The ongoing decline of Swaziland’s economy has left many people with no livelihood other than subsistence farming - including the growing of cannabis. But cultivation of “Swazi Gold” - as it’s known to weed enthusiasts - is still barely keeping households afloat.
By global standards, Swaziland’s marijuana cultivation is nowhere near the levels seen in major cultivation countries, such as Afghanistan, Morocco or even neighbouring South Africa. But according to Andreas Zeidler, regional spokesperson for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), although there are no official figures and the geographic area under cultivation is relatively small, the amount of marijuana being grown in the kingdom is “not insignificant in the region”.
While Swazi Gold is known globally for its high quality, most of it ends up on the domestic market and in South Africa where a small packet sells for US$2 on the streets. The real money is in export further afield - the best quality cannabis is often earmarked for compression into one or two kilogram blocks that are smuggled via South Africa and Mozambique to Europe.
The relatively easy money of marijuana cultivation is enticing more unemployed and poor people, despite the fact that it is illegal. It is mostly used to support the immediate needs of households, particularly in remote areas of the country where access to services is difficult and expensive, and where markets for other cash crops are far away.
Maize production in the country has been declining steadily for the past decade, which has led to persistent food insecurity. But Swaziland has a climate and soil which allows for several harvests of cannabis per year. The government, however, is not considering legalizing marijuana and has not looked into whether cannabis, or hemp, has the potential to become an economically viable crop. Despite the large amounts of marijuana - ‘insangu’ in the Swazi language - produced, few of these farmers get rich off the business, as the wholesalers who transport the product to urban areas pay them a tiny fraction of the street value.
Andrew Dlamini, the 27-year-old nephew of marijuana farmer Clearance Dlamini, says no Swazi farmer has ever gotten rich from marijuana cultivation, no matter how much is grown. It is merely one way to earn cash in the impoverished mountainous areas. “It doesn’t pay to grow insangu for Swazis. You make more selling avocados, or even eggs,” he said.
For Gogo (“Granny”) Thwala, 75, cannabis cultivation is a matter of survival. Sale of the weed, which grows abundantly around her mud-and-stick house, means she can buy food for herself and the six grandchildren who live with her.
“I am too old to grow food. We did when my husband was alive and my children were here. Two of my three children passed on, and I look after their children. Two of them are too small to work the fields, and the other four are in school,” Thwala told IRIN.
She receives the usual pension for older Swazis provided by the government, which is $15 a month. However, the government sometimes fails to pay pensioners even this amount. Like 70 percent of Swazis, Thwala lives on communal land under a chief. She and her family live in chronic poverty, as do two-thirds of Swazis, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Her grandchildren do not need to do much to maintain the homestead’s marijuana garden, which stretches spottily between maize plants, trees and boulders over a half-acre plot. Some cannabis plants grow over 2m high along the sloping hill directly behind her hut. Larger marijuana fields belonging to neighbours are cultivated in the crevices of surrounding mountains, making them more difficult to detect on the rare occasions when law enforcers take inspection tours.
Once the marijuana - also known locally as ‘dagga’ - has matured, her elder grandchildren cut the plants down and tie them into bundles. Buyers from South Africa arrive every two weeks. There is no standard payment; Thwala is happy to receive whatever she is offered. However, Dlamini said a bushel of marijuana could fetch a few hundred rand, and very few people receive more than $100 dollars from a drug dealer.
Facing arrest is not something she worries about. “The police came, and I told them that I am an old woman and I cannot look after my garden. These dagga weeds, they grow just anywhere, and how can I control them?” she said.
Many Swazis find it difficult to understand why the state would spend so much money on policing and destroying cannabis when the plant, which is indigenous, has been used for centuries.
Enforcing the law
In a report on drug strategies in Southern Africa, the Institute of Security Studies notes that transnational drug trafficking networks are “firmly entrenched at both the local and inter-regional levels... “Local crime networks run domestic distribution of cannabis and some harder drugs, while foreign nationals ensure the smooth distribution and transhipment of both soft and hard drugs to regional and international markets. Corruption of police, airport security, customs officials and some politicians ensures that the majority of consignments pass undetected across borders.”
In addition, interception efforts, drug seizures and interdiction at national borders have shown limited or low success rates, the report found, as “the focus of law enforcement authorities has been on the low-level dealers, consumers and couriers, who are easily replaced with new recruits".
“Swaziland is signatory to international drug accords, and we have to discourage the trafficking of drugs grown in Swaziland from crossing the border,” said a source at the Ministry of Justice.
According to the Royal Swaziland Police Department, an ongoing operation destroys marijuana grown for commercial purposes. Recently, marijuana valued at nearly $1 million was burned in a police operation.
But the nature of the cultivation, which happens mostly in remote and hard-to-access areas, makes eradication of the crops very expensive and requires a lot of capacity, “which is not sufficiently available to the Swazi law-enforcement agencies”, noted UNODC’s Zeidler.
“However, when it comes to intercepting the trafficking of the produce within Swaziland and at the borders, the Swazi police [department] does have capacity and regularly seizes large amounts and arrests suspected traffickers. Certainly, capacity in this regard could benefit from additional resources to further improve the law-enforcement response,” he added.