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Points Interview: Cannabis and control in South Africa with Thembisa Waetjen

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Today’s post features an interview with Thembisa Waetjen, a professor at the University of Johannesberg. She is a historian focusing on South Africa, who looks at twentieth century South African political and social history, with two main interests: medical humanities in South Africa and transnational Indian Ocean histories.

Thembisa recently authored ‘Apartheid’s 1971 Drug Law: Between Cannabis and Control in South Africa‘ in the upcoming Fall 2022 issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. Find out more about Thembisa’s background, article and future research plans in this interview.

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself

With Maziyar Giabi, I’ve guest-edited the recent SHAD Special Issue titled “In and Beyond the Colony/Writing Drugs from the South.”

I’m a historian at the University of Johannesburg. I’m from beautiful California but have called beautiful South Africa home since around 2002.

What got you interested in the history of alcohol, pharmacy, drugs, or pharmaceuticals?

My Durban colleague and dear friend Julie Parle drew me into a ‘Pharmaceutical Modernities’ partnership, in which thalidomide and opium inspired a kind of Thelma and Louise road trip, but with archives instead of Brad Pitt (and with a different ending). Our journey, all over South Africa, found us in labyrinthine title deed offices, village newspaper backrooms, at seaside quays and derelict railway stations, photographing elderly patent medicine bottles, and talking with locals everywhere, to help map out flows. We encountered a historical cast of characters that included Nazi-sympathising sales reps; housewife opium ‘den’ operators; African chiefs paid for pink pill testimonials; opportunistic pharmacists, lascars and gold miners; and a variety of farmers, missionaries, tourists, soldiers and parents.

The focus on two very different ‘drugs’ got us thinking in new ways about the South African past.

What motivated you to write this article specifically.

So much has been written about apartheid in South Africa. I wanted to know what light ‘drugs’ could shed on the more well-known aspects of this history.

I also wanted to bring this particular history to bear on the current cannabis politics unfolding in South Africa. There is triumphalism in some circles about cannabis liberalisation. But realities of everyday narcopolitics in the South, in relation to inequality and global capitalism, really must give pause. There’s not been sufficient discussion about, let alone reparations for, the longstanding national war on drugs here – a war that continued after apartheid formally ended.

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

Well, here’s a question: When is a bartender a political terrorist?

In 1971, the South African government passed a drug law which incorporated extraordinary measures from anti-terrorism laws (used earlier against anti-apartheid activists). Such provisions included detention without trial and harsh minimum prison sentences – and an amendment that quickly removed court discretion in sentencing. White drug-using youth, argued the law’s authors, threatened the future of the white nation, and drugs were a ‘terrorism’ creeping into homes and schools.

Among many targets of suspicion, the media hyped how club owners and people pouring the drinks in Joburg’s all-white night clubs were supplying Mandrax, LSD and cannabis. But whether in urban or rural settings, or among university students or migrants under contract to the gold mines, arrest for possession of even tiny amounts of a prohibited substance could mean an indefinite period of interrogation and/or years of prison. Tens of thousands of people were incarcerated under the 1971 law, overwhelmingly Black and overwhelmingly for cannabis. Apartheid’s drug law leveraged the state’s political control, through drug raids, surveillance and prison. Also, if arrested and facing draconian punishment, a person might be offered a “deal” – freedom, in exchange for spying for apartheid’s police.

Any key takeaways or other points to make?

Yes, because my bartender just got the part of the story that won’t hugely surprise anyone and that seems to confirm widely-held ideas about South African exceptionalism.

But the unfolding contingencies of this history matter for offering a more complicated picture. One point is that the policies of apartheid itself – namely its entrenchment of colonial segregation and indirect rule – manufactured the very conditions and economic incentives in which an illegal robust cannabis economy could develop and thrive. Adjacent to its race-based, spatial engineering, the government’s drug control rationales (which mirrored those of the Western governments it emulated, and were in most ways far from exceptional) introduced a contradictory and deeply consequential dynamic. It was this that defined the peculiarities of South Africa’s war on drugs, fuelling its violence and increasing militarization. This structural paradox of drug control also helps to explain why the drug war did not end in 1994 with liberation and a new democracy.

South Africa’s landscape and languages reveal its layered histories of intoxicants.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Just that I’m really excited by the collection of articles gathered up in “In and Beyond the Colony”. They are diverse in their approaches and in the archives they draw on, and in different ways demonstrate the importance of language and diverse cultural vocabularies for resituating knowledge in the field.


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