Buffett Institute, Northwestern University logoBuffett Institute, Northwestern University

Global Medical Cultures and Law


February 12, 2018

Laura Foster - Department of Gender Studies, Indiana Unifersity

"Modalities of Materiality: Peoples, Plants, and Patents in South Africa"

Hoodia gordonii is a succulent plant known by Indigenous San peoples for a variety of uses, including for food, water, and energy. In 1998, South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) made claims to knowing the plant as molecule when they obtained patent rights to Hoodia’s chemical compositions in the hopes that they, in partnership with Pfizer and eventually Unilever, could develop Hoodia as an anti-obesity product. San peoples, however, opposed the patenting of their indigenous knowledge. As a heterogeneous group, San did not all agree, but they mobilized through their own South African San Council to demand a benefit-sharing agreement in 2003 whereby CSIR granted all San across Southern Africa 6% of their revenue from the sale of Hoodia. A few years after the San-CSIR signing ceremony, the South African San Council also negotiated a second agreement, this time with Afrikaner Hoodia growers in South Africa who were supplying plants for a global herbal supplement industry. Three material-discursive meanings of Hoodia thus stood at the center of these agreements — Hoodia as molecule patented by CSIR, Hoodia as cultivated by Hoodia growers, and Hoodia as a plant found in nature and known by San peoples.

Using a feminist decolonial technoscience approach, this talk examines how San peoples, Hoodia growers, and CSIR scientists made claims of attachment to different materialities of Hoodia (as molecule, as cultivated, and as from nature) to assert rights of belonging in South Africa through struggles over patent ownership and benefit sharing. What becomes apparent is how such claims were informed in unequal ways by colonial and apartheid understandings of race, indigeneity, and gender as the San African San Council worked towards establishing meanings of San as modern political subjects, CSIR scientists sought recognition as producers of science located in the global south, and Afrikaner Hoodia growers aimed to position themselves as belonging to a changing post-apartheid South Africa. In turn, this talk analyzes how Hoodia’s materialities (e.g. chemicals and seeds) refused and/or aligned with the forces of law and science that sought to contain them. In doing so, it argues for an emphasis on multiple modalities or expressions of human and nonhuman materiality to understand modes of unequal belonging within South Africa. 

There are no upcoming events.