top of page

Drugs and African History

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Frequent readers may be familiar with the blog’s ongoing promotion of new, relevant dissertation research (’tis the season!), but periodically we also highlight work published in journals and other peer-reviewed outlets. Each of the recent articles below by scholar Thembisa Waetjen offers new perspectives on the significance of drug use, commerce, and regulation in Africa. Enjoy!

Journal of African Studies (2017)

Abstract: From 1904 to 1910, the transport and confinement of over 63,000 men from north-eastern China, recruited and indentured as unskilled mining labour, stimulated a new market for opium on the Witwatersrand, at the very moment when other British colonies and other empires were pushing towards co-ordinated action to curb the trade. This article plots the development and shape of opium commerce in the Transvaal colony, revealing local patterns of entrepreneurship and articulations between licit and illicit circuits in the narcotic supply chain. In a bid to monopolise control and profits, the Government set up a bureaucracy of drug provision, working with the Chamber of Mines and organised pharmacy and medicine interests. However, the continuing preference of indentured migrants for informal networks of supply, despite higher prices, points to the importance of the trade within the social and material economies of the mining compound. With political changes in both colony and metropole, and the termination of the Chinese Labour Importation scheme, the presence of opium on the Rand was drawn into the anti-opium politics of the imperial public sphere. White racial anxieties about the ‘spread’ of opium smoking were crystallised in the image of the opium den as a locus of depravity. However, it was neither moral nor social arguments, but rather the expulsion of the population officially targeted for drug use, that curtailed the trade in opium on the Witwatersrand.

Journal of African History 57, no. 3 (2016)

Abstract: In the wake of the South African war, the indenture and transport of over 63,000 Chinese men to gold mines in the Transvaal sparked a rush to supply smoking opium to a literally captive market. Embroiled in a growing political economy of mass intoxication, state lawmakers shifted official policy from prohibition to provision. Their innovation of an industrial drug maintenance bureaucracy, developed on behalf of mining capital in alliance with organized pharmacy and medicine, ran counter to local trends of policy reform and represents a unique episode for broader histories of modern narcotics regulation. This article considers the significance of this case and chronicles the contradictory interests and ideologies that informed political scrambles over legitimate opium uses, users, and profiteers. It shows how the state maintained its provision policy, for as long as it proved expedient, against varied and mounting public pressures – local and international – for renewed drug suppression. The argument here is that the state managed an epidemic of addiction on the Rand as an extraordinary problem of demography. It achieved this both through redefining smoking opium from intoxicant to mine medicine and through the legal construction of a ‘special biochemical zone’, which corresponded with the exceptional status and spatial segregation of a despised alien labour force.

South African Historical Journal 68, no. 3 (2016)

Abstract: In 1907, disciplinary trials by the Cape Medical Council of 10 doctors charged with unprofessional conduct for allegedly prescribing opium for ‘non-medicinal purposes’ brought public attention to the uncertain legal and therapeutic status of opium, a substance that defied regulation across political, social and corporeal boundaries. These events represented a minor and derivative drama, the repercussion of narcotic lawmaking in the Transvaal colony, where imported opium was being cynically channelled for consumption by indentured gold miners transported from China. In the Cape, public health administrators treated the ‘spread of the [smoking] opium habit’ and local illicit drug trade as an index of the challenge to its racial and civic visions in the years leading up to national unification. Yet, even as it worked to purge ‘disgraceful’ doctors from its ranks, the medical fraternity manoeuvred the ambiguities surrounding smoking opium to assert its authority of knowledge and practice over the bodies and the subject status of their clientele. Policies for drug regulation would gain widespread purchase in the 1920s through the labours of the League of Nations’ Dangerous Drug committees. The opium tribunals in the Cape Colony represent an early demonstration of tensions between medical and penal paradigms that were beginning to play out further afield, as chemical control began to be interpreted as a duty of modern civil governance.

1 view

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page