Laurent Laniel

This paper was originally published as “Discussion Paper n°34”, Management of Social Transformations connected to the international drug problem (MOST-Drugs), Unesco, Paris, 1999

A shorter version was published as “Cannabis in Lesotho”, Seminar, (New Delhi) n° 504, August 2001.


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 (LHDA). 


The 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 economics.

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 achieved.


a) 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 quality.

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 medicine.

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 ever-increasing livestock).

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 (12).

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 being marijuana.

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 small owner-farmers.

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 collective taxis.

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.

b) Hashish

Seizures of hashish in Lesotho according to the World Customs Organisation:
10 March 1995
36 kg
Qacha’s Neck
13 March 1995
286 kg
30 March 1995
36 kg
20 April 1995
293 kg
19 July 1995
8.89 kg
2 July 1996
246 kg
22 July 1996
50 kg
22 July 1996
25 kg 
25 July 1996
50 kg
31 July 1996
115 kg
17 May 1997
1,440 kg
Ermelo (RSA)

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, including customs.


The 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 KwaZulu-Natal.

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.

c) Barter

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.


Although 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 properties.

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, Rotterdam, 1980.

- 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.


* 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 on http://www.unesco.org/most/drugs.htm.

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, Maseru, 1996.

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"), p. 45.

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 crack form).

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.