Dagga in South Africa


Source of supply
Mode of use
Type of consumer


Author: John Mitchell Watt
Pages: 9 to 14
Creation Date: 1961/01/01

Dagga in South Africa

E.D., M.B., Ch.B., F.R.C.P.E., F.R.S.E., F.R.S.S.Af. John Mitchell Watt Emeritus Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, now attached to the South African Institute for Medical Research, Johannesburg


Cannabis sativa L. is known as dagga in South Africa and is not referred to as hashish, hemp, Indian hemp or marihuana. The name dagga is derived from the Hottentot word dacha, a name which was in common use in the earlier years of the European settlement at the Cape. The term has been a confusing one, for it refers not only to true dagga - namely, Cannabis sativa - but also to various species of Leonotis, the leaf of which bears a superficial resemblance to that of Cannabis. The name dagga is always, however, qualified when it is used in reference to Leonotis, thus: klipdagga, knopdagga, knoppiesdagga, red dagga, rooidagga and wildedagga (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk).

In earlier legislation and in regulations based thereon, the term intsangu is used. This is derived from the Swati and Zulu names. In South Africa the African names are: Xhosa, umya; Sotho, matakwane, matokwane, matekwane, mmoana; Swati, isangu; Zulu, nsangu (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk). The names sunnhemp and sunnhenep refer to Crotolaria juncea L.

Although the opinion has been expressed that Cannabis sativa is indigenous to South Africa, this is not really so. The plant may have been introduced by the early travellers circumnavigating the Cape from the east. Burton (1876) expresses the opinion that the plant was introduced into Africa by the Arab. It is probable, however, that it was introduced to the Cape by the Javanese slaves, and de Almeida (1930) suggests that it was introduced into Mozambique from India. This is supported by du Chaillou (1861) who found Cannabis sativa under careful cultivation among the Bakalai in the basin of the Ogawe. He said that he had never encountered the plant growing in a wild state. He is of the opinion that the plant owes its introduction into Africa either to the Arab or the Hindu. Walton (1953) says that "the habit of smoking dagga, Cannabis sativa, was introduced into Southern Africa by the very first waves of Bantu invaders from the north and dagga pipe bowls of stone or earthenware have been found in association with early Bantu settlements in Southern Rhodesia, the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, Basutoland, the Cape Province and Natal."

It is certain that the plant does not grow spontaneously in southern Africa and that it .has not even established itself as an escape in the way that so many alien plants have done in South Africa. Cannabis is always cultivated, albeit surreptitiously, and the cultivator is usually Bantu. The trade in the material is in the hands of both European and Bantu and possibly, to a less extent, in those of the Indian and the coloured. Some idea of the magnitude of this traffic is revealed by the quantity of dagga confiscated and destroyed by the police during 1954 and 1955 - namely, 2,515,563 lb and 2,757,965 lb respectively ( Star, 23.III.56).


Bantu ox-horn dagga pipe with stone bowl. (From the author's collection.)

Full size image: 49 kB, FIGURE 1


Another pattern of Bantu ox-horn dagga pipe. (From the author's collection.)

Full size image: 39 kB, FIGURE 2

Source of supply

The supply of dagga is thus not from wild, but from cultivated plants, which are grown for no other purpose than for sale to cannabis habitués. Cannabis is not grown in South Africa as a source of fibre, achene or oil, or as a medicinal plant.

The distribution is by motor-car, the material being shifted long distances with great celerity. Consignments are often discovered at the source in the rural areas. This is well illustrated by the following episode reported in the Rand Daily Mail (1938). A police constable on patrol on horseback in the Wolkberg, near Haenertsburg, was advised that a motorcar with covered number plates and driven by an, African had passed shortly before. His suspicions aroused, he obtained the loan of a motor-car from a farmer and the chase was on. He soon came upon an African with three maize bags full of cannabis, who stated after arrest that he was waiting for a motor-car to take delivery. The constable continued the chase and came upon the other motor-car. It proved to be from Alexandra township on the border of Johannesburg municipal area. The car contained nine bags of dagga weighing 385 lb.


Various packings of dagga: (a) 2" long; (b) 3" long; (c) 8" long. (From the author's collection.)

Full size image: 37 kB, FIGURE 3

A b c

Sometimes the trafficker is more fortunate and reaches a point nearer his goal before interception. A special section of the police is unrelentlessly on the qui vive and often intercepts consignments close to the point of delivery. None the less, many consignments get through and are soon packed for distribution. The police also make organized raids in country districts where the growing of cannabis is suspected. This produces a marked effect on the quantity of cannabis available for marketing. For example, in 1956 Colonel van Heerden, Deputy Commissioner of Police in Pietermaritzburg, reported that the police dagga squad had recovered, in the Bergville area, nine tons of dagga from twenty-nine fields, this resulting in wholesale destruction of further dagga by the local African inhabitants to avoid trouble ( Star, 1956).

As far as the African is concerned, the vendor is one of his own kind, an apparently innocuous man, who may be in employment and acting as a go-between as a side-line. He may earn his living solely as a dagga vendor. The sale is at street corners, in bus queues, in the service entrances to large buildings and from the servants' quarters in apartment blocks and private residences. Among the Europeans, often youngsters, distribution is by Europeans as a rule.

Dagga is regarded by the Bantu as more desirable if it contains the seed. All the many specimens which I have seen have been of this nature.

Mode of use

Cannabis is always smoked in southern Africa, and there is no evidence of its having been taken by the mouth. On account of the fear of detection, the use of the older-fashioned pipes, such as I illustrate, has become rare except under suitable circumstances and more particularly in country districts. The older primitive pipes have been superseded chiefly by dagga cigarettes, but also to some extent by pipes made from medicine bottles and milk containers. The latter are smoked through water in the same way as were the Older patterns. Ordinary cigarettes are also filled with dagga by removing the tobacco and replacing it by dagga, only the visible end or ends being plugged with tobacco. Another form of dagga cigarette consists of 50 per cent dagga and 50 per cent tobacco, wrapped in brown paper. "King size" dagga cigarettes, two inches longer than before, are now on the market ( Star, 1957).


Brick dagga made from clay and straw with a glass mouthpiece. The pattern is originally Hottentot, who used, however, a bone mouthpiece. (From the author's collection.)

Full size image: 9 kB, FIGURE 4


Bantu traveller's dagga pipe. (After Bourhill.)

Full size image: 39 kB, FIGURE 5


Dagga cigarette. Length 2? in. (From the author's collection.)

Full size image: 7 kB, FIGURE 6

Type of consumer

Not so long ago, the dagga habit was regarded as practically confined to the Bantu and the coloured. This is well illustrated by the table of convictions during 1948 for possessing dagga (table 1), which I reproduce from the report of the Inter-departmental Committee on the Abuse of Dagga.

Now, however, there is abundant evidence of increase in the incidence among the Europeans, especially in the larger urban areas. During 1958 the Suid-Afrikaanse Stem drew attention to the menace which dagga had become among the young folks of Johannesburg.

The late Mr. J. J. O'Connor (1955), a member of the Johannesburg City Council and a social worker, expressed the opinion that the meeting place of the youthful European indulger in dagga is the suburban tearoom and café. The surreptitious indulgement does not take place on the premises, but in some dark corner near by to which the youths repair by ones and twos to have a home-made dagga cigarette or a "drag ". Sometimes the meeting place is a cinema, but, on the slightest suspicion that they are being watched, the venue is changed. Mr. O'Connor went on to say that the dagga is sometimes bought at a house where wine is also sold, a traffic which apparently takes place on Sundays as well as weekdays.

As to the reasons for the juvenile European indulging in dagga, Mr. O'Connor, who, as a social worker, visited some 600 homes each month, said that the "dagga-smoking craze is greatly due to lack of control by parents ". He also said that" dagga is used by many youths as a toughening-up process before frequent gang skirmishes ". At this time the District Commandant of Police in Johannesburg reported that 1,370 people had been arrested for dagga offences during six months and of these only one failed to be convicted.

Mrs. Nancy Elston (1958), a voluntary worker among the youth of the southern suburbs of Johannesburg, brings out another aspect of the dagga problem among the European youth of this city. She says that the youthful adventurer into the dagga circle is attracted by others and often indulges, to begin with, out of bravado. All shapes and sizes of dagga pipe are used, even pipes with three mouthpieces. These early attempts produce a feeling of exaltation. The youthful tyro glories in the thought that he has shared dagga with others. He feels that there is a glamour about this. Mrs. Elston told me that "experienced smokers of tobacco, cigarettes or dagga cannot be bothered with fancy holders or pipes, which they consider too cumbersome ". It is apparent from my illustrations that it is easier to indulge in a surreptitious smoke, with less risk of detection, by way of a cigarette than by way of a "pipe" which cannot easily be hidden and, in any case, is recognizable on sight.

Mrs. Elston brought out a significant point in the maintenance of the dagga traffic. She says that it is "the practice of people who victimize youngsters to tell them of the danger of going insane should they be deprived of dagga. As a result young ones are scared out of their wits and will go to any length to obtain it. Naturally they are used as pawns."

Boys, known as peace makers and specially trained to counter the dagga traffic among juveniles, are said to obtain splendid results in countering the use of dagga by the European juvenile.

Although indulgement in dagga seems more prevalent among European juveniles and adolescents, there is no doubt that it is also found among more mature persons. There does not appear to be any organized availability among people of standing. The older European who indulges in dagga is usually, if not invariably, of the hobo type who has sunk in the social scale and is an alcoholic as well as a dagga habitué.

Kieser (1953), principal of Diepkloof Reformatory for Africans near Johannesburg, reports that dagga smoking is widespread among unemployed Africans. He estimates (1953) that close on 2,000,000 persons in the Union, of whom 1,200,000 are Africans, smoke dagga or trade in it.

TABLE 1Convictions during 1948 for possessing dagga

Eastern Cape
580 60 3
375 13 1,046
Western Cape
283 44 6
1,741 58 2,167
221 17 1
137 7 385
183 12
3,046 250 181 2 123 2 3,639
Transvaal (excluding Witwatersrand)
23 2 1,895 98 3
48 5 2,074
63 1 3,331 90 8 1 393 9 3,896
Orange Free State
8 1 505 61
181 4 10,044 632 202 3 2,856 94 14,016

The position in regard to the Bantu seems to have altered with progressive urbanization. Bourhill (1913) has given us one of the earliest descriptions of the incidence of dagga smoking among the Bantu, predominantly rural. He records that the African boy makes his first essays about the age of eight to ten years, and often gives up immediately because of the unpleasant effects. The more mature youth in his teens, however, smokes in parties because his fellows do so, or he does so to play "dagga games ". Bourhill observes that dagga smoking may often be discontinued at this stage, because it is apparently more of a social pleasure than a vice. If the indulgement in dagga persists into adult life, the smoker smokes to obtain the effects of dagga, much in the way of the European who drinks alcohol for its effects. In Bourhill's opinion, this more mature and seasoned type of dagga smoker has really developed a craving. He may still smoke in parties, but is often unable to work efficiently without smoking. Sudden deprivation does not apparently produce physical illness as does corresponding deprivation in the alcoholic and the narcotic addict. There is, however, some craving, associated with restlessness, bad temper and laxity in regard to his work. Continuance of the habit into older age, according to Bourhill, comes partly from force of habit and partly because the habitué feels that he can no longer do without dagga. This latter is quite possibly the case, although the craving seems to be much milder than it is in the alcoholic and the narcotic addict. There is, however, other evidence, which I shall mention later, that in the seasoned smoker there develops such a degree of weakening of his will power that he is unable to give up the habit.

I have been fortunate in having had, during 1954 and 1955, the assistance of an educated and trained Zulu woman (Mam-puru) who lived in Orlando township near Johannesburg. She has been able to make most valuable first-hand observations on dagga smokers in this township. She confirms other observers in noting that dagga smoking may be found in boys as young as ten and eleven years. She ascribes part of the cause of this to lack of parental control on account of both parents working. This results, she says, in youngsters rapidly becoming vagrants. She has found that African boys of school age have become so addicted to dagga smoking that, when they cannot find dagga, they inhale benzene and become "dead drunk" from it.

She has found that the dagga smokers, both female and male, known to her regard dagga as a source of courage. The saying among them is, "I smoke dagga to gain courage." Another saying is: "After smoking, I forget my troubles. The whole world becomes rosy." Here, then, is the essential background to the dagga habit - to get rid of inhibitions; to escape from unpleasantness and discomfort.

Mrs. Mampuru is of the opinion that there is "an inward urge among the poor classes to meet the social maladjustments with courage. Some say they need courage to face the nightly opposition from unknown foes; others courage to face poverty, to face oppression, to face domestic difficulties; others again seek courage from dagga for self defence." Courage is sought also for housebreaking and shoplifting.

Brigadier Rademeyer, in his time chief of the Union Criminal Investigation Department, has expressed the opinion that dagga plays a major part in many murders and serious assaults. He reckons that the dagga "addict" is irresponsible when under the influence of the drug and that his reactions run to aggressiveness. Lum (1949) says there is no doubt that the use of dagga precedes much of the violent crime that the police of Johannesburg and other large centres are battling to suppress. This is an opinion shared by Zonk (1956).

Mrs. Mampuru describes a woman vendor of dagga of great stature, who works under the cloak of the Zionist Church. She wears her blue robes of office when she goes to collect supplies. In addition to selling dagga, she sells brandy, her clientele consisting of African girls and boys of fourteen to eighteen years. Her excuse for engaging in this traffic is that she must make a livelihood as she is a widow. Her house is known as "Nkliziyodela ", which means" My desires rule over me to your satisfaction."

Mrs. Mampuru feels that much of the demoralization of the dagga smoker and much of his deterioration is due to alcoholic liquor. "Dagga smokers [I think she means confirmed and hardened smokers] drink heavily when their health fails. It is not ' kaffir beer' but stronger liquor which is drunk, such as: maconsana, a distilled kaffir beer; barbaton, a spiritous concoction containing many ingredients to give it a 'kick '; bo pelo bon'tenile, which means ' I'm tired of life.'"

It is commonly believed that the smoking of dagga stimulates sexual desire and capacity. Many doubt this. The Interdepartmental Committee on the Abuse of Dagga (1952) says "that in general, dagga smoking does not act as an aphrodisiac, but that on the contrary it usually has the opposite, that is, a sedative effect." In this connexion the following statement by an African addict is of great significance." Dagga makes me more cheerful in the presence of both men and women. I feel more romantic and I waste no time in making love to women when under its influence. But I would not outrage a woman. It [dagga] makes me lazy in hot weather. I do not get easily offended when I have smoked dagga."

Another African dagga smoker in Orlando says that he has no craving for it and has had periods as long as six months without indulging and with no craving. For him it is a social habit, depending for its occurrence on the company he is in. Dagga does not make him quarrelsome.

A Swati of twenty-one says that his boyhood "gang" suggested to him at the age of thirteen that smoking of dagga would give him courage. He has found also that it makes him carefree. Another Swati, age about twenty-eight, says that he has noticed that dagga smokers are firm and strong. "I started at the age of seventeen and do not think that I cannot stop ' the expensive habit '. I find that it is not good to smoke dagga, because, whenever I smoke, I become touchy and I am keen for a fight once I am challenged. I feel dangerous and disturbed by the slightest provocation. I have seen boys of my age go to jail; they fight; they rape; they drink heavily; they are senseless."

Another Swati, age about nineteen, works occasionally. His main occupation is assaults on people by night with the intention of robbing them. He is really a coward and got into wrong company at the age of fourteen. He has become a dangerous liquor and dagga addict. He smokes dagga because it makes him happy and carefree and gives him courage to defend himself from his street opponents and to stab effectively (Mampuru).

Other types are a southern Sotho, age about thirty-nine, who is a secret dagga smoker and a heavy drinker, but not during working hours. A Zulu, age about thirty-one, is a heavy drinker but not a heavy dagga smoker. He is" a quiet dagga addict, a real one ", and says "I smoke and do not disturb anybody. I never fight; in fact, where there is war you won't find me." An old African who smokes dagga five times a day is now unable to work because he suffers from fits, which his wife ascribes to witchcraft. The language he speaks, while he smokes, is "poetic in the true sense of the word ". He thinks that dagga is the only pleasure that enables him to commune with the great spirits of the past, especially Tshaka, Mpande, Dingana and Cetshwayo (Mampuru). These type records bear out the opinion of the Inter-departmental Committee of the Abuse of Dagga that dagga" affects people in different ways ".

In South Africa there is no organized scheme of treatment for dagga habitués;indeed there is no need for this. In the ordinary course of events, the dagga smoker is dealt with by the police. If detected, he is prosecuted by the police for the possession of dagga and on conviction receives a short term of imprisonment. Punishment is more severe for the large-scale trafficker. The dagga habituéwho has become really addicted and has degenerated mentally is usually admitted to an institution for the treatment of mental illness. Table 2 is compiled from the reports of the Commissioner for Mental Hygience and is after Watt & Breyer-brandwijk (1936), with additions for the years 1934 and 1935. No further figures are available. The make non-Europen readmission rate is given in table 3, from which it will be appreciated that there is a very considerable apparent rate of permanent recovery.

I have no record of the magical use of the plant among the Bantu, Hottentot, Bushman, coloured or Asiatic in southern Africa. The plant has, however, been used medicinally, and the following points are epitomized from Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (in the press). The plant is a snake-bite remedy among the Mfengu and the Hottentor. Speight (1932) is of the opinion that the plant has been used for centuries by the Hotttentot as an intozicant. Sotho women are reported as smoking cannabis t6o stupefy themselves during childbirth (Hewat, 1906). The Sotho of Basutoland administer the ground-up achene with bread or mealiepap to child during weaning (Phillips, 1917). The Xhosa use the plant in the treatment of bots in the horse. Thre is a popular misconception among the coloured of the Western Cape that the narcotic effects of dagga can be used as an external appli9cation by Europen "cancer curers" and other (Muir, 1906. 1907). In Southern Rhodesia the plant is an African remedy for malaria, blackwater fever, blood-poisoning, anthrax and dysenter, as well as being used as a war medicine.

TABLE 2. - Cannabis psychosis

Year Number admitted Dagga psychosis
  Native Coloured Asiatic Native Coloured Asiatic
1924 409 118 16 7 3 0
1925 434 124 21 14 1 2
1926 451 129 20 13 0 1
1927 498 142 18 19 2 1
1928 536 126 25 6 1 0
1929 527 146 25 17 3 0
1930 558 167 29 27 4 3
1931 452 129 31 23 2 1
1933 518 122 22 12 0 0
1934 623 149 36 8 2 1
1935 701 170 25 5 4 0
6,147 1,663 287

Male native, coloured and Asiatic first admissions to Union mental hospitals, 1924-1935

The total female dagga admissions during this period were five natives. (After Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk, South african Medical Journal, 22August 1936.)

Male non-European readmissions to Union mental hospitasl, 1924-1935

(After Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk, South Africa Medical Journal, 22, August 1936.)

TABLE 3. - Cannabis Psychosis

Number admitted
Dagga Psychosis
1924 55 1
1925 70 1
1926 71 1
1927 72 4
1928 89 8
1929 87 3
1930 109 0
1931 105 1
1932 96 1
1933 105 0
1934 97 1
1935 144 0
21 (2.0%)


  1. Cannabis sativa L. is know as dagga in South Africa.

  2. The name dagga is also applied to various species of Leonotis, but always qualified.

  3. Cannabis sativa L. is not iddigenous to south Aftica, but has been introduced from the East.

  4. Dagga is smoked in South Africa and never taken by any other route. The types of pipe used in smoking it and the packings of dagga are illustrated.

  1. The dagga trade is, for the most part, in the hands of Africans and to a less extent in those of the Europeans and the coloured. Some idea of the extent of the traffic is given.

  2. Cannabis sativa L. is surreptitiously cultivated purely for nefarious purposes.

  3. In South Africa dagga has no magical significance, but is used to some extent in indigenous medicine. It is not grown for commercial purposes.

  4. True dependence upon the drug seems relatively rare, but it is clear that much of the smoking is done to remove inhibitions and thus to facilitate the commission of crimes of violence.

  5. The evidence in my records supports the opinion of the Inter-departmental Committee on the Abuse of Dagga that dagga is not aphrodisiac, but produces the opposite effect.


ALMEIDA, A. G. DE. Bol. agric, pecuar. Mocambique 1930, vol. 1.

BOURHILL; C.J.G. M.D. thesis: University of Edinburgh, 1913.

BURTON, R.F. Two Trips to Gorilla Land and Cataracts of the Congo. London, Sampson Low, 1876

Du CHAILLOU, P.B. Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. London, John Murray, 1861

ELSTON, Mrs. Nancy. Private communication, 16.VI.58 HEWAT,

M. L. Bantu Fold Lore. Cape Town. Masked Miller, 1906.

KIESER, W.W. J. Sunday Times,19.VII.53. LUM, E.A. Farm. J., 13 August 1949.

MAMPURU, Mrs. C.L. Private communications, 1954/5.

MUIR, J.M.S. Afr. med. Rec., 1906, 4, 5. MUIR, J.M.S. Afr. med. Rec., 1907, 5, 148. O'CONNOR, J.J. Star, 26.III.55.

PHILLIPS, E.P. Ann. S. Afr. Mus. 1917, 16, 1.

RADEMEYER, Sunday Times, 19.VII.53 Rand Daily Mail, 23.IX.38.

SPEIGHT, W.L. Pharm. J., 1932, 128, 372. Star, 28.II.56. Star, 23.III.56 Star, 3.I.57. Suid-Afrikannse Stem, 15. VI.58. Union of South Africa. Report of the Inter-departmental Committee on the Abuse of Dagga.

U.G. No. 31/1952 WALTON, J. Researches of the Nasionale Museum, Bloemfontein 1953, 1,

85 WATT, J.M. & BREYER-BRANDWIJK, Maria G. S. Afr. med J. 1936,10, 57

3. WATT, J.M. & BREYER-BRANDWIJK, Maria G. The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. 2nd edition. Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone, in the press. ZHONK, January 1956.