Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from Thembisa Waetjen, Associate Professor of History, University of Johannesburg, Julie Parle, Honorary Professor in History, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and Rebecca Hodes, Director, AIDS and Society Research Unit, University of Cape Town.
If you want to score heroin in some of the historically black suburbs, or townships, of Johannesburg, South Africa, you need to find yourself a ‘Snyman’. A ‘Snyman’ is a drug dealer. The word is used in tsotsitaal, the creole, urban dialect that emerged during the colonial and apartheid eras of segregation.
‘Snyman’ entered this lexicon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was around this time that cannabis smugglers supplying the gold mining compounds and nearby settlements began to diversify into pharmaceuticals. One drug of choice was methaqualone, also known as Mandrax.
Today, most young people who rely on a Snyman to supply them with a bit of a heroin admixture locally known as nyaope aren’t aware that they are invoking the name of a mid-century professor of medicine at the University of Pretoria, Dr HW Snyman. In 1961 Snyman headed a governmental commission that bore his name. Its recommendations led to the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act of 1965.
This means that, at the height of the apartheid era, black entrepreneurs trading in illicit pharmaceuticals adopted and repurposed the name of a white medical expert who enacted the state’s vision of drug regulation. In calling themselves ‘Snyman’, they showed a hefty dose of defiance as well as ironic humour.