The history of cannabis usage in South Africa is a long one that goes back to before the first European settlers arrived. Despite the plant being deeply rooted in South African indigenous culture, some people are worried now – on the cusp of the country’s “green rush” – that rural and smallholder farmers will be left behind.
To Ricky Stone, an attorney who has represented Eastern Cape rural farmers in the Pondoland region for nearly a decade, the solution is simple: remove the licensing process for indigenous farmers.
Historians believe that cannabis was brought to the continent by Arab and Indian traders as much as 1 000 years ago. Indigenous tribes cultivated and used the plant long before the arrival of European settlers, and even the Afrikaans word “dagga” was derived from the Khoi word “dacha”. Until 1921, cannabis was reportedly sold openly by mine storekeepers and grew wild in much of South Africa, and the plant was only fully criminalised in 1928 on the prevailing moral grounds of the time.
“Cannabis should be treated as a crop, like any other agricultural commodity,” says Stone. “That is the only way to genuinely unlock its potential to humanity. Processing and end-uses should be regulated at the point of processing and sale. [It’s] simple, really.”
Stone, who started his journey with amaMpondo cannabis farmers in 2013, was instrumental in ending the South African Police Service’s destruction of rural cannabis crops. Before 2016, the police would fly over the land of rural farmers in helicopters and spray glyphosate onto their cannabis to kill it.
“It was a real victory to end the glyphosate programme outside of the courts. But this matter will still come before local and international courts in the near future, to seek damages for the amaMpondo. [They] suffered immeasurable harm due to the human rights violations of the glyphosate programme, many losing their lives to unnatural causes, and with significant damage to waterways, livestock, food crops, human health, culture, and heritage.”
Stone says that, despite persecution from government, cannabis farmers in Pondoland continue to produce the plant because of their limited options.
“They never give up, [and] have no option but to farm cannabis because [they have] no access to water or irrigation. It is the only crop that grows in the remote river valleys, yet they do it all with a constant smile on their faces despite the immense hardships they continue to face.”
Licensing weighs down indigenous farmers
Stone says that, like many nations across the world, indigenous South Africans have used cannabis for centuries. He argues that adding a licensing process to the production of the plant is ultimately an infringement on their cultural practices.
“These First Nation people are the rightful holders of indigenous cannabis knowledge and are solely responsible for preserving the plant throughout the past century of prohibition. Yet international seed companies have appropriated their unique indigenous cultivars without compensation, [and] in violation of various international law instruments.”
Charl Henning, administrator at Fields of Green for All, a cannabis rights organisation, agrees. Henning says the organisation is completely opposed to licensing around cannabis, as the process is inherently anti-poor and divests individuals of their natural right to cultivate the plant.
“The licence is actually government selling you back your human rights that they stole from you. You cannot give a licence to a poor man that lives in the mountains and grows dagga to support himself. How much are you going to charge them for a licence? And why do you [need] permission to grow something that is safer than tobacco?”
Henning argues that government policies around cannabis licensing are still embedded in the idea that the plant is harmful, an idea that he says is simply untrue.
“The licence regime is based on perceived harm. There are people who think that cannabis is dangerous. That’s what we’re fighting for. We’re trying to change people’s perceptions because the truth is that it isn’t dangerous. We’re fighting for evidence-based regulations.”
Like any other substance, cannabis can be harmful if abused, says Stone. “But so is sugar, and we don’t see sugarcane farmers lining up for licences. We require a radical change in mindset, which ordinarily should be easy to achieve if we look back in history. But memory is short, so the wheels are continuously being reinvented to the ultimate prejudice of indigenous cannabis farmers.”
Eastern Cape government going green
In her 2022 policy speech, Eastern Cape MEC for rural development and agrarian reform, Nonkqubela Pieters, alluded to farmer support when she announced her department’s approval of the Eastern Cape Cannabis Plan. The purpose of the plan, says Pieters, is to aid cannabis commercialisation in the country.
“We have provided support to 28 cannabis farmers to submit applications for hemp permits and trained 149 cannabis farmers and 50 technical team members.”
Pieters says the department is also in the process of setting up two cannabis incubation centres in the province and will be committing R10 million of its 2022 budget to cannabis cultivation.
“It remains our responsibility to protect current growers and assist them to benefit from the cannabis economy.”
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