Medical waste offers insights into South Africa’s use of pharmaceuticals

Editor’s Note: Today is the last piece in our six-part 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 Rebecca Hodes, Director, AIDS and Society Research Unit, University of Cape Town. 

Much of what we know about human history comes from studying things that have been discarded. The archaeology of dumpsites and middens has long informed us about societies and their pasts. This has included how people survived and sustained themselves, what they gathered, made, amassed and discarded.

Histories of rubbish have also shown that beliefs about sanitation, and what makes for a clean environment, change. These changes are, in turn, influenced by developments in technology, forms of governance, and consumer norms.

I conducted a study on an archive of medical materials, collected over three years from public waste sites around South Africa’s Eastern Cape. What I refer to as ‘pharmatrash’ serves as a proxy for which medicines were provided or purchased, consumed, and then discarded. Pharmatrash in post-Apartheid South Africa shows the vast proliferation of medical waste, the result of increased access to healthcare products in both the public and private sectors – and on the formal and informal markets.

Read more

The story of the pharma giant and the African yam

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 William Beinart, professor at the University of Oxford. 

It was a drug produced in Nottingham in the United Kingdom that led us on a journey to South Africa to visit muthi markets, archives, herbariums and nature reserves.

We spoke with traders, healers, scholars and conservationists to learn more about Dioscorea sylvatica.

Dioscorea is a wild yam. Its name in different languages connects to its appearance – its rough skin resembles a tortoise shell. It’s known as ‘Elephant’s Foot’ in English, in isiZulu ‘ingwevu’, meaning grey/old or ‘ifudu’, meaning tortoise; in Sepedi the name is ‘Kgato’ – ‘to stamp’.

In the 1950s, the yam was heavily exploited by the British pharmaceutical firm Boots for the production of cortisone. But provincial conservation officials in South Africa fought back against the plundering of a wild plant that they recognised was in danger of being exploited to extinction.

Read more

A history of how sedatives took hold in white South Africa

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 Julie Parle, Honorary Professor in History, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

In the early 1960s, pharmacists and government authorities were of the view that South Africa had experienced key aspects of a ‘pharmaceutical revolution’ over the course of the previous 40 years.

These were fulcrum decades in South African medicines’ history in which newly invented medicines became critically important. Most of the new therapeutic substances in high demand were antibiotics. But the class of drugs comprising synthetic hypnotics, sedatives and tranquillisers were also important.

As early as the 1930s these substances – especially barbiturates – posed challenges to those who sought their control. Enmeshed in multiple issues of chemical, commercial, professional, and regulatory definition, timid controls were proposed in 1937. But even these failed to gain support, facilitating a permissive market for those who could afford the new drugs. These were, by and large, white South Africans.

Read more

Cannabis in South Africa: the duplicity of colonial authorities

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 Assistant Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara.

The history of cannabis in South Africa contains two particular trajectories that were sometimes in direct contradiction with one another.

The one, the 100-year-old effort to prohibit its use. The other, a history of colonial governments and administrators trying to develop cannabis in order to make money out of it.

These two paths began to develop in earnest after 1916.

Read more

The highs and lows of the opium trade in southern Africa

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.

The reach of European empires and of Indian Ocean trade networks drew southern Africa into the global politics of opium around the turn of the twentieth century. Between the late 1880s and early 1920s and there was a shift from economies of supply to regimes of control.

The colonies of Mozambique and South Africa were caught up in these big changes.

In a recent paper I highlight how official and unofficial actors shaped and responded to the global politics of opium and, in different ways, worked to benefit from these developments.

With a focus on Mozambique and, especially, South Africa, I demonstrate how the changing global politics of drug supply and suppression influenced local colonial social and political processes.

I also show how these histories influenced events worldwide, including the first efforts to use the League of Nations to control the international cannabis trade.

Read more

Secret histories of drugs – legal and illegal – in southern Africa

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.

Read more

How cannabis became a “drug” in South Africa

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Thembisa Waetjen, professor of history at the University of Johannesburg, and is derived from her presentation at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, which was held from April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. In it, she argues that international cannabis criminalization was, in part, the result of an appeal made by the South African government in 1923. But what lay behind that appeal? And what were its consequences, locally?

On 31 March last year, the Western Cape High Court of South Africa, in the case of Garreth Prince, ruled as constitutional the personal use of cannabis by an adult in a private dwelling, along with the possession, purchase or cultivation associated with such use. Reflecting liberalizing trends in other parts of the world, this outcome signaled a shift in South Africa’s punitive drugs policy.

Screenshot 2018-07-10 at 10.00.35 AM
Thembisa Waetjen presents at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images
Jan_Christiaan_Smuts_1919
Jan Christiaan Smuts, 1919. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Many people don’t know that African countries, specifically Egypt and South Africa, played a crucial role in international cannabis criminalization in the early 20th century. In 1923, the office of Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts requested that the League of Nations include Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica on the list of ‘dangerous drugs’, to be regulated by global narcotics law. He explained:

“… from the point of view of the Union of South Africa, the most important of all the habit-forming drugs is Indian Hemp or ‘Dagga’.” [1]

What was the local story behind this appeal?

Read more