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Pharmaceuticals and modern statecraft in South Africa: the cases of opium, thalidomide and contraception.
  1. Julie Parle1,
  2. Rebecca Hodes2,
  3. Thembisa Waetjen3
  1. 1 School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
  2. 2 AIDS and Society Research Unit, Centre for Social Science Research, Institute for the Humanities in Africa, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
  3. 3 History, University of Johannesburg, Auckland Park, South Africa
  1. Correspondence to Professor Julie Parle, History, School of Social Science, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 3201, South Africa; parlej{at}


This article provides a history of three pharmaceuticals in the making of modern South Africa. Borrowing and adapting Arthur Daemmrich’s term ‘pharmacopolitics’, we examine how forms of pharmaceutical governance became integral to the creation and institutional practices of this state. Through case studies of three medicaments: opium (late 19th to early 20th century), thalidomide (late 1950s to early 1960s) and contraception (1970s to 2010s), we explore the intertwining of pharmaceutical regulation, provision and consumption. Our focus is on the modernist imperative towards the rationalisation of pharmaceutical oversight, as an extension of the state’s bureaucratic and ideological objectives, and, importantly, as its obligation. We also explore adaptive and illicit uses of medicines, both by purveyors of pharmaceuticals, and among consumers. The historical sweep of our study allows for an analysis of continuities and changes in pharmaceutical governance. The focus on South Africa highlights how the concept of pharmacopolitics can usefully be extended to transnational—as well as local—medical histories. Through the diversity of our sources, and the breadth of their chronology, we aim to historicise modern pharmaceutical practices in South Africa, from the late colonial era to the Post-Apartheid present.

  • drug and alcohol misuse
  • medical/health law
  • pharmacology and toxicology pharmacology
  • family planning
  • medical humanities

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

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  • JP, RH and TW contributed equally.

  • Contributors This article has been equally coauthored. Its submission has been coordinated by the corresponding author.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Ethics approval University of Cape Town.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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