Imraan Coovadia’s latest book looks at the history of poisoning in South African politics. The South African writer known for novels such as Tales of the Metric System and A Spy in Time takes a break from fiction to write a history book that addresses some of the darkest parts of modern politics centered in South Africa, Zimbabwe and spanning the 20th century. The book is titled The Poisoner: On South Africa’s Toxic Past and was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in September 2021.

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Imraan Coovadia’s fascinating new book exposes the secret use of poisons and diseases in the Rhodesian bush war and independent Zimbabwe, and the apparent connection to the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States; the enquiry into the chemical and biological warfare programme in South Africa known as Project Coast, discovered through the arrest and failed prosecution of Dr Wouter Basson; the use of toxic compounds such as Virodene to treat patients at the height of the Aids epidemic in South Africa, and the insistence of the government that proven therapies like Nevirapine, which could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, were in fact poisons; and the history of poisoning and accusations of poisoning in the modern history of the African National Congress, from its guerrilla camps in Angola to Jacob Zuma’s suggestion that his fourth wife collaborated with a foreign intelligence agency to have him murdered.

Coovadia chronicles a lurid history of mass killings using poisons grown in farms and developed in the lab by scientists, as well as accusations of poisonings in political discourse. Each of the four chapters explores various ways in which poisons are used to achieve or rumored to have been used to achieve political ends. It looks at the science behind the use of poisons in conflicts and the culture of political violence that undergirds it. Coovadia argues that wasn’t an fringe tactics in political conflict. It was widespread and highly developed.

By tracing a history that exposes the dark underbelly of revolutionary struggle as well as state use of poison to kill, Coovadia contributes to contemporary work on African statehood and power. The book has received consideration attention from critics. In his brilliant review of the book for New Frame, Christopher McMichael praises the Coovadia’s beautiful narrartion. He remarks: “Coovadia applies a novelist’s feel for character and detail to the shadowy history of the many paranoid politicians, con artists and miscellaneous lowlifes who have turned to the poisoner’s art.”

The Poisoner: On South Africa’s Toxic Past is a dark and intriguing book that chronicles the long history of the use of excessive power in modern African states. Great for history buffs and political enthusiasts.


Buy The Poisoner: On South Africa’s Toxic Past: Penguin Random House South Africa