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UKZN webinar to explore link between unemployment and drugs in era of whoonga

Picture Leon Lestrade/ANA

Picture Leon Lestrade/ANA

Published May 31, 2022


The University of KwaZulu-Natal College of Humanities is set to host a webinar looking at the connection between work/unemployment and drugs.

The webinar titled ‘Drugs at Work - Connections Between Work/Unemployment and Drugs from the 19th Century to the Era of Whoonga’ will take place on May 31, and will be presented by Professor Mark Hunter of the University of Toronto in Canada. The session is facilitated by Professor Nirmala Gopal of UKZN's School of Applied Human Sciences.

Hunter said scholars of the ‘global South’ have documented in detail how European settlers, dependent on the labour of others, used substances to recruit labourers and intensify work.

"Yet in recent decades efforts to bring together drugs and work have somewhat stalled, including in South Africa, a country where capitalism was notoriously drug fuelled," he added.

The webinar aims to give historical context to drug use, particularly the labour-drug question in colonial worlds, from alcohol and cannabis to heroin and Xanax in South Africa.

Hunter will explore how drug use changed in a country once desperate for waged labour but now marked by youth unemployment rates of more than 50%.

Drawing on oral histories, ethnography, and archival sources in Durban, Hunter will argue that ‘a gradual but significant change in drug use took place from drugs being used as forms of leisure and coping in relation to arduous waged work to drugs absorbing the stresses of an economy marked by massive youth unemployment and precarious work.’

Bracketing off supply issues to concentrate on drug use and meanings, Hunter will show how the explosion in the illicit use of mandrax from the 1970s, and heroin and Xanax in the 2000s, took place on and shaped the terrain of these political economic transformations.

Gopal noted that the the discussion theme was controversial but contemporary.

"The scourge of drugs in South Africa and in KZN specifically is the cause of much violence and crime," she said.

Gopal is currently supervising two PhD students exploring different aspects of the impact of drugs.