In the United States there’s a growing movement of people replacing word marijuana with cannabis, as they consider the word marijuana as racist. Although no similar movement exists in South Africa, the word dagga is still often used to express disgust and some consider it pejorative. But the histories behind the words dagga and marijuana give us the very reasons to reclaim it.
There’s still much confusion around the origin of the word dagga, but it is generally accepted that it’s an Afrikaans word derived from the KhoeKhoe dacha or dachab. However, the Europeans misinterpreted the word. Dacha/dachab means “intoxication” and also refers to Leonotis, a plant with similar leaves to a dagga plant.
Different variations of the word can be found in official European documents since the 1600’s, like daggha and taga, when they prohibited the Khoe from growing the plant. Early legislation referred to dagga as intsangu, derived from Swati (isangu) and Zulu (nsangu).
In the 1940’s the phonetic GA! was emphasised to express disgust for the plant. Still today SAPS and the media continue to stigmatise the word and use it as a form of disgust.
Academically, dagga tends to refer to the recreational use of the plant, whereas cannabis is more often used in connection to the plant’s scientific benefits.
Cannabis is seen as the most official word for the plant. It originates from the Greek word kánnabis; which was first recorded by Herodotus, around 440BC, when he described the recreational use of Cannabis sativa amongst the Scythians.
A branch of the cannabis-using Americans argue that the word marijuana is racist, because it was used by people like Harry Ainslinger during the prohibition period in the 1930’s as a pejorative term. He used the foreign sounding word to relate it with the poorer Mexicans and to bring fear and uncertainty.
In defence of marijuana, anthropologist Santiago Ivan Guerra argues that the word was once a means of rebellion. Similar to the case in South Africa, when the Europeans arrived in present day Mexico they prohibited the indigenous population from growing weed. Instead they were told to grow hemp for rope.
Happily, the inhabitants discovered that hemp could be psychoactive. They started using code words starting with Mary/Mari to please the Christian colonialists; hence marihuana was commonly used to allude to the plant.
Those in support of banishing the word marijuana argue that cannabis refers to cannabis sativa, cannabis indica, and cannabis ruderalis. Therefore it is the most scientific term, giving the plant legitimacy and respectability. However, botanists still do not agree if cannabis indica and ruderalis are separate species from cannabis sativa or not. Still, some even claim that only those opposed to legalisation call it marijuana, whereas supporters call it cannabis.
Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg is unsure if the word marijuana is ever going to be pushed out of the general lexicon; there will always be variety of words to describe drug. Weed and grass was used in a tongue-in-the-cheek way against the Reefer Madness, but it is still used today.
Only using the word cannabis will not erase stigma or change arguments on legislation. Erasing the word marijuana will actually take away from its history. Saying it will not give power to people like Ainslinger, as some argue. It will do the exact opposite. We shouldn’t feel like we have to whisper dagga or marijuana in polite conversation
Why give opponents of dagga the satisfaction of being afraid of the very word they used to propel fear?
Reclaim dagga, reclaim its history.
Other South African terms for dagga include: weed, zol, pot, ganja, groen tabak, umya, matakwane, giggelgras, and the devil’s lettuce. What is your favourite term?
Prohibition & Resistance: A Socio-Political Exploration of the Changing Dynamics of the Southern African Cannabis Trade, c. 1850 – the present. A thesis in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History at Rhodes University By Craig Paterson December 2009
World Day of Social Justice, 20 February 2020.
"Justice holds society together. When justice fails, the fabric of society cannot hold." – T. Madonsela
Today, 20 February 2020, the UN is observing World Day of Social Justice. Since 2009 it has been observed on the same date every year. The aim of the day is to bring attention to social injustice and to press for improvements and solutions.
South Africa suffers from a long list of social issues, amongst other is the overcriminilisation of dagga and dagga users. Amongst users, it has largely been people of colour who suffered most under the legal status of marijuana and South Africa’s anti-dagga disposition has roots in racist and oppressive agendas. The Rastafarians are one of the communities who suffer social injustices, because of the legality of dagga.
In March 2018, after a Rastafarian was arrested for allegedly being in possession of ganja, Rastas from Kokstad protested outside the Magistrate Court for his release the following day. The 35 year old was arrested during a stop-and-search operation for being in possession of dagga, hidden in his dreadlocks.
One of the protesters, Malibongwe Thuntulwana, said:
“Ganja [dagga] is just like a cigarette so we don’t understand why police arrest people who are using it because people carry cigarettes everywhere. We are feeling oppressed and our rights are being victimised by government”.
Thuntulwana continued to say that they should be allowed to smoke dagga wherever as it brings them closer to Jah (God), just as churches use wine. The Rasta community asked the police to stop searching them and their houses without warrants. Dumisani Ncongo, SAPS Spokesperson, argued that the use of dagga is still illegal and those who use it will be arrested and charged.
A few months later we had the 2018 Constitutional Court Order to legalise marijuana. But the unequal and oppressive treatment of Rastafarians and other dagga users continue.
In 2019 an article was posted by the Sunday Times calling former Sars employee and tax law interpreter, Bizoski Manyike, an “unemployed, dope-smoking Rastafarian”. Members of the Rastafarian community protested outside the Sunday Times office in Johannesburg against the report which attacked their cultural and religious beliefs.
The Memorandum written for this protest was handed to a representative of the Sunday Times reads,
“This inflammatory and damning statement is orchestrated and intended to cast and brand a bad image and standing of the latter of being a Rastafari specifically but also to equally cast such negative aspersions to every Rastafari religious and cultural community at large”
Abovementioned memorandum called for a written apology in the newspaper by the author of the report. Furthermore, they urged the Sunday Times to stop branding the Rastafarian people as those of “less or no value at all”. Rastafarians suffer from the stigma branded to their culture and beliefs, both in their personal and professional lives.
The Sunday Times’ apology stated that they respect “the Rastafarian movement as an integral part of the South African community” and that they recognise the group “that emerged in response to the exploitation and oppression of black people in much of the world, including South Africa”.
But whatever their intentions were, when given the opportunity to apologise, the newspaper only accepted the possibility of offence:
“We accept that mentioning Manyike’s Rastafarian affiliation in the story may have created the impression that this affiliation had a bearing on his integrity and on the substance of the story. This was not the intention, and we apologise for any offence this may have caused.”
Earlier this year in January members of the Rastafarian community in Wellington marched to the local police station to protest police brutality and the violation of their human rights. This was in response to 48-year old Jan de Bruin’s death in December.
According to De Bruin’s family, the police raided his home while they were having a braai. The family, explained that De Bruin asked for a warrant and the police responded with brutality. He and others were taken to the police station after the beating. The next day his family was informed of his death.
According to SAPS Spokesperson FC van Wyk, the police was attacked by a group while executing a search warrant. They arrested five suspects between the ages of 18 and 59. Community Activist Ras Hein Scheepers called for Ipid to not cover up the police brutality.
Jan De Bruin was a business man who sold fruits, vegetables, and little wire cars. “Because he is a Rasta they assumed he sold dagga, but he didn’t,” said De Bruin’s cousin.
As Tefo Mohale rightly argues in his online article “Green Justice For All”, it is not enough to merely speak of a vision of inclusivity in the dagga industry in South Africa. Over 2 million drug-related arrests have been made since 2009. An estimated 90% of these arrests were for cannabis. The people who went to jail over cannabis are not necessarily the people who will benefit from this unclear “inclusive” vision.
We as a nation should look past just the economic benefits of dagga decriminalisation and become of aware of the social injustice tied to the legal status of the plant. A positive step forward is that of the Eastern Cape’s approved plans for a dagga-college to train and help small-scale farmers. The City of Cape Town has also prepared itself to enter the cannabis industry which is estimated at $40 billion by 2024. Land has already been set out in Atlantis for private sector use to provides opportunities, employment and skills for the locals.
But no strides have been made to mend the broken lives over dagga arrests, about the stigma of its use, the protection of the Rastafarian culture and beliefs, and to counter the overcriminilisation of dagga use amongst people of colour.
This week the Eastern Cape provincial government approved a proposal for a marijuana training centre. Rural Development MEC Nomakhosazana Meth said they want the province, known for their quality dagga, to be ready for commercialisation.
Nomakhosazana Meth has already attracted Canadian investors, who has committed to opening processing plants, training farmers and aiding in marketing, once the legal framework is put in place.
The Provincial Government sees the college as an opportunity for job creation. The college will provide training in growing and distribution, and will assist farmers in fencing, seeds, and fertilisers.
On Thursday 13 February at the State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Ramaphosa announced plans to regulate the commercial use of cannabis and hemp products, formulate policy for medicinal use, and provide small-scale farmers with more opportunities.
South Africa is already the third largest marijuana producer in Africa at 2 300 tons. The SA government has realised the potential of the industry and wants to place us in line with the global trend.
Ramaphosa continued that the regulatory steps will be announced by the relevant ministers soon. Our president will have to stick to his word as this short announcement has excited the cannabis community who expressed their enthusiasm on social media.
In 2018 cannabis health supplements were de-scheduled for 12 months, which allowed the manufacture, import and sale of cannabis-related products without THC. This exemption will expire in May 2020, yet the government has time until September 2020 to finalise new cannabis legislation. The President’s SONA announcement gave cannabis lovers a glimmer of hope that the legal process move at a faster pace from here on out.