The Politics of Potential

The Politics of Potential examines how new scientific understandings of the developmental origins of health and disease constitute new forms of intergenerational responsibility that are racialized and gendered, and how these overlook the everyday potentialities that shape perceptions of the future in South Africa. 

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April 2024







The Politics of Potential

The Politics of Potential: Global Health and Gendered Futures in South Africa

The first one thousand days of human life, or the period between conception and age two, is one of the most pivotal periods of human development. Optimizing nutrition during this time not only prevents childhood malnutrition but also determines future health and potential. The Politics of Potential examines early life interventions in the first one thousand days of life in South Africa, drawing on fieldwork from international conferences, government offices, health-care facilities, and the everyday lives of fifteen women and their families in Cape Town. Michelle Pentecost explores various aspects of a politics of potential, a term that underlines the first one thousand days concept and its effects on clinical care and the lives of childbearing women in South Africa. Why was the First One Thousand Days project so readily adopted by South Africa and many other countries? Pentecost not only explores this question but also discusses the science of intergenerational transmissions of health, disease, and human capital and how this constitutes new forms of intergenerational responsibility. The women who are the target of first one thousand days interventions are cast as both vulnerable and responsible for the health of future generations, such that, despite its history, intergenerational responsibility in South Africa remains entrenched in powerfully gendered and racialised ways.

The South African edition is published under licence from Rutgers University Press as Pulani Press title.


Related topics: SOCIAL SCIENCE / Disease & Health Issues, MEDICAL / Public Health, MEDICAL / Pediatrics, SOCIAL SCIENCE / Children’s Studies, SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Cultural

Michelle Pentecost

Michelle Pentecost is a South African physician-anthropologist who lives between South Africa and the UK. She completed her medical training at the University of Cape Town and her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Oxford. She is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Global Health in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London, and a research affiliate at the University of the Witwatersrand and at the University of Cape Town. Her work has been funded by the UKRI, the British Academy and the Wellcome Trust.


Michelle Pentecost's author page

The Politics of Potential examines a powerful new intervention that seeks to alter the future by tinkering with the present conditions of the unborn. Pentecost provides a riveting and at times dystopian account of how epigenetic interventions layer on to other global health interventions in disadvantaged communities in post-apartheid South Africa. From this laboratory of poverty, will it indeed be possible to finally break the cycle of violence and deprivation into which such communities seem locked?”
~Vinh-Kim Nguyen, author of The Republic of Therapy: Triage and Sovereignty in West Africa’s Time of AIDS


“This nuanced ethnography of South Africa’s First 1000 Days program offers brilliant insights about how global health’s long-standing obsession with maternal-child health is being reinvented under new scientific demands for epigenetic modeling and their temporal gymnastics in a place with a particularly fraught history of social injustice. Pentecost troubles the simplistic assessment of intervention success and failure by reminding readers of how recognition of a responsibility toward historic injury unveils the individualizing, situated, and justice-effacing effects of such programs.”
~Vincanne Adams, editor of Metrics: What Counts in Global Health

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