Despite the fact that it is illegal, marijuana cultivation continues to tempt more poor people. The continuing decline of Swaziland’s economy has left many with no livelihood other than subsistence farming, including growing cannabis. However, cultivation of “Swazi Gold”—the name known to many weed enthusiasts—is barely keeping households afloat.
By global standards, Swaziland’s marijuana cultivation is not nearly as large as many major countries, such as Afghanistan, Morocco, or even South Africa. 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 cannabis being grown in the country is ‘not insignificant in the region’.”
While Swazi Gold is globally known for its high quality, the majority of it ends up on the domestic market and in neighboring South Africa, where a small packet sells for $2 on the streets. The real money lies in exporting it—the highest quality cannabis is often earmarked for compression into one or two kilogram blocks that is smuggled from South Africa and Mozambique to Europe.
The relatively easy money of cannabis cultivation is tempting more unemployed and poor people, even though the product is illegal. The money is mainly used to support the immediate needs of households, especially in remote areas of the country where access to services is difficult and costly, and where markets for other cash produce are far away.
Maize production in the country has been progressively declining in the past 10 years, which has led to unrelenting food insecurity. But Swaziland has the proper climate and soil that allows for several harvests of cannabis per year. However, the government is not considering legalizing the crop and has not looked into whether cannabis, or hemp, has the potential of becoming an economically viable crop. Despite the huge amounts of cannabis produced, very few farmers get rich off the business. Typically, 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 become wealthy from marijuana cultivation, no matter how much is grown. The crop is merely one was to earn cash in the impoverished, mountainous areas. “You make more money selling avocados, or even eggs,” he said.
However, for Gogo Thwala, cannabis cultivation is a matter of survival. The sale of weeds that grows abundantly around her mud-and-stick house means she can afford food for herself and the six grandchildren who live with her. “I am too old to grow food,” she said, adding that two of her grandchildren are too small to work the fields, and the other four are in school.
Thwala receives the usual pension for senior Swazis provided by the government, which is about $15 a month. But the government has been consistently unreliable in paying pensions, even in this amount. Thwala lives on shared land under a chief, similar to 70 percent of Swazis. 75 percent of Swazis are in chronic poverty, including Twala and her family, according to the Rural Poverty Portal.
Her grandchildren do not need much to maintain the marijuana garden that stretches spottily between maize plants, tress, and boulders over a half-acre plot. Some cannabis plants can grow over two meters high along the sloping hill directly behind her hut. Larger marijuana fields belonging to her neighbors are cultivated in the crevices of surrounding mountains making them more difficult to detect on the rare occasions when law enforcers make inspection tours.
Once the cannabis —locally known as ‘dagga’—has matured, her older grandchildren cut the plants down and tie them into bundles. Buyers from South Africa arrive every couple of weeks. There is no set payment; Thwala is happy to receive whatever is offered. However, Dlamini said a bushel of marijuana could fetch a few hundred rand, but very few people receive more than $100 from a drug dealer.
Facing arrest for growing the crop is not something Thwala worries about. “The police came, and I told them that I am an old woman and cannot look after my garden. These dagga weeds, they grow anywhere, and how can I control them?” she said.
Many Swazis find is difficult to understand why the state would spend so much money on policing and destroying the cannabis when the plant, which is indigenous, has been grown and used for centuries.