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A little known history of cocaine (Part 5)

For part four of the series, please click here.

While some of the most interesting anecdotes and stories of cocaine’s convoluted history originate in the US and UK, Africa has its own tale to tell. While recent documents, reports, and sensationalist articles have reported an “explosion” of drugs on the continent, this is simply not true. Khat, for instance, has been used in many East African countries for centuries, playing a central role in many social activities and gatherings. The colonial authorities in Nigeria experimented with growing coca bushes in the highlands of the country long before it came under regulation. Cannabis (or marijuana as it is generally called) has played a crucial economic role in the highlands of Lesotho, and of course, the Transkei of South Africa. Across the continent, in other words, “drugs” have played a role in numerous and varying cultures and societies. Because of this, interestingly, the concept of a “drug” often becomes problematic when applied to the use of substances on the continent. Without the normative, legal and moral weight the word, and its implicit meaning, breaks down. It is for this reason, I think, that the African continent holds the key to re-imagining a drug discourse beyond the “war on drugs” paradigm, a paradigm that has clearly failed to “deal with” the “problem” it created in the first place.

While “tik” (methamphetamine) has dominated the news in South Africa, worries over the increasing role that West African countries are playing in the transnational trade of cocaine have narrated international headlines. Tales of ruthless gangs, corrupt police officers, numerous “mules” and an increasingly comfortable relationship with South American cartels have once again positioned Africa as weak, corrupt, and in need of guidance from benevolent benefactors to the west and north. Often, however, these reports are based on statistics and assumptions that are themselves problematic. While West Africa has been playing an increasing role in the transnational trade in cocaine there definitely has been no “explosion” — there is documented evidence of West African countries playing this role as far back as the late 1970s. Furthermore, while Europe’s consumption of cocaine has increased in relation to the US, and while West Africa has played a role in ensuring cocaine reaches Europe from South America, it is no way a vital or essential corridor. Because of the policing efforts of the 1990s, in which the US and others threw vast amounts of money and military hardware at the drug problem, the transnational trade in drugs is now far too fragmented (and thus ironically more difficult to police) for any distribution corridor to be essential to or for an entire continent.

In my mind Africa stands at a crossroads. Does the continent and the countries within it follow the past precedents and paradigms of criminalising users and militarising state responses against the drug trade, or does the continent collectively attempt to think beyond the paradigm? Africa has this opportunity right now but, unfortunately, many countries continue to apply the same old tactics with (unsurprisingly) little or no effect. Indeed, often these measures are actually counter-productive. The contemporary transnational trade in cocaine, for instance, is now so fragmented that it is almost impossible to fully grasp its full extent or reach. Even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has admitted this. Yet this fragmentation is a direct result of heavy-handed police and military responses that do nothing to solve the underlying reasons why people have turned to making, distributing, and using drugs. Of course, to be “soft on drugs” is political suicide, yet I find it increasingly laughable that we have still not learnt the lessons that have been visible to us for over a hundred years, lessons that have been well documented in both academic and popular literature. If the best we can come up with is “legalisation”, something which is extremely problematic, then we need to start thinking far more critically about just what the problem of drugs represent to us collectively as societies and countries. I am tempted to say that the drugs discourse now often operates as a proxy, a foil, for dealing with far deeper issues facing our societies. Overt or explicit racism, for instance, is no longer tolerated in our society. Yet we are happy to assume that only certain “types” of people do certain drugs. We are happy to assume that those “types” will be more prone to crime, rampant and devious sexual acts, and so on. Anyone who has studied even briefly the history of racism will notice these tropes for what they are — racism by another means.

In the final part of this series I want to turn back and look at some of the lessons that history can teach us, not only about drugs, but about ourselves.


  • Simon Howell

    Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.