Mavungu, Democratic Republic of Congo, circa. 1900 – The sculpture is a ‘power figure’ or ‘nkondi’ which contains a spirit named Mavungu and holds sacred medicine in its belly. Photo credit: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Metabolism and capacity: history and labour in post-apartheid South Africa


I start with the question, why was it necessary, from 2008, for Mondi South Africa to spend R50 million (USD 8 million) a year on a nutrition intervention for 10,000 timber plantation labourers in KwaZulu-Natal province? The simple answer, to improve labour productivity, belies the dark histories of colonial conquest and apartheid exploitation, on the one hand, and the developing science of fatigue, nutrition, and infectious disease over the 20th century. The question opens out to a critical look at the way in which these working bodies were understood to metabolise calories and other substances, and suggests a much broader problem for how that central organism of metabolism, the gut, is understood across Euro-American and African contexts. While a history of the modern science of the gut shows the extent to which metabolic thinking depends on an array of culturally specific ideas about the gut and its (dis)contents), a broader reading of the ethnographic archive suggests diverse, ongoing, subaltern perspectives on the mediations and transformations at stake between persons, bodies, and environments.

Since its origins, South African forestry has been crucially dependent on the steady and secure availability of labour power for its productivity. Labour power, as Karl Marx put it, as an abstraction of “flesh and blood,” configures the calculations of inputs and outputs, calories and costs, prices and profits. “Productivity” amongst timber plantation labourers in South Africa had been falling since the 1980s, and accelerated in the 1990s, after the end of apartheid. Various factors were blamed, including the “contractorisation” and outsourcing of labour, the opening of South Africa’s markets to global competition after sanctions against the apartheid regime were lifted; and devastatingly high rates of HIV, particularly among young women. Injuries, absenteeism, and a general labour scarcity forced Mondi (PLC) to implement a suite of labour reforms from 2008, the centrepiece of which was a nutrition intervention that saw a calculated, calorifically enriched meal distributed to 10,000 labourers in the middle of the working day, deep in plantations across the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Mondi was established in the 1960s by the apartheid government to service the mining sector and is now a global paper and pulp corporation. “Community-based” food suppliers were trained to cook and deliver calorifically enriched and “culturally acceptable” meals. For the company, the cost of labour power was key to global competitiveness, and the labour regime, by the 2000s, depended fundamentally on the idea that workers lived in rural homesteads adjacent to the plantations, supported by an African mode of production, including the cultural ties afforded by clan, custom, and kin.[1]

The plantation nutrition intervention thus appears to bring together, on the one hand, a labour force that turns on a “human motor” metabolising the hot cooked meals of calculated calories; on the other, the labour regime explicitly depended on a set thick of social relations between workers — of kin, neighbours, healers, chiefs — that not only sustained their bodies but also coordinated the rhythms of the working day. During the 2000s, that hot cooked meal intersected with a public crisis around HIV and the politics of nutrition, at the centre of which lay a set of substances that scandalised AIDS activists around the world: part vitamin, part traditional curative, manufactured in industrial conditions, and circulating through corporate pharmaceutical networks. Building up to 2008 was the global controversy around the infamous claim by former state president Thabo Mbeki that HIV did not cause AIDS, leading to a landmark study by the Academy of Science of South Africa on the relationship between nutrition, HIV, and TB. At stake, both politically and scientifically, was the question of how to consider the history of apartheid and the ongoing legacy of structural violence that unevenly distributes access to employment and nutritious food.[2] As Karen Flint shows, the history of those scandalous substances, stretching back a century, is intimately entangled with a history of conquest and industrialisation that produced the devastating system of migrant labour, but also, crucially, blurred the heavily policed boundaries of biomedicine and African healing.[3]

While the corporation’s calorific interventions augment bodily capacities via the trope of a “human motor”, workers in the plantations talk about Amandla.[4] Denoting strength, power or capacity, amandla itself is a particularly potent word in South African public life. From the mythology surrounding the early nineteenth century Zulu king Shaka kaSenzangakhona and the modes of power and virility associated with his rule; through its explicitly political deployment in the antiapartheid struggle as a rallying cry at funerals and marches; and from the late 2000s, in public critique of former President Jacob Zuma’s personal life and the politics of redistribution, amandla remains a polyvalent concept in everyday speech. As my interlocutors explained to me amid the timber plantations, “amandla” also refers to one’s social and reproductive capacities, particularly in relation to earning a wage or ability to pay bridewealth. Two key objects of concern for amandla, amongst others, are bodily capacity to labour and the efficacy and strength of substances, including pharmaceuticals, vitamins, and other curatives, directed at augmenting one’s capacities, specifically by means of activating, as purgatives and emetics, (what is named in English as) the gut.

What does “metabolism” look like from those timber plantations? Firstly, the nutritional intervention implemented from 2008 by Mondi plc, one of the world’s largest paper and pulp manufacturers, was part of a suite of labour reforms aimed at improving falling rates of productivity in the timber plantations. Secondly, the nutrition intervention sits in a broader landscape of HIV/AIDS and unemployment. Thirdly, the post-apartheid state’s effort to abolish “traditional medicines” while increasing access to antiretroviral treatment and nutrition sits within a longer history of medicine, the state, and shifting ideas about the gut in social and economic life. An apparent tension appears between an emerging science of metabolism that emphasises the biosemiotic communicative function of metabolites, T-cells, nutrients, and the body’s environmental “situation”, on the one hand; and on the other, a hybridising vernacular praxis of consuming purgatives and emetics that absorbs and modulates the wounding effects of a history of racialised dislocation and oppression, but which scandalises liberal concern with nutrition and HIV treatment, and increasingly speaks in terms of cultural essentialism. By examining histories of colonial medicine, apartheid dislocation, and the emerging microbiome science, a clearer view of the symbolic presuppositions of metabolism is possible, as well as a range of other forms of “work” that are entailed in the political life of the metabolising body in this locale.[5]

Of Tripe and Trope

The ethnographic archive suggests very different ways of conceiving of the relation between bodies and value, and of coercive histories and their environments. Around these plantations, people speak about a long invisible snake (inyoka) in the gut sent by malevolent and jealous kin, that must be expelled by means of “traditional medicine”, purgatives and emetics in their now industrial guise known as izifo zonke, “all diseases”. Such industrialised curatives have scandalised the state since the early 20th century, and point to a hybridising form of material culture that indexes shifting biomedical ideas about hunger, nutrition, and embodied capacities to mediate the devastating effects of migrant labour and disease.[6] Subaltern histories of power and resistance, as well as existential questions of vitality, efficacy, and flourishing, work on and through bodily locations and locutions that appear, simplistically, to centre on “the gut”, but in fact draw in a huge range of very different presuppositional materials, and point to very different possibilities. What kinds of possibilities does the archive hint at?

‘Ingwe remedies are based on ancient African spiritual knowledge and practices.’ Photo credit: Marico South Africa
‘Ingwe remedies are based on ancient African spiritual knowledge and practices’ Photo credit: Marico South Africa

A comparative analysis of cultural tropes of “the gut” risks dabbling in what Marshall Sahlins calls ‘Frazerian uncontrolled comparison’. Its results are as bizarre as they are futile.  For example, a keyword search for “ingestion” in the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) shows results for thirteen ‘cultures’: three in Africa (Tiv, Luo, Kpelle), three in Asia (Sherpa, Taiwan Hokkien, Vietnamese), two in middle America (Garifuna, Zapotec), one in the Middle East (Iran), four in North America (Kaska, Cajuns, Chicanos, Cuban Americans). For “intestines”, apparently there are 222 cultures for whom this is a significant category of analysis, 49 of which are in Africa. Of this list, there are eight texts in which “Zulu” concerns with “intestines” arises, for a total of 1383 paragraphs in 613 documents. Joseph Tobin suggests we think of such assembling of texts as the HRAF, to be re-ordered in any variety of ways, as a ‘radical text.’[7] 

A more contextualised approach is more useful. For example, in his essay on personhood and morality among the Baga, swamp rice farmers living on the coast of the Republic of Guinea in West Africa, Ramon Sarro challenges the received anthropological assumption that the self in Africa has nothing to do with ‘the individual.’[8] At stake in the way that eating expresses moral agency, and stresses the relational aspect of being a member of a moral community, is the difference between Baga concepts of throat and belly. In Sarro’s analysis, throat and belly become bodily metaphors for expressing the tension between individualistic tendencies and a communitarian ethos, thereby enabling Baga to think of the human being in terms of both individuality and relational personhood. The same word, kor, refers both to the individual belly and the descent group itself, pointing to the substantial unity of members of a descent group.[9] A second example is Fayers-Kerr’s ethnography of ‘body arts’ among the Mun (Mursi) of southwest Ethiopia, which shows that what is termed ‘body painting’ in translation is in fact not only a gloss on geophagy and the role of clay in constituting relations with others and in healing action, but also in mediating ‘local experiences of the environment’ (2013: 5). Local bodiliness and personhood involve permeability between other people, places, and experiences of the environment, such that eating earth helps to develop an awareness of how one becomes local, or consubstantial with one’s environment.

Gut-centred tropes appear in the archive both in the register of both normative custom and as ironic reflection on historical change. For example, Bjerk argues that the basis for political power in the formation of the Zulu kingdom was not the accumulation of cattle (by men) but rather the control of vital fluids such as milk and semen (mediated by women), and thus a more fleshy figuration of the body politic.  In relation to highveld Tswana notions of the person, Comaroff and Comaroff argue that in addition to affirming the presence of precolonial relations of class differentiation, personhood was premised the capacity to “build oneself up”, “acquiring ‘wealth in people’, i.e. orchestrating ties of alliance and opposition, by means of ‘eating’ their rivals”. Coplan suggests that Sotho ‘auriture,’ which developed in response to the forced migrant labour of men travelling to mines, offers up the image of cannibalism, bolimo, as a consuming image in the rhetorical politics of Basotho personal and national identity, to be understood as a mythical figuration of a grim defense against the predations of war, forced migration, starvation, and addictive anthropophagy.[10]

The belly features as a powerful trope in postcolonial politics, from Bayart’s classic analysis of ‘politique du ventre’, a Cameroonian critique of politicians’ propensity to hoard and greedily consume things and people, to Argentine’s ‘intestines of the state’, an image of palace hierarchies and conflict.[11] South African poet Mongane Wally Serote’s meditation on the migrant labourer’s experience in City Johannesburg (1972), rests on the image of the city’s mines as the stomach that metabolises humans into gold. In contemporary Zimbabwean literature, Gibson Ncube suggests, the way in which dissenting voices have been framed as dirt, filth, undesirability, has everything to do with questions of memory and belonging. In 1980s Mozambique, the figure of the ‘Xiconhoca’, was the object of socialist critique of the protuberant belly as the sign of greed and selfishness, which returned as moral commentary on the bodily effects of eating antiretroviral therapy on an empty stomach. In Nigeria, talk of ‘stomach infrastructure,’ became a popular term of ironic critique characterising bad policy and governmental action, following the campaign for the governorship of the Nigerian province of Ekiti State in 2014, in which promises were made to provide ‘stomach infrastructure’ by using funds intended for other purposes to end hunger.[12] In more schematic terms, Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony brings together mouth, belly, and phallus into a broader analysis of the body as the principal locale of the idioms and fantasies used in depicting power.[13] 

Mavungu, Democratic Republic of Congo, circa. 1900 – The sculpture is a ‘power figure’ or ‘nkondi’ which contains a spirit named Mavungu and holds sacred medicine in its belly. Photo credit: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
Mavungu, Democratic Republic of Congo, circa. 1900 – The sculpture is a ‘power figure’ or ‘nkondi’ which contains a spirit named Mavungu and holds sacred medicine in its belly. Photo credit: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The image of the body politic is central here. While hardly a universal metaphor, its global circulation through histories of European colonialism no doubt makes it available to many local re-articulations. A critique of “the gut” opens up the potential for a different political-somatic perspective to emerge by getting some distance from the Euro-American medieval tradition of seeing the head as the sovereign, the locus of thought and action, and the belly, as Aesop’s fable has it, as the centre of popular sentiment, sometimes selfish, greedy, sometimes the great redistributor, the mediator of social and political life, as so powerfully dramatised in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Ernest Gellner’s argument about nations not needing navels fleshes this out: he asserts that nations are a product of modernity without needing preexisting conditions; like Adam, they are simply created, invented. For Alan Strathern, Sri Lankan history is best understood as the digestion of the foreign, the potency of the foreign being incorporated and thus domesticated being a grand historical logic of assimilation at the heart of Lankan history.[14]

Thus, from the history of quack cures banned by various colonial governments that operate on the gut to augment amandla as both social capacity and political possibility, to the unreliability of Donald Trump’s “gut feelings”, what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”, to the new science of epigenetics and enteric microbiomes, the image of the gut, ventre, isisu, maag, belly, is readily available in the archive and in popular imagination. The notion of metabolism motivates a range of analytic approaches to social and political change, with varying historiographical implications, from world ecology[15]  to science,[16] ontology,[17] and colonialism.[18] Each of these work with a notion of the relation between past and present, of what changes and remains, what is absorbed and transformed, and what is expelled or re-valued, as a relation between human and non-human concerns. While the picture of metabolism transforms through these histories of scientific and ecological understanding, none bracket the cultural investments of metabolism itself in relation to an ethnographic (and thus colonial) archive.

The nutrition intervention in the timber plantations of South Africa is thus premised on the capacity of the gut to metabolise calories, while in fact it also draws in a variety of concepts of wellbeing and life, kinship and affliction. How, then, to accommodate a history of science with the ethnographic archive? Landecker’s account of developments in the science of metabolism offers one genealogy; Wilson’s reading of the psycho-neuro-enterological inter-involvement of the gut and its milieu advances another. Both suggest an increasingly ‘situated’ body that demands a richer accounting of the various actors and relations that are understood to be at stake in (what we call) the gut.[19] The challenge is to absorb these very different ways of conceiving that bodily relation, which turn out to always have been central to knowledge of metabolism—what we might, in the end, call ‘provincialising metabolism’.[20]


[1] N Pons-Vignon and W Anseeuw, ‘Great Expectations: Working Conditions in South Africa since the End of Apartheid’, Journal of Southern African Studies 35, no. 4 (2009): 883–99; Thomas Cousins, ‘Knowledge of Life: Health, Strength and Labour in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’, Anthropology Southern Africa 37, no. 1–2 (2014): 30–41.

[2] Didier Fassin, When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa, California Series in Public Anthropology (University of California Press, 2007).

[3] Karen E Flint, Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa, 1820-1948 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008).

[4] Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

[5] I provide a fuller description in Thomas Cousins, The Work of Repair: Capacity after Colonialism in the Timber Plantations of South Africa (New York: Fordham University Press, 2023).

[6] Flint, Healing Traditions; Randall Packard, White Plague, Black Labour: Tuberculosis and the Political Economy of Health and Disease in South Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

[7] Joseph Tobin, ‘The HRAF as Radical Text?’, Cultural Anthropology 5, no. 4 (1990): 473–87.

[8] Ramon Sarro, “The Throat and the Belly: Baga Notions of Morality and Personhood,” JASO 31 2 (2000): 167–184.

[9] Sarro, “The throat and the belly,” 174.

[10] Paul K Bjerk, “They Poured Themselves into the Milk: Zulu Political Philosophy Under Shaka,” Journal of African History 47 (2006): 1–19; John L. Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, “On Personhood: An Anthropological Perspective from Africa,” Social Identities 7, 2 (June 2001): 267–83; David Coplan, “History Is Eaten Whole: Consuming Tropes in Sesotho Auriture,” History and Theory 32, 4 (1993): 80–104.

[11] Jean Francois Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993); Nicholas Argenti, The Intestines of the State: Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[12] Tunji Aloapa, “Stomach Infrastructure and Nigeria’s Emergent Political Culture,” The Guardian, 2019, https://guardian.ng/issue/stomach-infrastructure-and-nigerias-emergent-political-culture/.

[13] Ippolytos Kalofonos, All I Eat Is Medicine: Going Hungry in Mozambique’s AIDS Economy (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2021); Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[14] Alan Strathern, “The Digestion of the Foreign in Lankan History, c. 500–1818,” in Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History, ed. Alan Strathern and Zoltán Biedermann (UCL Press, 2017), 216–38.

[15] Foster 1999, Moore 2011

[16] Hannah Landecker, “The Metabolism of Philosophy, in Three Parts,” in Dialectic and Paradox: Configurations of the Third in Modernity, ed. Berhard Malkmus and Ian Cooper (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013), 193–224.

[17] Alf Hornborg, “Imperial Metabolism,” In Peter Fibiger Bang, C. A. Bayly and Walter Schedel (eds.) The Oxford World History of Empire (2021): 437-459.

[18] Hiʻilei Julia Hobart and Stephanie Maroney, “On racial constitutions and digestive therapeutics,” Food, Culture & Society 22, 5 (2019): 576-594.

[19] Landecker, “The Metabolism of Philosophy,”; E A Wilson, Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body (Duke University Press Books, 2004).

[20] For an illustration see : https://comparative-guts.net/africa-i/

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