Department of History

Fighting Fertility: The Politics of Race and Contraception in Apartheid South Africa, c1980-1994

About the project 

Fighting Fertility: The Politics of Race and Contraception in Apartheid South Africa, c.1980-1994' grows out of my interest in the histories of female activism and liberal networks in Southern Africa, and has received funding from the Wellcome Trust, the British Academy and the South African National Research Foundation.

In the project I am examining the ways in which in the 1970s, the South African National Party enthusiastically embraced Malthusian ideas in an attempt to sanitise the apartheid project.

As my research is showing, Malthusian theory became a vehicle for discussions of the country’s so-called population “imbalance” and a way to legitimise fears of the swart gevaar (black danger).

Popular discourse was awash with debates that centred on food security and the finality of natural resources. In this sense then, the country’s ‘population policy’ therefore became a proxy for, and a space within which, white anxieties of demographic “swamping” could be articulated. Paying lip-service to questions of “development”, the apartheid state allied itself to global debates in an attempt to legitimise the social engineering that lay at the heart of apartheid.

Family planning stamps
Stamps produced by Ian Ross in celebration of ‘Family Planning’, South Africa 1976

In the South African case – as in much of the world – if halting population growth was the message, then Family Planning was the medium. In 1974 the state launched an ambitious national family planning programme, the goal of which was to provide contraception to 50% of all women who were capable of gestation (15-49) by 1980. In examining the development of family planning provision in South Africa throughout the 1970s and 1980s, I pay particular attention to the ways in which the apartheid state attempted to frame contraceptive access as a benign developmental issue.

Project developments

  • November 2019: ‘The Scramble Redux?: Family Planning and International Organizations: Tales from South Africa’, paper presented at the African Studies Associationannual conference, Boston, 22 November 2019.
  • October 2019: ‘“A delicate subject”: Family Planning and Apartheid, South Africa c.1974-1994, invited seminar presentation Department of History, University of St Andrews 14 October 2019.
  • April 2020: ‘“A Serious Obstacle”: African Men, Apartheid and Family Planning’, paper presented at American Association for the History of Medicine, Columbus, Ohio, 26 April 2019.
  • February 2019: Fighting Fertility: Apartheid and Family Planning, 1970-1989’, invited seminar presentation (history) University of Dundee, 27 February 2019.
  • February 2019: ‘One has to persuade the Bantu’ Family Planning during Apartheid’ invited seminar presentation (history) Liverpool John Moores University, 20 February 2019.

Publications and other outputs

  • November 2019: I gave a public lecture funded by the Mellon Foundation at St Lawrence University (US) in November 2019: ‘Fertility and Fatherland: Family Planning and Population Control, South Africa: 1974-1984.’ Public lecture supported by Mellon Foundation, St Lawrence University, 19 November 2019.
  • June 2019:  I co-organised a Knowledge Exchange workshop with, The Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition, Sexual Health NGO in South Africa, to examine the results of ECHO trial from a grass roots, service-user perspective. This consisted of a workshop with sex workers, community health workers involved in the trial, and medical professionals to talk through the implication of the results. Following that, I was a panel speaker at the UCT medical school where we discussed the results of the trial in light of governmental advice regarding HIV prevention and contraceptive access.
  •  June 2019: I wrote an op-ed with the chair of the NGO for one of South Africa’s main daily newspapers about contraceptive access in South Aftica: ‘Inside the ECHO chamber: Government must prioritise reproductive justice’ op-ed piece with Marion Stevens, Daily Maverick 30 June 2019.
  • September 2018: 'At your Service: The Role of the Historian in Contemporary Reproductive Rights Debates’ Blog written for Nursing Clio 

Who's involved

Kate LawThe Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition (SRJC)


  • Wellcome Trust
  • British Academy
  • South African National Research Foundation


Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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