/ 8 February 2023

Apartheid’s religious fanaticism still burns cannabis users

On September 18 2018
There are tens of thousands of South Africans carrying a dagga possession criminal record since the 2018 decriminalisation

The magistrate was aghast after learning the charges against the four white South African Defence Force apartheid conscripts standing in a Pretoria courtroom dock. 

The chain-ganged soldiers had shuffled from the cells shabbily dressed in “civvies”, rather than their State President Guard uniform, allowing a crime to slowly unfurl before a horrified court.  

The SADF unit in 1982 was tasked with pomp, ceremony and guard duties for the apartheid state’s last ceremonial president, Marais Viljoen. Prime minister PW Botha two years later devoured the office, and vanity’s fetishes, into an executive presidency through white-minority consent and complicity.

When the magistrate, assorted court officials and the public gallery joined the dots from the “troopies” confessing their unit to the clerk announcing the charge of “dagga use”, there was a collective “sharp intake of breath”, Lucky Duck*, one of the accused, said. 

Cannabis through the lens of the apartheid state’s security machinery, oiled by a Jesus cult, was the canary in the coal mine for Satanists and those holding left-wing political views and by default support for the-then banned ANC and the communists.

That the recreational drug had inveigled herself into the presidential guard coalesced into a question the magistrate was unlikely contemplating while commuting for daily judgment.

“You guard our State President when you are stoned?” the magistrate interrogated. “He was completely revved,” Lucky Duck said.

If truth be told — and it wasn’t to the magistrate — at least half of his platoon partook in the holy herb.  

“Smoking weed” during white conscription’s two stolen years was like novelist Bruce Chatwin’s Dahomey altar boys “scampering (from the church) for the sunlight” whether it was being goofed on shifts during around-the-clock guard duties at the Tuynhuys presidency residence in Cape Town, or marking time at Pretoria’s military garrison Voortrekkerhoogte — since renamed Thaba Tshwane.

Lucky Duck recalled sparking-up rituals to break the army’s “hurry-up and wait” humdrum and often brazenly. “It was pre-or-post roll call. There were 16 of the 32 in a platoon sitting in a circle and passing a pipe around. It was quite a normal thing in that platoon.”

“I think you can deduce from that there’s not going to be much automatic expungement … There are no consequences for the failure by SAPS to expunge automatically”

Before the constitutional court decriminalised cannabis for private use, cultivation and possession in September 2018, criminal convictions were arbitrary for South Africa’s second-most popular recreational drug after alcohol. 

Dagga use and possession was the low-hanging fruit to pad police crime statistics for the modern-day Peloponnesian War. Cannabis busts could emanate from a bitter work colleague, pious neighbours or encountering that rare police breed that is unplayable with a backhander. 

Apartheid and post-apartheid demographics dictated the terms of cannabis possession convictions. The low-income legions fed to the prisons’ Numbers gangs. Those with means walking away with a suspended sentence and a fine that was a bargain compared to the lawyer’s fees. Equality before the law was salvaged by saddling each with a criminal record. 

By conservative estimates, there are tens of thousands of South Africans carrying a dagga possession criminal record — borne on the cross of old white men’s unscientific religious fervour — that constrains freedom of movement and cripples work prospects for possessing a non-fatal recreational drug sourced from a female plant’s flower. 

The Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, once enacted and having already spiralled more than two years past its prescribed constitutional court deadline, proposes “automatic expungement” of all cannabis possession criminal records under Section 8. 

The bill’s architects have, however, incorporated a “sneaky” rider pandering to the South African Police Services’ “lack of appetite or capacity” to “obliterate” dagga convictions, Simon Delaney, a lawyer specialising in cannabis offences, said. Ultimate responsibility rests on the cannabis outcasts to scrub clean their criminal record. 

“I think you can deduce from that there’s not going to be much automatic expungement. There is no deadline for it (in the bill). There are no consequences for the failure by SAPS to expunge automatically,” Delaney said. 

There are also those unaware of having a criminal file at the SAPS’ Pretoria Criminal Record Centre and whose lives are unknowingly sabotaged applying for visas and jobs and “my sense is that it happens a lot,” Delaney said.

(John McCann/M&G)

It might entail paying a R500 fine “without (the person) going before a magistrate or a judge and not realising that the admission of guilt results in a conviction”.

“It’s up to the government to clean up their act, expunge and scrub out all those offences, instead of leaving it to individuals,” Delaney said. 

Before Dagga Day — 18 September 2018 — there was near-zero legal tolerance for possession of any recreational quantities. Lucky Duck and the three other conscripts were bundled from the Pretoria barracks into a Datsun 120Y by three plain clothes detectives for red eyes, a pipe and a pile of ash.

The bill offers greater tolerance towards cannabis use, but not acceptance, like other prejudices and bigotries that are not equalised by the stroke of a pen. 

While there are no legal limits attached to alcohol possession — from a wine snobs’ cellar to an alcohol survivalist stashing booze in the garage fearing another outbreak of minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s temperance — stoners are judged differently. 

The bill imposes arbitrary limits for cannabis possession amounts to drawing a line in water between a user and dealer. 

“In the minds of the police, and in some respects the public that has not read the (court) judgment, they seem to think that X number of grams means dealing, which is not the case,” but it has not prevented convictions for “dealing” since the 2018 ruling, Delaney said.

The bill’s random rationing keeps the cannabis conviction hamster wheel spinning and its legacies of criminal records’ life-changing curve-balls.

Lucky Duck was fortunate and with his two teenage comrades sentenced to four lashes as juvenile delinquents and escaped a criminal record. Smoking Rivers* was over 21 years old and handed a three-month jail term suspended for a year, as well as a criminal record. 

It’s as exceptional as an incarcerated corporate grifter, but on occasion, a dagga bust can be the joker in the pack. 

The four conscripts returned to the unit facing AWOL charges after the military was unaware of the Sunday afternoon police snatch. Their water-tight alibis of a week in Pretoria Central prison did no favours. Disowned in shame by the president’s guard, they were shipped off to “The Border War” for their final year.

Arriving without orders in the South West Africa (Namibia) town of Oshakati — the operational base for apartheid’s Angolan proxy war — they  carved out “cushy jobs”. Lucky Duck and The Duke* staffed an NCO bar.  

“I had my own Land Rover. I had a dog. I lived in the back of a pub with a fan. I was not a drinker then. I drank a lot of Fanta,” Lucky Duck said.

Smoking Rivers tried his hand in futile propaganda leaflets, while Joe Giggles* was “the map pin guy” tracking the bush war in the Sector One Zero war room, “hanging out with the generals”. 

Their cannabis-inspired redeployment skipped the president guard’s three-month operations as mortar teams in Angola’s killing fields, which “was pretty cool for the four of us”, Lucky Duck said. 

*Names have been changed

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.