|Abstract: This discussion paper presents the main findings of a
field study carried out by OGD on the drug situation in Southern
Africa in the summer of 1997 particularly as regards the cannabis
phenomenon in Lesotho. It does not aim to be an exhaustive study,
rather it is a preliminary survey aimed at establishing some bases
for further research. This paper was written by putting together the
information gathered during the field study (interviews with Basotho
officials, doctors and specialists of the rural milieu, members of
NGOs, a small number of cannabis growers, non-Basotho officials and
workers, and direct observation by the author), and data arising
from previous studies, most notably those carried out by the Lesotho
Highlands Development Authority
IntroductionThe Geopolitical Drug
Watch (or Observatoire Géopolitique des Drogues – OGD), an independent,
non-profit making, non-governmental organisation based in Paris, carried
out a study on the drug situation in Southern Africa in the summer of 1997
on behalf of the European Commission (1). The main aim
of this study was to provide a broad picture of illegal activities linked
to the production, trafficking and use of banned substances in the 11
countries then part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC (2)) further to
the end of the racist regime in the Republic of South Africa (RSA) in the
early 1990s. The downfall of apartheid led to peace returning to most
formerly war-torn Southern African countries. At least large-scale
military operations involving pro- and anti-apartheid forces came to a
halt, and the embargo that the international community had enforced
against the RSA was lifted. Commercial, diplomatic, and political
relations between Southern Africa and the rest of the world, which during
the conflict were low and/or carried out secretly (and mostly in breach of
UN resolutions), were normalised and the region opened up to the world.
Almost immediately, the perception in the West and in the SADC itself was
that illegal activities related to the international drug trade, including
narcotics production, transit-trafficking, consumption and
money-laundering, greatly intensified in the now more peaceful region.
Seizures carried out throughout the world and reports by local and
international authorities were at the root of the new perception which
motivated the OGD study.
As part of this study, the present writer was sent on a 7-day mission
to Lesotho, a small, mostly rural, mountainous landlocked country of about
2 million inhabitants, which is completely surrounded by South African
territory. Although it is politically an independent state, Lesotho’s
geographic location makes it very dependent on its powerful neighbour
which absorbs most of its exports. Additionally, given Lesotho’s lack of
industry, poor soil and general state of underdevelopment (it is one of
the world’s poorest countries, with a GNP per capita of US $660 in 1993 (3)), South
African mines are the largest employer of Basotho workforce.
Lesotho produces large quantities of cannabis (called "matekoane" in
Sesotho, the language spoken in Lesotho). Lesotho basically grows cannabis
in order to supply the large South African market of marijuana. Cannabis
production clearly represents one of the country’s three main sources of
hard currency, the other two being international aid and the wages sent
home by Basotho miners working in South Africa.
This discussion paper presents the main findings of the field study as
regards the cannabis phenomenon in Lesotho. It does not aim to be an
exhaustive study, rather it is a preliminary survey aimed at establishing
some bases for further research. This paper was written by putting
together the information gathered during the field study (interviews with
Basotho officials, doctors and specialists of the rural milieu, members of
NGOs, a small number of cannabis growers, non-Basotho officials and
workers, and direct observation by the author), and data arising from
previous studies, most notably those carried out by the Lesotho Highlands
Development Authority (LHDA).
There are many reasons why a study on cannabis in a Southern African
country like Lesotho is relevant (and further research a necessity).
Cannabis cultivation and use as a drug are deeply entrenched in the
region. Indeed, they are part of the culture of many southern African
ethnic groups, and archaeological evidence suggests that cannabis had has
been grown and used since before the 15th century (4). It would
seem that this tradition is now used in the setting up of a modern
commercial "agri-business" of cannabis production and sale on regional,
mostly urban, mass markets.
The largest mass market for cannabis products in the region is
undoubtedly South Africa. It seems that there exists a kind of South
African "cannabis complex" whereby some areas have specialised in
producing cannabis in order to supply the consumer markets, most notably
those in the large urban areas of Johannesburg (and Gauteng province in
general), Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, and Cape Town, Western Cape province.
Although there is little doubt that cannabis is grown throughout South
African territory, OGD has identified 5 distinct areas which seem to have
specialised in cannabis production as a significant source of income.
These are parts of the South African provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern
Cape (the former Transkei) and Northern, as well as the two small
independent states of Swaziland and Lesotho, which are in reality highly
dependent on South Africa, both politically and economically. Let us
recall by the way that the increasing specialisation of these countries’
agricultural sector in cannabis production for the South African market
reinforces their dependency vis-à-vis their powerful neighbour. Although
for want of research the reasons for the five regions’ specialisation into
cannabis production have not been studied closely enough and they may
vary, for the time being they can be ascribed to a mix of politics and
Whatever the case, the South African cannabis complex would be a
fascinating subject of research, especially in the current international
context of the "war on drugs". In this respect, it is worth reminding the
reader that the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS)
on illicit drugs, which took place on June 8-10, 1998 in New York City,
approved a 10-year program of action which included a pledge to
"drastically reduce" all illicit crops, including cannabis, by the year
2008 (5). The
present paper provides some evidence that this task will not be easily
I. Productiona) Marijuana
Most of the information on cannabis cultivation presented in this
article is based on ecological, socio-economic, and epidemiological
reports produced by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA)
prior to the construction of the large Mohale hydroelectric dam (in Maseru
and Thaba-Tseka districts) which will produce electricity for Lesotho and
provide water to Gauteng province (Johannesburg), South Africa (6). Additional
information has been gathered from interviews with six cannabis growers
(hereafter identified as "OGD-growers") whose lands in the eastern,
mountainous region of Maseru district will be flooded by the Mohale dam.
Yet the resulting data is not entirely satisfactory, since it was obtained
from a limited sample of growers living solely in the zones affected by
the construction of the dam. It cannot therefore be applied to the rest of
Lesotho. Furthermore, although cannabis cultivation is widespread in the
mountains, and although all residents of the zones in question (and the
country at large) are aware of this fact (as are all local, national and
international authorities)—in short, although cannabis production is an
open secret and enjoys de facto de-criminalisation—it nevertheless remains
a very private activity. The LHDA points out that growers are very
reticent to discuss the issue, and that it could not gain official access
to their fields in order to establish its estimates (in spite of the fact
that the LHDA is seriously considering including cannabis revenues in the
compensation plan for residents of flooded zones). This information
nevertheless provides complementary details on the situation of cannabis
crops in the country’s mountain regions which furnish, according to all
our sources, the vast majority of the national harvest.
Cannabis is grown almost everywhere in the country, even on small plots
in the capital, Maseru. However, the main growing regions are found in the
high mountain zones in the centre and east of the country, as well as in
the western foothill region. Plantations are generally situated in the
valleys of the numerous streams and rivers that drain the mountains
(including the Orange River, called Senqu River in Lesotho).
According to all sources interviewed during the field study, cannabis
production is most prevalent in the following districts:
– Berea: production occurs in the foothills and mountains located in
the east of this district.
– Mokhotlong: the eastern sector of this mountainous district (a zone
stretching east and south from the Moremoholo River Valley, and including
the district capital, Mokhotlong) is part of a region known for its
high-quality marijuana ("first grade"). This region also covers parts of
Thaba-Tseka and Qacha’s Neck districts (see below). The top-grade
marijuana is shipped to Durban in South Africa, where it is probably
marketed and exported under the name "Durban Poison" (notably to the
Netherlands). The western sector of Mokhotlong district yields marijuana
of lesser quality.
– Thaba-Tseka: whereas the mountainous western sector produces
"second-" and "third-grade" cannabis, the equally mountainous south and
east belong to the "first grade" production zone mentioned above.
– Qacha’s Neck: This basically mountainous district belongs almost
entirely to—indeed, is the heart of—the 1st Grade cannabis region. The
mountains to the west, however, apparently produce 2nd and 3rd grade
It must be noted that the names "first grade", "second grade" and
"third grade" are those used by the Basotho themselves in order to
describe the level of potency that they perceive in the various streams of
cannabis grown in Lesotho.
A long history
The first historical record of cannabis in what is now Lesotho dates
back to the sixteenth century. According to historian Stephen Gill, oral
tradition has handed down the story of a "colonising" use of marijuana by
the Koena people. The Koena group moved from the northeast of what is now
Mpumalanga province (the former Orange Free State) and settled in Lesotho
around 1550 (thereby becoming one of the ethnic components of the Basotho
group today) by "purchasing" land from San tribes (the earliest
inhabitants of South Africa, better known today as "Bushmen") in exchange
for marijuana (7). It is
nevertheless very likely that the San knew and used cannabis long before
the Koena arrived, these latter simply providing it in great quantity.
Furthermore, Gill notes that in the nineteenth century—shortly after the
bases of the Kingdom of Lesotho were firmly established by King Moshoeshoe
I and the local populations began to depend more on agriculture than on
livestock—marijuana figured among the main staples grown in Lesotho, along
with sorghum, gourds, and beans. Tobacco and corn were also grown at the
time, having been introduced by Portuguese traders from Mozambique (8).
This historical background suggests why matekoane is now one of the
seven plants most often cited by mountain dwellers for their curative and
magic qualities (9). Rural people
still use marijuana to treat ailments like heart burn, high blood
pressure, and "nerves". It is also used to rid horses and donkeys of
parasitic worms ("papisi" in Sesotho). Two of the six farmers interviewed
by the OGD also claimed to smoke marijuana in order to "get strength" and
work harder, one of them saying that it stimulated his appetite. According
to other sources questioned by the OGD (a psychiatrist and members of a
prevention/rehabilitation NGO), these two "utilitarian", or functional,
properties are ascribed to matekoane by a high proportion of users
throughout Lesotho, both urban and rural.
Cannabis therefore has a long history in Lesotho, and would even seem
to have facilitated the local settlement of some of the ancestors of the
current Basotho people. Among the most "traditional" segments of Basotho
society today (i.e., mountain dwellers), marijuana is a medicine
considered to have various virtues. But alongside this medicinal status,
the field study showed that the general public partly uses the plant for
utilitarian or recreational ends not recognised by local traditional
The rural milieu
The spread and almost universal presence of cannabis crops in every
small mountain farm—mountains occupying the largest part of Lesotho, which
is said to be the only country in the world with an altitude that never
drops below 1,000 meters—is also due to soil degradation. Rural dwellers
represented 80% of the nation’s estimated 2.1 inhabitants in 1995, but in
that same year agriculture supplied less than 15% of Lesotho’s GDP, as
compared to 25% four years earlier. The beauty of Lesotho’s mountains
should not mask the serious soil erosion. According to Gill, this erosion
accelerated in the early nineteenth century, when areas devoted to grain
crops were significantly increased, notably in the lower fields, in order
to profit from attractive prices on the international market. These fields
were left fallow less and less often, becoming poorer and poorer, while
livestock was sent to higher pastures. Every year torrential rains have
therefore washed away a little more topsoil from mountains no longer
protected by bush (cut for firewood) or grass (overgrazed by the
Country dwellers consider cattle to be a very important cultural and
economic resource, to the extent that all government programs designed to
limit livestock growth and halt overgrazing have failed. The country’s
population, meanwhile, has grown steadily since the early twentieth
century (demographic growth was estimated to be 2.6% per year in 1993) (10). The upshot
is that today only 9% of the total surface area of the country is arable
land, and it is estimated that an additional 1,000 hectares become
inadequate for cultivation each year due to erosion. At this rate, only 8%
of Lesotho will be arable in 2001 (11). Note that
the sources consulted use "arable land" to refer to fields of marketable
crops like grains or beans. Cannabis, meanwhile, can grow in highly
depleted soil. The people’s two main reactions, historically, to
insufficient land have been emigration to South Africa (starting in 1900)
and cultivation of cannabis as an export crop (which probably spread
sometime later). These two sources of revenue now drive the rural economy
Emigration. Emigration has had a distinct if hard-to-quantify
impact on the drug situation in Lesotho. Money sent home by emigrant
relatives represents the number two source of income for mountain-dwelling
households by supplying, according to the LHDA, 38% of the total (13). In 1993,
authorities in Pretoria estimated that 89,400 Basothos worked in South
African mines, whereas in 1991 the Maseru authorities estimated that
126,000 Lesotho nationals lived abroad. South African mines, although
still the main employer of Basothos, have conducted numerous layoffs in
recent years, and are continuing to reduce personnel. Laid-off Basothos do
not all return home, but it is probable that some have done so, adding
more mouths to feed from over cultivated land, which most likely spurs the
(not quantifiable) extension of cannabis crops whether they be legal or
illegal. Another potential measure—perhaps in addition to extending
cultivation—in order to face the new situation characterised by less
remittances and more people to feed, would be to add value to crops. This
trend was noted by a source who declared that he observed that more and
more cannabis growers were packaging their produce themselves in the form
of ready-to-smoke cigarettes prior to selling to dealers (see below,
section "cannabis"). Similarly, if hashish is indeed being produced, that
might represent a reaction to the loss of revenues once furnished by
emigrants (see below the section on hashish).
Cannabis. According to Gill, the commercial cultivation of
cannabis in Lesotho increased considerably from the mid-1980s onward. The
LHDA’s estimates suggest that households in the Mohale dam zone currently
draw 39% of their annual income from agricultural activities (14). Nearly 50%
of that agricultural income (personal consumption included) comes from the
sale of cannabis (15). Cannabis
is cultivated in the same way as other crops. Farming in Lesotho’s
mountains is not modern but based on rainfall; except for matekoane, crops
are mainly destined for personal consumption. Mountain farmers use very
little fertiliser (not even natural, like the manure that exists in
abundance), pesticides or fungicides, all products of which they remain
wary (only 8% of farmers questioned by the LHDA used them).
Mountain agriculture, and cannabis crops in particular, seems to obey
the following model: little investment, little risk, low returns. This
model appears adapted to the poor mountain soil which, even with more
intensive input, would not yield returns justifying the needed investment.
That, at least, is the opinion of local farmers as reported by the LHDA,
which does not entirely agree with them (16).
Whatever the case, cannabis is an indispensable part of the precarious
but real equilibrium maintained by mountain farms. Studies by the LHDA,
based on low estimates, show that the extremely high value of matekoane
means that it supplies nearly half of all agricultural income even though
it covers only 10% of land under cultivation. The LHDA estimates the
profit from a hectare of corn to be 209 malotis (M209), as compared to
M354 for a hectare of wheat, M493 for a hectare of peas and M4,379 for a
hectare of marijuana (17). It is thus
probable that most mountain farms in Lesotho grow a "cluster" of crops,
the majority of which are for personal consumption, the sole cash crop
Methods of production
According to available information, all of the cannabis grown in
Lesotho comes from small peasant farms in the regions listed above.
Various sources indicate that cannabis is usually grown in conjunction
with sweet corn, which is the staple crop of Basotho peasants, as well as
the basis of their diet. Some cannabis is nevertheless grown as a single
crop in more isolated regions, on surface areas that might be as large as
five hectares, according to OGD-growers. When planted as a single crop,
the size of the OGD-growers’ cannabis field is never less than three
hectares, which is also the average size of their corn fields. It is worth
noting that other sources, generally well-informed on rural life, claim
that single-crop cannabis fields are only very rarely larger than one
hectare. It is possible that OGD growers have exaggerated the size of
their fields thinking that they would obtain more compensation money from
the LHDA. According to the studies conducted by the LHDA, the vast
majority of mountain farmers work their own land. Some sharecropping and
tenant farming exist, but remains marginal (18). The
conclusion is that cannabis production is mainly an economic activity of
Planters sow cannabis between mid August and early October, that is to
say during the southern spring. Harvesting occurs at the end of the
summer, between February and April. Most of the harvest is sold during
winter, generally in July. Given the important and increasing supply,
winter prices offered by dealers are low (M200 to M300 per bag). Much
better prices can be negotiated in January (M500 to M600, because almost
all of the previous year’s production has been sold whereas the current
crop is still on the stalk) or in November (M400 to M500, because stocks
of the previous harvest are getting low and the current crop has only just
been sown). Thus, farmers who are able to stock part of their harvest can
increase profits by selling during the months when prices are highest.
Cannabis therefore constitutes a form of savings for Basotho producers.
Cannabis is sown with seeds obtained from the previous harvest or
bought from a neighbour. In both mixed and single-crop fields, matekoane
is sown directly in the field where it matures (nurseries and
transplanting are not employed, as they often are in West Africa). Care
involves weeding the plot and, very occasionally, applying manure and
irrigating. These tasks are generally performed by women, but there are
many phases which involve all members of the family, as is always the case
at harvest time, when men, women, and children work together. Harvesting
and packing (see below) are sometimes the occasion for "work parties"
where neighbours and paid workers join in, although this system would not
seem to be the rule.
The first harvest, probably carried out in January, is done on what
farmers call "majaja". According to accounts provided by the OGD-growers,
majaja comes from the same seeds as "the real matekoane" yet bears no
flowers or seeds. It can then be deducted that majaja is the male plant of
cannabis. The majaja harvest therefore represents a thinning of the plots,
leaving only the female plants. Whereas in other countries such as Morocco
this thinning is normally viewed as a task designed to improve the final
product, it seems that in Lesotho it has a commercial goal, namely to
market another full-fledged product. It was difficult to obtain
information on majaja, which growers distinguish from matekoane in terms
of labour (only the leaves of majaja are retained) and income (majaja
earns less). The leaves of male plants are separated from the stalks and
sold in bags. It is probable that Sesotho majaja is the substance sold in
South Africa under the name of "maajut", a poor quality marijuana
basically used for smoking with Mandrax (19) in what is
called "white pipe".
The main harvest of "real matekoane" (which contains seeds and flowers)
begins in February and may continue until April, depending on weather
conditions and geographical situation. The harvested plants are carried to
the farm house where they are generally left to dry outside, on the
ground. The flowers are then separated from the stalks. The flowers are
stuffed into bags (probably together with a certain amount of leaves)
which normally contain 50 kilograms of corn and which constitute the unit
of sale in the fields.
A Basotho source whose work entails frequent contact with the
mountain-dwelling communities stated that in recent years increasing
numbers of growers in the Qabane river valley (on the eastern edge of
Mohale’s Hoek district) were rolling their matekoane into cigarettes prior
to selling it, thereby adding value that increased prices. According to
this source, the task is carried out by women, and involves no machinery.
If this innovation extends to other areas of the country (it was not
mentioned by either the LHDA studies or the OGD-growers), that would
represent another sign of the already obvious de-criminalisation of the
cultivation and, to a lesser extent, the sale of cannabis in Lesotho.
Above all, however, it might indicate a growing specialisation in cannabis
crops in certain areas, with a concomitant monetisation of the economy,
insofar as packing even a part of the marijuana harvest in the form of
cigarettes probably requires a great deal of time. That time would no
longer be available for other tasks generally allotted to women, for
example cultivating food crops, especially vegetables. An hypothesis may
be made that if these tasks are abandoned in favour of rolling marijuana
into cigarettes, rural households will increasingly depend on commercial
networks rather than their own labour for food.
According to the OGD-growers (who, it should be remembered, live in the
Mohale dam region, relatively far from the country’s borders) the harvest
is usually taken from the production zone by traffickers who employ
automobiles (usually 4-wheel drive vehicles, known as "bakkies" in Lesotho
and South Africa). The harvest for a given zone is first brought to a spot
accessible by car, at the buyer’s expense. According to the OGD-growers,
the purchasers are sometimes Basotho but usually Zulu or Xhosa (two South
African ethnic groups) and pay mountain dwellers (usually women) to
transport the matekoane harvest to the assembly point. Purchasers
sometimes also rent the growers’ donkeys to get the harvest to more
distant assembly points. In other regions of Lesotho, for example in
Mokhotlong, Thaba-Tseka, and Qacha’s Neck districts (in Eastern Lesotho,
near the border with South-Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province) caravans of
donkeys and "porters" carry the marijuana across the border, probably into
Zulu villages. From there it is shipped on to Durban, usually in
It should be noted that the temporary hire of farmers as porters, and
the rental of their donkeys, are advantageous arrangements for growers,
because it means that transporting the cannabis harvest provides another
distinct source of income in addition to straightforward cultivation. It
proved impossible, however, to obtain accurate information - even
approximate - on the scope of the income thus generated.
Seizures of hashish in Lesotho according to the World Customs
|10 March 1995
|13 March 1995
|30 March 1995
|20 April 1995
|19 July 1995
|2 July 1996
|22 July 1996
|22 July 1996
|25 July 1996
|31 July 1996
|17 May 1997
Source: World Customs Organisation (WCO)
As the table above shows, quantities of hashish were regularly seized
between 1995 and 1997 (more recent information is not available), either
in Lesotho itself or in South Africa (but reportedly coming from Lesotho).
The quantities involved may be small (8.89 kg on 19 July 1995, 25 kg on 22
July 1995), middling (286 kg on 13 March 1996, 115 kg on 31 July 96) or
large (1.4 metric tons on 17 May 1997).
Lesotho therefore constitutes a site of storage and distribution of
relatively significant quantities of hashish. It should be noted that the
seizures occurred in border districts (Berea and Qacha’s Neck) and in
South Africa, suggesting that the hashish was destined for export to the
latter country. From there, it would probably have been re-exported to,
for example, Europe, insofar as the OGD study has suggested that no major
market for hashish exists in South Africa itself. An additional indication
of re-exportation is given by the seizure of 1.4 tons of hashish in Ermelo
in May 1997. Ermelo, a small town in Mpumalanga province in the Republic
of South Africa (RSA), is a key highway hub—it is near the border between
the RSA and Swaziland, and the RSA/Mozambique border is not much further
away. Both Swaziland and Mozambique possess international drug trafficking
infrastructures. Another road leads from Ermelo directly to Gauteng
province where Johannesburg is located, with its drug markets and its
industrial and export infrastructures (notably international airports).
Finally, another road leads to the RSA’s borders with Botswana and
Zimbabwe (via Beitbridge).
The origin of the hashish remains to be determined. Is it produced in
Lesotho? The question is difficult to answer, given the lack of accurate
information and analyses. Two hypotheses, however, might be proposed:
1. The hashish is imported from Southwest Asia. It might be smuggled
into Lesotho by road or rail (a line reserved solely for customs-bonded
freight, links Maseru to the port of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, RSA). Durban
is known to be a South African port used extensively for the import or
transit-shipment of drugs including hashish produced in Southwest Asia.
The same holds for the Mozambican port of Maputo, not far from Lesotho. It
is therefore possible that international traffickers with infrastructures
in Lesotho import and stock hashish for later shipment.
2. The hashish is produced in Lesotho itself. The great majority of
seizures have taken place in Berea district. As mentioned above, this
district is a major cannabis producer, notably in the foothills. Its lower
zones, which include a part of the Maseru urban area, are densely
populated and economically active. Furthermore, unlike the distant
mountain regions of the interior, the district is immediately influenced
by its South African neighbour. It is therefore possible that traffickers
operating on the South African market have encouraged part of the cannabis
production in Berea district (indeed, in other districts as well) to be
transformed into hashish, thereby enabling some cannabis producers to add
value to their product prior to sale.
Whatever the case, Lesotho’s hashish networks seem very hermetic, for
little information on them is available. Neither of two UNDCP studies (20) on the drug
situation in Lesotho, conducted in November/December 1995 and May 1996
respectively, devoted a single line to this issue. Moreover, the Basotho
law enforcement sources interviewed during the field study said that they
never seized hashish. Thus the drug seizures officially reported by the
police in 1996 are as follows:
Let us note that none of the
hashish seizures reported by the World Customs Organisation (see table
above) for Lesotho in 1996 are reflected in police statistics in spite of
the fact that the police is required by law to compile statistics on drug
seizures carried out by all Basotho law enforcement departments,
II. TraffickingThe tense political
atmosphere reigning in Lesotho in the summer of 1997 made the study of
trafficking networks rather difficult. No one wanted to risk even hinting
on the possibility that local prominent citizens might be implicated in
trafficking in any way whatsoever. It would nevertheless be quite
surprising, at least as far as cannabis trafficking goes (which entails
little social or penal condemnation), if traffickers enjoyed no
bureaucratic or military- or, indeed, political - protection. Non-Basotho
sources moreover declared that some Basotho politicians more or less
openly viewed cannabis revenues as an unofficial but useful boost to the
country’s balance of payments. A Basotho civil servant, when confronted
with the contradictions in his comments, finally admitted that, given the
political situation, "civil servants don’t dare take action because they
can’t foresee the consequences of their acts."
Like their counterparts in other SADC countries, Basotho civil servants
often place all the blame on "foreigners," who are convenient scapegoats
because they are politically and socially "neutral". Basothos are even
reticent to offer detailed information on compatriots arrested in Lesotho
itself on drug charges. By contrast, South Africans are accused of
fomenting cannabis production in the mountains, while Nigerians are blamed
for the growing (if still limited) use not only of cocaine and but also of
synthetic drugs like LSD and ecstasy (in which Nigerian involvement is
improbable). The Indo-Pakistani community, meanwhile, is suspected of
extensively trafficking Mandrax, although no scandal has ever come to
light (at least publicly) to confirm such suspicions.
Although some of these accusations may not be totally unfounded, they
help disguise local responsibility for the demobilisation and
disorganisation of drug enforcement measures, not to mention the
protection and perhaps even collusion required for certain operations.
a) Trafficking in marijuana
All the cannabis grown in landlocked Lesotho is exported to South
Africa, at least initially. There are two main export routes. One heads
west and north toward Bloemfontein and Ficksburg, then on to Johannesburg.
This is the route taken by 2nd and 3rd grade matekoane grown in western
and central Lesotho. Transportation is usually done by motor vehicles
(cars and trucks). It is likely that at least part of the marijuana is
centralised in the towns of Maseru and Mafeteng prior to being shipped
across the border. It is also probable that these towns have relatively
large storage facilities.
The other route leads to Durban, the destination for 1st grade
marijuana grown in the Eastern districts of Mokhotlong, Thaba-Tseka, and
Qacha’s Neck (see above). According to OGD’s sources, high-grade matekoane
often arrives in KwaZulu-Natal villages on the backs of donkeys and
porters. It is likely that cross-country motor vehicles are also used.
Once in South Africa, Basotho marijuana is taken to Durban townships by
collective taxis (many of the taxi firms in townships around Johannesburg,
Durban and Cape Town are owned by dealers in "dagga"- marijuana - and
Mandrax). Once in Durban, the cannabis will be packaged and sold on the
national market or exported to Europe (until now it seems mainly to the
Netherlands and the United Kingdom and in quantities that are not large)
or even to North America, often mixed with marijuana grown in
According to the available information, these two routes are mainly
used by networks of South African traffickers, who supply their country’s
urban markets. Yet there also exist parallel marijuana networks supplying
Basotho miners working in South Africa. Most miners in South Africa
(whether Swazi, Basotho, Shona, or Ovambo,etc.) are known to make
"utilitarian" use of marijuana, and sometimes Mandrax, to crank themselves
up for work and to "chill out" afterward. The South African police has
raided hostels where Basotho miners stay and has found sacks of marijuana.
According to South African and Basotho police officials, Lesotho marijuana
is highly appreciated by users all over South Africa.
It is worth noting that the isolation of the central and eastern
mountain regions of Lesotho makes aircraft the best means of
transportation. Some thirty small airfields are scattered across the
country. It seems likely that certain airfields are used to ship
middling-size quantities of marijuana to Maseru or other urban centres,
even though most sources questioned in Lesotho, including the police,
remain sceptical. Even though no concrete evidence has ever come to light,
it would hardly be surprising if small aircraft flew marijuana directly
into South Africa.
b) Hashish Trafficking
Hashish trafficking also exists in Lesotho (see above Production),
apparently centred in the Berea district. As noted above, it proved
impossible to ascertain whether this hashish is produced locally or is
imported from Southwest Asia and smuggled into Lesotho by road or rail,
prior to re-exportation to South Africa.
It seems that a mutually fuelling relationship exists between the
cannabis trade and other kinds of illicit activity in Lesotho:
– The first activity concerns stolen cars (like everywhere else in
Southern Africa). Cars stolen in South Africa and beyond are sold cheaply
in Lesotho. Vehicles are also stolen in Lesotho for re-sale abroad
(primarily South Africa and Zambia). Once construction began on the dam
designed to provide water to the South African province of Gauteng (and
electricity to Lesotho), South African expatriates working on the site in
the mountain zone were often the victims of car theft, sometimes also
losing their lives. Ever since, many South Africans working in Lesotho
carry weapons, and car thefts have become the main concern of South
Africa’s High Commission in Maseru. Many members of the Chinese community
(which control the small garment industry) also carry guns. The Chinese,
known as very tough bosses, are detested by the locals and have been the
victims of violent attacks and car theft.
– The second smuggling activity concerns stolen livestock (cows, sheep,
and goats stolen in Lesotho for re-sale in South Africa, and vice versa).
As already noted, livestock is a sign of wealth among Basothos (many of
whom also live on the other side of the border), so there are cows
everywhere. But there is also a constant desire to own more. Farmers are
arming themselves as defence against thieves. Furthermore, even though
according to most of the sources heard marijuana trafficking is generally
non-violent, the police claim that some producers have armed themselves
against enforcement agents. Moreover, in the spring of 1997, South African
hikers were attacked by marijuana smugglers in a national park on the
country’s northern border.
Livestock is used for barter in mountain regions (cows, sheep, and
goats for marijuana) while cars are traded for marijuana in urban centres,
mainly Maseru. As elsewhere in Southern Africa, then, trafficking is
partly de-monetised in Lesotho.
d) Laundering of cannabis revenue
Cannabis cultivation and trafficking probably constitute two of
Lesotho’s more widespread and rewarding economic activities. Growers use
marijuana income for everyday expenditures, notably for sending their
children to school (secondary education is expensive in Lesotho). It is
hard to speak of money laundering in this instance, since income from
matekoane is an integral part of mountain farmers’ economy. Moreover,
South African and Basotho traffickers go to the mountains and buy directly
from the growers, which means that the revenues generated by cannabis in
the countryside are broadly distributed, rather than concentrated in a few
wholesalers’ hands, as is the case in Swaziland. Concentration occurs
among South African traffickers and probably also among Basothos in the
urban zones in western Lesotho, although no trustworthy information is
available on this latter group.
An unusual form of "laundering" will certainly take place in the
context of compensation for lands flooded by the Mohale dam. Sources claim
that the LHDA is working on a project in association with many foreign
institutional investors to take into account income generated by matekoane
when it comes to compensate for losses incurred by flooding farm lands.
Therefore, top level institutions judge - correctly, we feel - illicit
crops to be a key part of economic life in Lesotho’s rural heartland.
III. ConsumptionAlthough marijuana is
smoked on a large scale in Lesotho, alcohol is, by far, the source of most
substance abuse with the direct consequences as regards public health.
Imported alcoholic beverage (beer, whisky, etc.) is drunk by the wealthy,
while the most widespread substance of abuse is the often-laced
"homebrews" made in "shebeens" (informal and illegal bars), which
sometimes also sell diverted psychotropic medicine such as diazepam,
occasionally with tragic results. According to NGO sources, alcohol abuse
and the opening of shebeens by mothers of poor families has led to a
growing number of street children; many of them sniff glue.
In the past ten years or so, alcohol consumption habits in the land
have undergone a major transformation. Old-fashioned beers were not very
alcoholic, so getting drunk meant drinking a great deal over many hours,
chatting all the while. These days, consumers seek "efficient" drinks, and
homebrews have become extremely strong. The makers of such brews add
batteries, oxidised objects, dagga and other inadmissible ingredients
which they claim increase the alcoholic content.
NGOs working in drug rehabilition centres have noted an increase in the
number of cases of problematic cannabis abuse since early 1997, reversing
a steady decrease that began in the early 1990s. The organisations say
they are unable to identify the causes of this sudden hike. Almost every
patient requesting medical help for cannabis abuse also consumes alcohol.
Marijuana use is universally considered to be very widespread in Lesotho,
although perhaps more so in towns than in the countryside. According to an
epidemiological investigation by the LHDA in the mountainous Mohale dam
zone, only 10% of the local population (all age groups) smoke marijuana,
even though 75% of that population produces it (21). Cannabis,
it should be recalled, is part of the impressive traditional Basotho
pharmacy of 160 medicinal herbs, each of which has its own special
Apart from its status as an export product, it would seem that
matekoane is still largely viewed as a medicinal plant in the mountain
regions, and is therefore subject to social or socio-medical control.
Rural residents who consume it without a traditional doctor’s medical
prescription are therefore diverting a drug within their own tradition to
a utilitarian or recreational, non-medical function (working harder,
stimulating the appetite, "chilling out" after work).
It is interesting to compare this attitude with the one pertaining to
Western psychotropic drugs (like diazepam), which are widely consumed in
rural areas in Lesotho, according to many sources. These latter substances
are not subject to traditional restrictions. On the contrary, their
consumption is probably stimulated by healers and shebeen-keepers who can
get their hands on them precisely because they are a source of profits.
Matekoane, which grows abundantly in the mountains and can be easily
obtained by rural residents themselves, does not carry this economic
potential. In this case, what happens is a spreading and deepening
addiction to a legal, non-traditional drug (distributed illicitly, though
at little risk) whereas the illicit but traditional cannabis, though
cheaper and more abundant, is subject to what are probably ancestral
social strictures, and therefore is not so widely abused. In towns, on the
other hand, cannabis use is probably mostly of the recreational and
utilitarian type, that is to say it is influenced by prevailing "modern"
habits. Urban consumers are simultaneously freed from the social
restrictive control placed on cannabis abuse by traditional society, and
shackled by economic necessity and the effect of fashion stemming from
close links with South Africa, particularly its mines.
- Stephen J. Gill: A Short History of Lesotho, Morija Museum
& Archives, Morija, Lesotho, 1993.
- Kingdom of Lesotho, Lesotho Highlands Development Authority:
Baseline Epidemiology and Medical Services Survey, Phase 1B, Knowledge,
Attitudes and Behaviour—Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Final
Report, Task 2, Maseru, 1996.
——, Lesotho Highlands Water Project: Environmental Impact
Assessment, Phase 1B, Main Report, Maseru, May 1997.
Resettlement and Development Study, Task 1 Report, Main Report,
vol. 2, Maseru, November 1995.
Baseline Biology Survey and Reserve Development, Phase 1B,
Background and Social Survey, vol. 1, Darling, RSA, July 1996.
——, Environment Division: Phase 1B Socioeconomic Census Report:
Mohale, 1993, Main Report, vol. 1, Maseru, February 1994 (second
printing, January 1966).
- Brian Du Toît: Cannabis in Africa, published for the African
Studies Centre, University of Florida, Gainesville, by A.A.Balkema,
- United Nations International Drug Control Program: Pharmaceutical
Control Mission to Lesotho (27/11/95 – 8/12/95), UNDCP Project AD/LES
93/803 by Allan West, consultant.
——, Mission to Lesotho (29 – 31/5/96), George M. King, Law
Enforcement Adviser, UNDCP Regional Office, Nairobi.
Notes* This paper was presented at the Second
Annual Conference of the MOST/UNESCO/UNDCP Project "Economic and Social
Transformations connected with the International Drug Problem "(Rio de
Janeiro, 19-22 October 1998).
1. OGD: The Drug Situation in Southern Africa, report
at the request of the European Commission, DG8/A/2, Paris, March 1998.
2. The Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire)
became a member of the SADC in 1998.
3. According to The World Bank Atlas 1995,
Washington, D.C., p. 19.
4. Brian Du Toît: Cannabis in Africa,
published for the African Studies Centre, University of Florida,
Gainesville, by A.A.Balkema, Rotterdam, 1980, p.8, states that cannabis
"was almost certainly used in the southern part of the continent [Africa]
in pre-Portuguese times, i.e., before A.D. 1500."
5. On UNGASS, see Laurent Laniel: The Drugs
Summit, mission report, UNESCO-MOST, June 18, 1998, Paris, available
6. Kingdom of Lesotho, Lesotho Highlands Development
Authority, Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Environmental Impact
Assessment, Phase 1B, Main Report, Maseru, May 1997; Kingdom of
Lesotho, Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, Environment Division,
Phase 1B Socioeconomic Census Report: Mohale, 1993, Main Report,
vol. 1, Maseru, February 1994 (second printing, January 1966); Kingdom of
Lesotho, Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Resettlement and Development
Study, Task 1 Report, Main Report, vol. 2, Maseru, November 1995;
Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Baseline Biology Survey and Reserve
Development, Phase 1B, Background and Social Survey, vol. 1, Darling,
RSA, July 1996; Lesotho Highlands Development Authority, Baseline
Epidemiology and Medical Services Survey, Phase 1B, Knowledge, Attitudes
and Behaviour—Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Final Report, Task 2,
7. Stephen J. Gill, A Short History of
Lesotho, Morija Museum & Archives, Morija, Lesotho, 1993, p. 7.
8. Ibid., p. 45.
9. Lesotho Highlands Water Project: Baseline
Biology Survey... , Table A2, p. 45.
10. Gill, pp. 144–146.
11. Baseline Biology Survey, p. 1.
12. Ibid., p.2.
13. See an LHDA Memorandum dated 27 September 1996,
revising the compensation for households living in the Mohale dam flood
zone, p. 1.
14. Ibid., p. 1.
15. Resettlement and Development Study... ,
Table 2.9 ("Breakdown of Sources of Annual Income"), p. 42. This study
notes that the value of marijuana is so high that when it is included in
the household income of farmers—on the basis of an (apparently low)
estimate of 100 kilograms per hectare, yielding 4739 malotis (US
$1000)—their total income increases by a factor of 1.76, that is to say
that it nearly doubles.
16. Ibid., p. 32. The LHDA goes on to note
that much better yields could be obtained by methods requiring no major
investment (p. 34).
17. 1 maloti = 1 rand = US $0.23
18. 89% of the farmers in the Mohale dam zone work
their own land, 10% are sharecroppers and 1% are tenants. See Phase 1B
Socioeconomic Census Report... , Table 25 ("Cropping Arrangements"),
19. Mandrax, an illegal substance mostly made up of
methaqualone (an antidepressant also known as "Quaaludes" in the United
States), has been the main drug of abuse in South Africa since the 1980s.
A very widespread form of intake is to crush Mandrax tablets in a "joint"
or pipe of marijuana — a practice called "white pipe" (as opposed to a
"green pipe" which only contains marijuana). The supremacy of Mandrax on
the South African drug market is now being challenged by substances like
heroin, amphetamine-type stimulants and above all cocaine (especially in
20. United Nations International Drug Control
Program: Pharmaceutical Control Mission to Lesotho (11/27/1995 -
12/08/1995), UNDCP Project AD/LES 83/803 by Allan West, consultant; and
UNDCP: Mission to Lesotho (5/29-31/1996), George M. King, Law
Enforcement Adviser, UNDCP Regional Office, Nairobi.
21. Baseline Epidemiology, idem, p. 75.
About the authorLaurent Laniel, researcher at
the Observatoire Géopolitique des Drogues (OGD, Paris), 14 Passage Dubail,
75010 Paris (France), works mainly on socio-economic implications of
illicit drug production, consumption and trafficking. His main
geographical areas of interest are Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas.
His last publications include «Marché local de la consommation et
développement des cultures de cannabis au Ghana», in OGD : La situation
des drogues en Afrique subsaharienne, Karthala, Paris, 1998; and La
vingtième session extraordinaire de l’Assemblée générale des Nations Unies
consacrée au problème des drogues, New York, 8-10 juin 1998, Mission
Report, Programme MOST-Drogues de l’UNESCO, Paris, 1998.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.