DAGGA, Cannabis or Marijuana is making a comeback in the Namibian household after earlier societies in pre-colonial South-West Africa, the Nama of the deep South and the Berg Damara of Erongo, criminalized and banned the cultivation, trade and smoking of the plant to prevent “several social ills” as far back as nearly 200-years ago.
The 2nd Court appearance later this week of the president of the Ganja Users Association of Namibia (GUN), Brian Jaftha, on dagga related charges will mark 170-years since the “Bethanie Statutes” in 1849 declared the production, sale and smoking of Marijuana illegal for the first time, by consensus of the community.
Marijuana, also known as dagga or Ganja, was elevated by debates on social media platforms after a Swakopmund woman spent a few days in the police cells for cultivating dagga, which she said was for medicinal purposes and mainly to be used as a painkiller for her ailing husband. It sparked a heated public debate on social media platforms and was instrumental in the founding of the Ganja Users Association (GUN) with just more than a dozen members. The public opinion still weighs on the side of cannabis as illegal in Namibia and the police have recorded huge successes the past few months.
The GUN formation was quickly followed up by activists and the sole representative of Swanu, Tangeni Iijambo, requesting the National Assembly to legalize cannabis as it is “violating the fundamental rights of Namibians.”
The Namibian Minister of Justice, Sackey Shangala, said that Namibia is not ready for the challenge to manage the devastating effects that dagga can have on society.
The President of Namibia, Dr Hage Geingob, in replying to some of the pro-dagga lobby activists, said he is “not convinced” that the drug should be legalized.
Noteworthy is that the Nama-community of 1849 who settled at the fountain and abundant waters of Bethanie, did not have doubts of its effects on their community, and banning dagga was the second law which the community adopted after confirming the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for pre-mediated murder.
The Nama of Berseba who were related to the Bethanie-group quickly adopted the same laws, followed by the Swartboois of Rehoboth.
Historians and early missionaries agreed that the fact that the three earliest tribes of the South were governed by the same laws had the effect of bringing them closer together in times of peace and war. It can be argued that the love affair of Namibians with constitutions started at the fountains of Bethanie and a few years earlier at Warmbad in the deepest South.
Social media activists and self-styled civil society groups – varying from a handful to a few dozen supporters and members – forwarded the de-criminalizing of marijuana laws in South Africa as one of the strongest arguments by the lobbyists to unban the use and cultivation of the controversial plant that has modern science at loggerheads for nearly a century.
The economic advantages of dagga production was pushed on the agenda before and during the 2014 election with a Namibian and Chinese partnership getting permission to de-bush 10 000 ha of pristine forest in the ecological sensitive Zambezi-region for a dagga and Tabaco plantation, with parts of the super-farm also to be used to produce vegetables.
The historic record shows that the arid and fountain rich areas of Betanie, the Swakop Riverbed, Erongo- and Paresis mountains of Kunene were the motherlode of dagga production.
With a decade-long inconclusive international scientific debate raging over the medicinal properties and the difference between smoking dagga regularly or the use of cannabis oil and other chemical components extracted from the plant for medicinal properties, Jaftha indicated that his defence will rest on human rights and his right to privacy when he appears before a Windhoek magistrate.
In August 1849 — 170 years ago — Jaftha would have appeared before the Chief of Bethanie, two intelligent men appointed as judges by the Chief and the Nama Chief himself as president.
The main reason for the banning of dagga by the Southern tribes who did not have the advantage of science, was reduced productivity and neglect of food production, the abandonment of duties to look after cattle, sheep and goats and no interest in the growing of vegetables and other food, since dagga had turned into a too lucrative crop, with the abuse being rampant.
However, cannabis had a much longer history. The Berg Damaras of Paresisberg regularly traded with the tribes of the Aavambo from whom they got cows, goats, copper and iron that was exchanged for dagga which was grown in the riverbed of the area that is today mostly known as Erongo.
Dagga could be smoked or changed into cakes as a form of exchange or tribute.
Dagga plantations on the banks of the Swakop River from Okahandja to the coast were also uprooted by communities when news of the Bethanie statutes reached them and missionaries who were travelling amongst communities to spread the news.
Communities reacted because what they termed as lucrative in trade, became devastating on self-reliance, and according to the community that was debating the dagga-issue amongst themselves for more than a year from 1848 to 1849, dagga had an “array of other negative social effects.” This forced them to adopt the new laws on the 24th and 25th August 1849 at Bethanie.
The Bethanie statute, also known as the “Reichsbuch” is believed to be still in existence, while many of the tribes and sub-tribes of the Nama-communities of the South are still following some of the rules.
According to various sources a copy of the statutes is still kept at the Namibian Parliament Building in the Tintenpalast (ink-palace).
Sources: South West Africa in Early Times.(H. Vedder), a Concise History of the Rehoboth Basters (Rudolph Britz, Harmuth Lang and Cornelia Limpricht,) Informante facebook news items February to August), Official crime reports from Namibian Police, Picture compiled of historic Schmelen House in Bethanie near the famous gardens. The building once believed to be the oldest building in Namibia has since lost its status to a house in Warmbad. The dagga image and the picture of the accused Jaftha of (Gun) is just to add to the picture of a development of close than two centuries and in a time where science nor social media was available and pioneers of the country had to be guided by their own communities and their experiences of good or bad.