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Nanotechnology is changing the world we live in but most South Africans don’t know or understand much about it. A new book from the Mapungubwe Institute (MISTRA) demystifies this technology and explores what it can do for us in South Africa. Beyond Imagination: The Ethics and Applications of Nanotechnology and Bio-economics in South Africa is the first book on this subject in South Africa aimed at lay people as well as scientists.

‘Nano’ refers to the science of very small particles – as small as 100 000th of a single hair, across!  This incredible size has opened up amazing possibilities for major breakthroughs across the spectrum, extending to areas like water treatments and health, including the treatment and diagnosis of cancer and other illnesses, medicines and surgery. 

However, this same size also carries risk: because nanoparticles are so small, they can penetrate the body’s usual defence barriers, like skin, to end up in our organs, including the brain. Once in the body, nanoparticles can distribute into all organs and cross cell boundaries. This   causes the particles to interact with cellular DNA or cell proteins, thus interfering with normal cell function or causing an inflammatory response

When consumer use products containing nano particles, they are exposed to these risks. But South Africans need to know that nanotechnology is already here. It’s being used in substances like paint, sunscreens and cosmetics, kitchen utensils, socks and shirts, computer products, golf clubs, and much more while regulations do not require that the nanomaterials be listed as an ingredient in products. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) came into South Africa ‘under the radar’. It was only once we were already eating genetically modified food that the debate began about what the technology means for the health of the nation, and its agriculture.  MISTRA’s new book aims to prevent the same thing happening with  this  newest technology. South Africans must not make the same mistake again.

Education and public debate around these issues are crucial. It is important that consumers in South Africa are made aware of the risks to them. But these risks also extend to the scientists and researchers working with nano materials. Thus, the country needs legislation to protect its citizens.  

However, the legislation around nanotechnology is a complex issue. This is because we also need to position ourselves to take full advantage of emerging technologies. Most developing countries like ours, including India, China and Brazil, have pro-poor strategies for nanotechnology. They recognise the potential for this technology to help  respond to socio-economic challenges,  including alleviating poverty, reducing unemployment and improving health. This is an interesting opportunity for emerging technologies that generally have a reputation for only improving the lives of the elite. However, the progress of these technologies requires support and collaboration from a vast pool of stakeholders. Rigid legislation will stifle these possibilities. There must be a balance between legislation that protects consumers, and legislation that does not hamper innovation.

Therefore, emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and biotechnology have very exciting potential for developing countries like South Africa. Nanotechnology’s potential to dramatically transform elementary technologies may create entirely new sectors. This is an exciting prospect but also presents policy challenges which are aggravated by the fast pace of technological innovation. As a country we have moved far, but not moved far enough. We need policies that will help us to grow this technology in a socially responsible way, for the good of all. For these to be achieved, a collaborative effort that includes extensive investment and synchronised, well-thought-out policies, as well as an active private sector, is crucial. Other developing countries have done it, so we should also be able to.

Informing and incorporating public perceptions of new and emerging technologies is critical. This is because of the potential influence public perception  has on national policy, including decisions on funding and advancing such technologies. We must insist that our government protects us, as well as big corporations, from the risks of this new technology.  But we must not lose out on this rare opportunity facing South Africa now. We must recognise that nanotechnology accelerates progress towards better healthcare, increased productivity and sustainable development, and make sure we take advantage of it.

Zamanzima Mazibuko is Senior Researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute (MISTRA) and editor of Beyond Imagination: The Ethics and Applications of Nanotechnology and Bio-economics in South Africa.

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