Settling ‘Dagga’? Shifting Frontiers of Cannabis Knowledge and Governance in South Africa

Thembisa Waetjen, Perside Ndandu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


After the South African War (1899–1902), state-makers’ efforts to control ‘dagga’ was controversial on several fronts. But ‘dagga’ also proved a moving target for official classification. Was it a species of Leonotis, common around the countryside? Was it ‘Indian hemp’, understood by some as a habit-forming drug that debilitated wage workers and caused insanity? This paper traces dagga as a multiple object and problematic of governance in South Africa during the years before the formation of the Union of South Africa and into the early decades of the Union period. A focus on three contested boundaries of top-down knowledge-making and policy–botanical taxonomies; colonial geographies; and political-economy–demonstrates dagga’s shifting ontologies across time and space. Together, these empirical snapshots combine as a case study, revealing how the legal reification of a substance as a ‘drug’ involved political processes that were local, dispersed and unresolved. We show how uncertainties and ambivalences about cannabis long remained productive for different brokers and gatekeepers who navigated the frontiers of competing interests. This history is important for understanding the changing politics of cannabis in South Africa, as it became legible for regulation as a ‘dangerous drug’ during the first half of the 20th century.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)965-985
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Southern African Studies
Issue number5-6
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Bourhill
  • South Africa
  • botanical science
  • cannabis
  • colonial knowledge
  • drug ontologies
  • migrant labour

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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