky enough to be put in this job in a place that is surrounded by it."

It is a refrain repeated by Mama Xhulu, a matriarch whose general dealer's store lies tucked into one of the steep banks of the river not far from where it runs into the Indian Ocean. "I don't know about other places, but here we believe this is a natural herb," she says.

"We know of many people whose lives were destroyed by alcohol. But we do not know of anyone who has suffered in the same way from insangu (dagga). All we know is that almost every single child in this area has been educated, clothed and fed from this crop.

"We use it to make a tea that heals serious ailments like blood pressure and chest diseases. Can you explain why the farmers are persecuted while the bottle stores are not?"

Zacharia is a member of the ZCC church and, when we met him, was working for a small education project in the dry and arid upper reaches of the river not far from Tugela Ferry in the Msinga district.

He describes how police regularly raid the plantations in the hills around his home. They either spray the illegal crop with herbicides or uproot tons of cannabis and burn it, usually in a spectacular display at the rugby fields in nearby Weenen.

"We just go out and start it again," says Zacharia. "They cannot stop it."

He explains how, in his area, the entire population of villages go into the kloofs and valleys at night to cultivate huge fields hidden from the police even though some of them are as big as the Weenen rugby ground. There, especially when the moon is full, the workforce from the valley hoes, weeds and trims the crop that sustains their livelihood.

To Zacharia the contradiction is not between his religious belief and an industry that involves drugs. It is in the fact that the state spends so much on trying to stop a commercial activity that provides employment and keeps the kids from joining criminal gangs - and then fails anyway.

"Dagga must have been God's creation," he says. "I think it is because it does these good things for the community that the police cannot destroy it."

A recent tour by the Mail & Guardian through the dagga-producing regions of the Tugela Valley and the markets of Durban where the produce from around the province is distributed revealed how widespread and important this illegal but extraordinarily tenacious industry is for the poorest of the province's residents.

Because of the illegal nature of the industry, little research has been done to corroborate the anecdotal impression that the entire province is immersed in a massive but underground form of cash-cropping.

However, a pioneering study, published by Indicator SA in the early 1990s, gives some idea of the sheer scale of the industry.

The study, based on research conducted by farmer Neil Alcock before he was killed in one of the faction fights that characterise the Msinga district, estimated the annual turnover in agriculture's informal dagga sector to be twice that generated by the legal liquor trade.

"If Alcock's estimation that police seize only 10% of the total crop is accurate, the statistics are staggering. Based on the street value of dagga confiscated, the annual dagga crop would have been worth over R4,5-billion ten years ago. This guesstimate would have risen dramatically by now," the study noted.

"For many of these farmers, cultivating small plots in inhospitable terrain, dagga is the only viable cash crop that they can grow. It flourishes almost anywhere and it grows in the poorest soil. Police reported in March 1989 that in 150km2 on the Tugela River a yield of 14 000kg per square kilometre was being obtained.

"Sugarcane, the other important Natal crop, cannot compete as a cash crop for small-scale farmers. In 1983, Alcock reported that sugar farmers in the Ndwedwe district earned R5,25 per ton, the amount earned by dagga farmers from a single plant. A ton of dagga would earn the farmer between R8 000 and R10 000, depending on the quality."

The figures help explain the ingenuity and resilience that the people of the Tugela Ferry use to sustain their commerce. In the lower reaches of the valley, according to Mama Xhulu, the homesteads each cultivate up to six small fields of dagga. These are hidden in the dense thickets that surround the river or in the steep cliffs that surround it.

Higher up in the valley, the industry appears to be based on a more collective form of cultivation described by Zacharia. Police have reported fields near Tugela Ferry that are 1km long and 500m wide with plants so large that they each required two officers to uproot them.

Sowing is said to be a special skill and requires certain rituals to ensure success. A woman who farms next to the gravel road that winds down from the town of Stanger to the Tugela Valley explains that "you must look over your right shoulder as you scatter the seed so that you do not see where it lands in the soil".

"It grows so easily and it doesn't need any irrigation, which makes it more easy," says Mama Xhulu. "But like any other crop it does need work. The families have to keep the fields clean, take away the weeds and trim the plants because if they grow too long they lose their power. Sometimes when the police come and burn the crop even we are surprised and say `Aish! I didn't know we could grow so much'."

Unlike other crops which are usually harvested only once a year, cannabis provides an almost continuous supply all year round. Once a family has planted the first seeds, the plants shed new ones that propagate rapidly as the older ones are cut for the market.

Much of this work is done by women while the men tend to spend time doing the retailing at Inanda and KwaMashu - the huge townships on the outskirts of Durban - where most of the crop first lands before being distributed in the city.

"Here we do not like to send children into the fields because they must go to school and, if they are caught, it is easy for them to give away secrets to the police about who owns the field."

Once the crop has avoided police scrutiny, the next task is to get it to the market. The growers pack the dagga into bags or plastic containers filled up with madumbis (sweet potatoes) which are heavy and discourage police at roadblocks en route from opening and searching them. Private vans and taxis ferry the contraband to Durban's markets located in all the shantytowns around the city.

According to "Welcome", a dealer based in Durban who travels regularly to the valley and the Midlands to buy stock from producers, a 25-litre container of dagga fetches R300. "This is for grade number one. We also classify the stuff as grade number two and grade number three."

All the dealers count themselves as quality-control experts, relying on the feel of the product, and the occasional smoke, to test it.

"By the time this tin of Poison Number One gets to Inanda it has been marked up to R700 and this is because of the danger involved. Then I can split the container up into small pencils. I sell these to taxi drivers and also sailors from overseas. If the quality is really good, I can get up to R6 000 from that one container."

This huge mark-up is confirmed by the Indicator study which quoted police as saying they had smashed a smuggling ring exporting dagga to the Netherlands in the early 1990s. At that stage it was estimated that dagga bought for R1 000 at a market like those in Inanda would fetch R20 000 on delivery in Amsterdam or London.

There have been recent media reports that faction fighting in the valley has been fuelled by competition over the trade routes down to Durban. This was denied by the residents and growers interviewed by the Mail & Guardian: they insisted that the industry regulates itself and - except for growing conflict with the police - did so in a peaceful way (see story below).

Every grower and dealer interviewed noted that the enormous scale of this hidden but vast industry was driven by the role it plays in keeping rural families above the poverty line, paying for clothing, food and education.

A recent poverty profile of northern KwaZulu-Natal prepared by the Development Bank of Southern Africa found that the vast majority of primary and secondary schools were built and run on funds collected by the community. The M&G was told of at least one community school on the Transkei coast that was built with revenue from the village's cannabis harvest.

For Welcome this was the ultimate paradox: "We are subsidising the education system with dagga and yet the government insists on sending police to destroy that which is helping them. There are MPs in Cape Town who were educated with dagga. They know it but have turned their backs on the mothers and fathers who must grow it."

Futile drug ban fuels criminal syndicates

Stephen Ellis

THE international trade in illegal drugs is worth $400-billion a year, according to the United Nations, making it the world's second-biggest trade after oil. A successful drug-smuggling enterprise, like one of the big South American syndicates, has a bigger annual turnover than half of the world's governments.

Drug profits on this scale are a new factor in world politics, but drug consumption isn't. People have always taken drugs for purposes other than medical ones: they have consumed alcohol, marijuana, opium, hallucinogenic plants, coca leaves and many other things to relax, to prepare themselves for battle and to aid religious trance.

Although, in many earlier societies, certain drugs were too expensive for most people's pockets, and some were taboo on religious grounds, governments before the 20th century did not generally ban particular drugs on moral or health grounds as they now do. The 20th century has seen the general spread of legislation banning certain types of drug - but at the same time, the growth of popular consumption due to reduced transport costs and greater availability. The result is the appearance of a huge illegal market and illegal trade. Since it is illegal, the people who run it are criminals.

This was not always so. The British merchants who conquered large parts of India in the 18th century discovered that one of the most profitable crops was opium, and they used this high-value export to penetrate the massive Chinese market. In fact, when the British took possession of Hong Kong, it was in the context of a war to force the Chinese government of the day to allow British opium exports from India.

The French colonial government in Indochina had an official drug-marketing parastatal, La Régie Française de l'Opium. The Dutch colonial administration introduced coca-growing to Indonesia.

The plain fact is that international drug marketing has been an integral part of the expansion of world trade in modern times.

At the same time, as governments have taken ever-greater powers of social control, they have also taken to themselves the right to control, on the grounds of public health or public morality, what people smoke, sniff, inject, drink or eat.

Perhaps the most important incidence of this in modern times was the decision by the US government in the 1920s to prohibit the consumption of alcohol. It turned out that the desire of the American public to drink alcohol was so great that many otherwise law-abiding citizens ignored the ban. This not only brought the law into disrepute, but put alcohol marketing into the hands of organised criminals. It, in fact, gave birth to the modern American mafia, so that even when the prohibition laws were repealed, organised crime syndicates had developed notably in size and sophistication.

The whole world now faces a similar situation with regard to marijuana, heroin and cocaine in particular. These are the mainstays of the illegal drug trade, and while the possession of marijuana has been decriminalised in some countries, cocaine and heroin trading, possession and consumption by the general public are everywhere illegal.

But consumers in the rich world spend vast amounts of money on these drugs, and in the poor world whole economies are dependent on their production and export. Outlaw governments, like those of Burma and Afghanistan, openly encourage drug production and export and are condemned by Western enforcement agencies which are powerless to stop them. In many more countries - Mexico, Colombia, Turkey, Morocco to name but a few, not to mention Lesotho as well as South Africa's rural Transkei and KwaZulu-Natal - drug trading and local politics have become closely associated.

Far from abating, there is every indication that the international drug trade is growing in size and that the number of consumers is also growing. In poor countries with major economic problems, including in Africa, more and more people are tempted to grow or trade drugs for the profits they yield.

South Africa is a prime example. It is already a major marijuana producer, and in just a few years has become an important middle-man in heroin and cocaine trafficking. It offers a significant drug market while its transport and banking infrastructure are ideal for South African or international crime syndicates who want to move narcotics from one continent to another.

There seems no prospect of the governments of the world winning the drug war, in spite of their occasional vows to do so. In the meantime, the drug trade is fuelling the development of powerful, international criminal syndicates or mafias at impressive speed.

In the long term the only solution is to legalise the consumption of drugs and at least, in part, to legalise their trade. Consumption and sale could be licensed, as is the case with alcohol. Governments could tax the trade. Farmers in poor countries could perhaps find a new source of income.

In the major consuming countries of Europe and North America there is a growing realisation, on the part of police officers and others who have studied the problem, that they must contemplate some form of legalisation. This would leave them with a major public health problem, but it would be easier to manage if drugs are legal. The situation would be less of a political problem if the marketing of drugs could be taken out of the hands of mafias.

But which country dares start such a process? In the greatest consumer of all, the United States, although headed by a man who once smoked (but did not inhale) marijuana, legalisation remains a political dead issue. In Europe too, any politician who openly advocates legalising drugs risks being savaged by the press.

In the end the public and its elected representatives must make a choice: drugs are harmful to health, but how much more harmful are they to politics?

Expensive war the police can't win

MFANA, the dagga-growing official who works for the Justice Department, highlights the fact that the police are waging an expensive - but losing - battle against the country's most tenacious industry.

Since 1928, the cultivation and use of cannabis has been a criminal offence in South Africa. The legislation was toughened in 1971 when the then minister of the interior, Connie Mulder, increased the fines and prison sentences for farmers and dealers.

Although these were relaxed in the later years of apartheid, police continue to see themselves at war with the producing communities.

Every year, military-style operations are conducted by police teams who go into remote areas to destroy the crop. The police commissioner reported in 1988 that, in that year alone, 15 290 people had been arrested for dagga-related offences, 5 892 for possession and 9 398 for dealing.

In the early 1990s, the then police minister Adrian Vlok ran into stiff resistance from the environmental movement when he authorised hi-tech operations to spray crops in remote areas with a herbicide called paraquat from helicopters and crop-spraying planes.

This chemical has since been banned because it causes severe damage to human health and surrounding vegetation. But a new, less damaging herbicide, is now being used in an attempt to save police teams from destroying the crops manually.

One of the reasons for this is that producer communities have been showing increasing signs of militancy.

In a dagga-related trial, a narcotics policeman, Sergeant George Pretorius, testified that growers were becoming more aggressive, overturning police vehicles, pushing them over cliffs and arming themselves with automatic weapons so that they could attack night-time patrols.

In February 1990, a member of the narcotics squad was murdered during a raid on the Bhambayi settlement outside Durban and the rest of the squad was driven off by the residents. There are also reports that the recent murder of policemen in the Inkandla district in the foothills of the Drakensberg was prompted by fears of a police raid.

However, these appear to be the exception, and growers mostly rely on their hard work, wits and the gods to evade the police.

Their primary strategy to avoid arrest is to locate the fields away from individual homesteads.

After they harvest they are forced by fear of arrest to leave sacks and plastic containers filled with dagga in the fields. Thus, unless the police actually catch people while they are working in the field, they are powerless to convict any individual for any anonymous booty they discover.

"Neighbours can come and steal the fruit of endless hard work. The farmers cannot guard their fields, which are far away, all night," says Mama Xhulu.

"So they sprinkle them with a special medicine that is prepared by the traditional healers to guard against theft. The farmers are very secretive about where they get this medicine from.

"If we see they are doing well one year and ask about this, they simply say `Well I was lucky this time'."

Although tough police action generates immense hardship and hostility, most growers were vehemently opposed to legalising the industry.

"If that happens then everyone will grow it. People in Inanda and KwaMashu will grown their own stuff," says Mama Xhulu. "And then who will come here to buy where the people depend on the stuff?"

Zacharia also notes that legalisation would bring down the price of dagga and throw producers into extreme hardship. According to Mfana, the lawman, "the only form of legalisation that would bring us relief will be to allow us to make traditional medicines from the herb".

These findings were confirmed by the Indicator study which quoted one grower, recently released from a four-year jail term, as saying: "Would I like to see dagga no longer a crime? Hau? You are mad! The only thing that keeps the price of dagga up is the police.

"The police are my friends. They work hard for me. I'd go broke if dagga was legal and every bloody fool would start growing his own."

Money can buy immunity

Focus on drugs: The police don't bother with dagga; they can't even cope with the trade in hard drugs

Franco Fracassi and Laura Evans

FOR the people who run South Africa's burgeoning drugs trade, the forces of law and order represent, at best, a slight inconvenience. In Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban, the story is much the same: police are bribed, intimidated or simply locked out.

"What is the reason for the visit?" a hotel receptionist in Johannesburg's Hillbrow asks two police officers. They are trying to catch a suspect in the act. Unimpressed, the receptionist calls the hotel owner, who takes five minutes to come to the desk before greeting the two: "Fuck you. I don't want fucking police in my hotel."

He only relents when the officers give the target's room number, but then spends another 10 minutes haggling before allowing the raid to resume. The would-be raiders find nothing.

In Hillbrow, this episode, one weekend earlier this month, is still an achievement for police drug-busters. Police know who the dealers are, what they sell, where they live, their girlfriends' details, even what time they go to bed. The problem is getting to them.

Money soon piles up from a constant trade in Mandrax, cocaine, Ecstasy and acid, and a fraction of the takings can secure one of the masses of seedy, run-down hotels or blocks of flats that line Hillbrow's streets. The going rate for a hotel is around R3-million, in cash.

"The drug lords are very rich," says Hillbrow police captain Hendrik de Klerk. "They can afford to buy entire buildings. They pay cash, fortify the entrances and the parking lot and sell." Police have to negotiate to get in to raid, even with a search warrant.

So, on Hillbrow's Soper Street, Nigerians peddle cocaine from parking lots ringed with razor-wire; drug-sellers occupy entire sidewalks on streets such as O'Reilly; heroin is sold from iron gate-clad hotels on Esselen Street and Lily Street, with women standing outside, ready to raise the alarm if any police venture near. The headquarters of the Nigerians believed to control the district's drugs trade are on Olivia Street. The police say they just can't get in.

"How can we prevent someone from buying a building?" says South African Narcotics Bureau superintendent EA Kadwa.

On Durban's Point Road, the dealers have still to branch out into real estate. But they don't need such protection from police interference: over four hours, during prime selling-time on a Friday night, no police patrol passed by.

"We pay most of them," says Bob, a 30-something character who has an army of dealers working under him. "How much depends on the rank, maybe from R50 a day upwards."

Unencumbered, Bob and his friends do a brisk trade in Mandrax and crack, finding their most lucrative market in white youngsters who like to load up for parties. "Mandrax costs R40 a tablet, and crack around about R150," he says. His other favourite clients are the city's prostitutes, who prefer cocaine.

Police and dealers on Point Street agree that little of the drug supply comes through the city's harbour.

Most comes from Johannesburg, packed inside stolen or hijacked cars, which are stripped down in KwaMashu, the township to the north of the city where Bob and his dealers live. Eleven BMWs sit in one workshop in the township. All are in pristine condition, all are destined to be stripped down. The mechanic there says he has been arrested once or twice, but he doesn't think the cars are stolen.

In Cape Town's Manenberg township, police estimate that 80% of the male population use drugs - a mixture of dagga and Mandrax freely available in the area where even the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) fear to tread. Pagad may have shot and burnt Rashaad Staggie, but his Hard Living gang, and their rivals, the Americans, still see Manenberg as their domain, and its 50 000 inhabitants as their people.

Everyone in the township claims to be a gangster, or a dealer. They come up and talk proudly about the money they make selling Mandrax at R30 a shot, and about the number of people they have killed.

"Do you see these spots on my face?" one says. "Every spot is a murder." His face has 17 marks, symmetrically positioned about his nose. Another face has 14.

The men speak freely, knowing there are no uniformed police around, and that those working in plainclothes are reluctant to act. One plainclothes officer does appear as a drug deal is going down, discreetly flashing his ID.

"I live and work here," he says. "I know all the gangsters and drug dealers. I even know the guy where your friend has gone to buy the stuff. But what should I do? The prisons are overcrowded, and they would be out in a few days. Then I will have problems with him and with the others."

Franco Fracassi is a freelance journalist, working in South Africa on an Italian television documentary on the international drugs trade; Laura Evans is his assistant

Cape Town - from wine route to drug route

Gustav Thiel

HENNIE MARAIS, Western Cape director of the South African Narcotics Bureau, is resigned to his officers doing little more than watching the drugs coming into the city, and occasionally checking the flow. They no longer bother with dagga, or even with releasing information about their successes in drug convictions.

"There are 100 000 dealers in Cape Town who will never be caught," he says. "The trade in the city is too big ... drugs will never be eradicated. We will just do our job to the best of our ability."

Somehow, Marais still manages to say that he is "optimistic".

The reality is that Cape Town, in the past two years, has been given a new identity - as a world drug capital. South Africa has taken a central position on international drug routes that stretch from South America, around Europe to the Middle and Far East. And with that new position, crack cocaine has flooded the Mother City.

"South Africa, in particular Cape Town, has become a major depository for drugs," says Scott Lindsay, the director of the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre. "There is very little control over the flow of drugs in and out of the city. Drug use is rampant."

The result is that crack houses have sprung up across the city, bringing with them a growing army of addicts and overdose victims who line the corridors of counselling centres.

"The hit provided by crack is far more intense than coke," Lindsay says. "The problem is that the downer after the euphoria is far more intense and the drug is also far more addictive.

"People who were able to maintain a long-term drug habit on dagga, Mandrax or cocaine now find themselves unable to cope with crack.

"I can tell you many stories about people who maintained coke habits and could carry on working. Crack changed this. It is cheaper, used by everybody, and will make the drug problem here completely unmanageable if the authorities do not wake up. We are facing one enormous problem."

The city's drug dealers, of course, have never been happier.

Manuel (29) has been dealing in the central business district for 10 years - one of 1 000 big-time dealers, he says, who work for local South American, Italian, Chinese and Indian gangs.

Manuel's Brazilian parents say he has a right to deal in drugs because he can't find a normal job. Initially, he struggled: clients hailed from the Cape Flats and mainly wanted dagga and Mandrax. Now business is thriving.

"The public has no idea what is going on in the drug industry, because they are fed the wrong information about the amount of drugs that are going around and the amount of people that use drugs," he grins.

"I am a small dealer, but I have more than 1 000 regular customers. There are more than 1 000 bigger dealers in the city, which shows how many people actually use drugs." Other dealers back his claims.

While he's talking, Manuel takes a call on his cellphone from his supplier in Gugulethu, the black township on the outskirts of the city. The supplier offers 1 000 Ecstasy tablets at R40 each, which Manuel reckons he can sell for R100 each.

"It is no problem to get rid of 1 000 Ecstasy tablets," says Manuel. "It is now one of the most popular. It is not true that this drug is only used by youngsters going to rave parties. Rich business people also use it for entertainment and to improve their sex lives. The drug is cheap and gives a huge rush."

The trade spreads across Cape Town, with the favoured narcotic determined by the average income in each area. On the Cape Flats, in poorer areas like Athlone, Belhar and Grassy Park, Mandrax, crack and dagga hold sway. In more affluent areas, cocaine and Ecstasy do well. School children in the CBD go for dagga and Ecstasy.

Steven (20) was studying chemistry until he decided he could do better selling cocaine, crack and Ecstasy from his campus room to clients in Bishopscourt, Constantia and Hout Bay.

"Models, people in the film, music and advertising industries and business people are really huge on these drugs," he says. "You won't believe the amount of coke I can move in a weekend, easily 100 grams. I've now started selling to politicians.

"I sell 2 000 Ecstasy tablets a week. Everybody wants the drug. I recently witnessed a shipment coming into Cape Town with 100 000 tablets. It was amazing. People are getting rich off the drug trade and it is not only the gangsters who are involved anymore."

A gram of cocaine sells for around R300, Ecstasy for R100 a tablet, Mandrax R20 and crack around R70 for one rock.

Dagga is still by far the cheapest, going for around R50 for a full plastic bank bag and around R20 for a stuffed banana leaf. Capetonians now openly smoke dagga at several nightclubs and pubs. "We're only going after hard drug dealers," Hennie Marais notes.

Peter (21), who looks after cars in a CBD car park, buys dagga for his clients as easily as he buys cigarettes. He has a rather tougher time securing crack, mainly from crack houses in Woodstock. "These people will kill you in a second," he says. "You don't fuck around there."

Gatiep, an old man from the Cape Flats, runs a crack house in Woodstock. He's reluctant to talk. "What do I have to gain?" he says. "I want everything nice and silent. Crack is now finally making me rich. Fuck off and write what you like."