A dagga in the back

Andrew Donaldson says Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill subverts the de-criminalisation requirement


AMONG the questions asked of Miss South Africa finalists by the judging panel back in June 1970 was this poser: “You have won the Miss World contest, and one of your prizes is a date with a jazz musician. He is black, takes drugs, and has been married three times. As a South African girl, what would you do?” 

A tough one, admittedly, and we can well imagine how contestants may have struggled to find a satisfactory answer. For all we know, given the stifling puritanism of the day, a night on the town with a stoned trumpeter who has commitment issues may have been just the ticket to lift the spirits. So who’s to say the swimsuited hopefuls didn’t lie through their perfect teeth as they fluttered their eyelashes at the judges?

These days, however, it is quite likely that beauty pageant entrants will readily admit to doing a bit of weed for recreational purposes. They will not be alone in this. In 2008, the Medical Research Council reported that some 3.2 million South Africans were dagga users. This was a million more than their 2004 research revealed. 

There are, in other words, a lot of stoners out there. It seems odd, though, that none of them were apparently consulted when government set about drafting its Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, published this week ahead of submission to Parliament. 

The bill is a confused mess. It purports to free up the herb, on one hand, yet it does so in a manner that entrenches police powers to search the homes of users, seize their property, and arrest and charge citizens for the “offences” detailed in the bill. Simply put, it is proposed decriminalisation that further criminalises, and ensures that trade in the drug will continue to flourish on the black market.

We should not be surprised at this. When, in September 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that the personal use of dagga was not a criminal offence, it gave lawmakers two years in which to appropriately amend existing laws pertaining to drugs and medicines. The state had vigorously opposed decriminalisation with the nonsensical argument that permitting millions of South Africans who use dagga to do so legally was not “in line with the values of South Africans”. 

The bill they’ve come up with suggests that their thinking has not changed: it stinks of bush church morality and fear of a loss of control over citizens’ lives. Everywhere in the margins of this document are the smudged paw marks of the idiot police minister, Cheek Bile.

Consider. Stashes of 1.2 kilograms of “dried cannabis” may now be stored at home — provided at least two adults reside there. A person living alone is limited to 600 grams. That’s a fair amount of dope. To put that in context, in terms of previous legislation, all based on the notorious 1971 Drugs Act, persons in possession with any amount of dagga, no matter how little, were liable to be prosecuted and jailed. There were no options of fines. Worse still, the law effectively put paid to all that “innocent until proven guilty” stuff. As Hazel Crampton writes in Dagga: A Short History (Jacana, 2015): 

“The Act contained a number of presumptions which ‘substantially eased the ordinary burden of proof upon the State’, in that, unless the accused could prove otherwise, he or she was presumed to have dealt in dagga. For example, anyone found in possession of dagga in excess of four ounces, or 115 grams, was presumed to be a dealer.

Anyone associated with dagga or found in its vicinity was presumed guilty, even if they were simply a passenger on the same bus where dagga was found; or if they were the manager of a venue who, suspecting that others on the premises might be in possession of dagga, failed to report these suspicions to the police. A first conviction in the latter case carried a mandatory prison sentence of from five to 15 years and a second or subsequent conviction of from 10 to 25 years — the same punishment, in other words, as a conviction for dealing in dagga.”

All that now done away with, how then does the dagga user enjoy dagga? Not easily, it would appear. 

Firstly, use must take place in “private”. This does not necessarily mean (forgive me) “zolitary” confinement; a private place is defined as “any place, including a building, house, room, shed, hut, tent, mobile home, caravan, boat or land or any portion thereof, to which the public does not have access as of right”. 

That said, you may not smoke dagga near an open window in this private place. Or near a “ventilation inlet”. Or near a door. Or in the presence of a “non-consenting adult”. Your busybody neighbour can still report you to the police if the prying bastard catches a whiff of anything. Should successful prosecution follow (never mind the inconvenience of a raid by the clod Plod), you’d be guilty of an offence which carries a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment or a fine, or both. You’re liable to a four-year sentence if you use dagga near children. The little darlings are, however, permitted to help you plant and cultivate your dagga crop.

Which brings us to another potential problem. The overwhelming majority of users are not going to grow their own dagga. It’s a hassle, and practically impossible for flat dwellers. Besides, what for? There are rural folk who’ve been farming the stuff for generations, and their communities have come to depend on the fruits of their skill and expertise. Already there are grumblings from the hills of Swaziland about the loss of livelihoods. Why make matters worse?

The bill outlaws any form of dealing in dagga, and sets a maximin prison term of 15 year for such an offence. It is permissible, however, for users to “gift” one another up to 100 grams of smokeable cannabis, 30 seeds or seedlings dealing (or a combination of the two) and one flowering plant. 

I’m not sure how your local merchant would react to such an arrangement; perhaps he could sell you the zip-loc bank bag for R250 or so — nothing illegal in that — and then generously include the dope gratis, as a bonsella. One thing is certain, though. Dealers will be relived that regulated trade in cannabis remains out of the question as far as government is concerned.

A bodice-ripper 

It is could well be that, at this very minute, scriptwriters are knocking out an award-winning R-rated TV series based on the life and times of sex machine Malusi Gigaba, who, as a cabinet minister, royally screwed up every portfolio in his remit, be it home affairs, finance or public enterprises. And then did much the same in his private life.

Here would be binge-watching catnip, whether locked down or not, and a show certain to out-sizzle such hit series as Scandal and The Affair in the blouse action department. Never mind the orgasms, this is organogram territory, such are the romantic entanglements in the Gig’s gig. Our protagonist may even take some time out from himself to love up suitably orbed mistresses. There have certainly been enough of them around, if his current domestic difficulties are an indication of anything.

But infidelity alone is not enough to give smut “class”. It was to be swanked up with loads of designer clothes and all the other stylish trappings of the modern high-flyer. Thank heavens, then, that the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture is providing all the necessary tropes: bags of cash in the trunks of limos, bodyguards sworn to secrecy, exotic locations, powerful business types, mysterious deals thrashed out in the dead of night up atthe mansion on the hill, etc. 

All it needs is a title. My thinking is African Pride, after the upmarket Melrose Arch, Johannesburg hotel that has featured in much of the testimony before the commission. It has a certain irony that may be lost on some, but the hotel does appear to be, and with apologies to Somerset Maugham, a brightly lit place for shady people.

Up with voetsek

The impact of the #VoetsekANC social media campaign, as Helen Zille noted in these columns on Tuesday, suggests a reinvigorated hostility towards the ruling criminal enterprise. The people are indeed gatvol. And yes, we know it’s not for the first time, but this doesn’t appear to be the same old, same old. The self-enrichment by the politically connected during the coronavirus emergency seems too squalid a business to just simply disappear. As Zille notes, the looting of Covid relief funds by the ANC’s cronies is the last straw for many South Africans.

At the start of the week, for example, the tiny transport minister, Fikile Mbalula, greeted his Twitter followers: “Good morning twittermantarians happy monday God bless”. His cheery tweet met with a terse, but scathing response as hundreds replied “#VoetsekANC”. It was so startling that the writer Darrel Bristow-Bovey was moved to comment, “I know it's only a little twerp like Mbalula, but the comments to this tweet would make me a little uneasy if I were a government who cared what people think.”

A handful of the minister’s supporters came to his defence, suggesting Zimbabweans and Nigerians were to blame for much of the country’s problems. Were they not foreign? And they were sabotaging the railways, were they not? This idiocy was swiftly dealt with and thereafter the #VoetsekANC deluge continued until the afternoon when tweeters began asking Mbalula about electricity shortages and the other problems with various state-owned entities.

I can’t pretend to be unhappy about all this. It is good that, in terms of invective, “voetsek” should scale the socio-auditory heights to brashly command a space in the national debate. This, after all, is an era of great vulgarity, and while there are cruder dismissals we may level at the government, this one fits the bill, being readily understood not only in all eleven official languages but apparently even by animals.

According to Jean Branford and William Branford’s A Dictionary of South African English (Oxford University Press, 1991), this “rough command to be off” may have been with us for about two centuries or so. They cite an early example of its usage in the Scottish soldier and traveller Sir James Edward Alexander’s awkwardly-titled memoir, Narrative of a Voyage of Observation Among the Colonies of Western Africa in the Flag Ship Thalia and of a Campaign in Kaffir-land on the Staff of the Commander-in-chief in 1835 (London, 1837): “Dogs attacked us as we approached; but on the cry of ‘voortzuk!’ from the master, followed by a stone, they left us.” If only it were as easy to rid ourselves of troublesome politicians and other pests. 

No discussion of voetsek culture is complete without mention of Zebulon Dread, the alter-ego of Bonteheuwel cultural guerrilla Elliot Josephs. In the late 1990s, he roamed the then trendy tourist spots along Cape Town’s “cockroach belt” from Greenmarket Square to Observatory. A large dreadlocked man in a voluminous muumuu, he’d urge young foreign visitors to become patrons of the arts — mainly his. “Buy this!” he’d say, thrusting a copy of his self-produced magazine, Hei Voetsek!, into their hands.

It was difficult to ignore such a direct sales pitch, but God knows what punters made of Hei Voetsek!, a punk-styled rag consisting entirely of Dread’s attacks on the cant and hypocrisy of the Rainbow Nation™. Every page was a monument to a furious iconoclasm, seething with unfiltered indignation at the conservatism of the New South African narrative. Nothing was taboo, as the cover-line on an early edition indicated: “Swart Gevaar!! Baas Kaffir Messias van Kak Praat.” 

Tasteless as all this was, Hei Voetsek! was nevertheless a genuine howl of rage from the Cape Flats underground, and Dread remained true to his vision until the furore over the edition he peddled at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in 2001. Its NSFW cover, which can be seen here, featured a montage of a naked Dread stepping over Table Mountain like a rampaging Godzilla with a penis so enormous that it had to be borne aloft by helicopters. The accompanying headline, too extreme to repeat here, could be described as an appeal that Cape Town drop the conceit that it is a European city.

The issue did not go down too well with festival goers, and a disgruntled Dread opted to voetsek from the cultural scene himself. But not before writing on his KKNK experiences in the Mail & Guardian: “I wanted to make them laugh by using their own language with such succinct and lyrical nuance that they would stand awed by this kaffir who spoke Afrikaans better than most of them could ever dream of. They stood, awed and amazed, by this obese, flatulent and bombastic Hotnot…” 

It got worse, much worse — so much so that the M&G later apologised for publishing Dread’s rant, and withdrew it from its website. In 2002, Josephs announced that his creation would be committing “ritual suicide”. As he put it, “I am going to give up the ghost of my alter-ego, Zebulon Dread, and depart for India in order to find the happiness that the liberation struggle failed to deliver.” However, the time may now be right for a return to public life.

Not a hill we want to die on, #1

Marks & Spencer has been accused of racism for naming one of its padded bras “tobacco”. Customer Kusi Kimani, 29, a pharmaceutical clinical trials manager, came across the item while browsing the UK retailer’s website. She told the Mirror Online this was “about two weeks after George Floyd’s death” and it was “particularly raw” to see the label because of its negative associations:

“Why not call it cocoa, caramel or chocolate — sweet dessert items? But they used tobacco. I was shocked when I saw it. It’s hurtful to me and my friends. If a young girl who is already uncomfortable with the colour of her skin (sees it) she will be feeling even more alienated. Each week that website is showing that racism is another week a young girl may come across it and feel bad for the rest of her life. To see that ‘tobacco’ is for their skin tone will make them feel unwanted by society. Tobacco is referred to in society as bad, unhealthy, and highly likely to kill — ‘smoking kills’. This is an example of how bias is ingrained into society and only helps fuel racism, be it overt or covert, however in this instance this is a form of covert racism.”

Two lighter-coloured versions of the same bra are labelled “cinnamon” and “fudge”. Naming underwear after “sweet dessert items” may also be wrong, as this “normalises” the foodstuffs fuelling the British obesity epidemic that Boris Johnson is allegedly determined to conquer. The prime minister suggests bicycles might help but, as my wife tells me, they offer very poor support. 

Perhaps Black Lives Matter, which had emboldened Kimani to make her stand, might consider a campaign to have lingerie named after suitably revolutionary women. Here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), we imagine the Winnie being a lacy teddy and the Lillian a pair of large bloomers. The Clarice, meanwhile, could be a girdle of sorts modelled after a straitjacket. Such an item may even be a best seller. There are, I’m told, private clubs in London where gentlemen pay a premium to wear such restraining garments and be scolded by stern women in shiny boots.