October 1918 was the height of the Spanish influenza pandemic in Cape Town. Picture: Centre for Disease Control
October 1918 was the height of the Spanish influenza pandemic in Cape Town. Picture: Centre for Disease Control

Pandemics and SA’s forced removals

By Chelsea Geach Time of article published Sep 19, 2020

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Cape Town – We are not living in unprecedented times. Far from it.

South Africa has a long and intense history of dealing with epidemics, many of them linked to worldwide pandemics, and they have shaped our heritage in ways many South Africans are not even aware of.

For example, the bubonic plague and Spanish flu pandemics were the trigger behind South Africa’s first forced removals and racially segregated living areas, according to Emeritus Professor Howard Phillips, formerly of the Department of Historical Studies at UCT, who has written a book on the subject.

“South Africa has a dreadful history of pandemics. One of the things which I’m struck by is how ignorant South Africans are of our pandemic history. It’s not quaint information; it’s essential if you want to cope with the next pandemic,” Phillips said. “South Africa has probably been engulfed by about six or seven pandemics in the last 300 to 400 years that we are aware of, and each one has had a very significant effect.”

One pandemic that fundamentally changed the course of our history was the smallpox one, which hit in recurring waves from 1713 to the end of the 1800s, and was brought in on ships landing at the Cape.

Many white settlers in the Cape had already been exposed to smallpox in Europe and so had immunity, but the indigenous Khoe population had never encountered the virus before, and its effect was devastating.

“So many young Khoe men and women died that their independent existence in groups that moved around with cattle was effectively wiped out,” Phillips said.

“Those who survived became farm labourers or went to mission stations. Survivors were left infertile, so they were unable to reproduce the next generation, and the make-up of the population was significantly altered.

“The original indigenous population of the Cape were effectively removed … a significant factor in South African history as a result of smallpox. That’s an absolutely fundamental change. This is one example of how repeated waves of a pandemic effectively transformed the demography of South Africa.”

Pandemics and their reach into South Africa gave the racist colonial authorities the “excuse” they had been looking for to implement South Africa’s first forced removals and create segregated living areas, said Phillips.

In 1901, the Cape was hit by the bubonic plague, which had already led to led to a reign of terror from China to Europe, and was carried into South Africa via infected fleas on ship rats.

“This mobilises the colonial authorities in Cape Town: Who are the people who work at the docks? Africans. They are the ones posing a threat to society; we must remove them from where they live,” Phillips explained.

“Police were sent in; they were effectively forcibly removed to an area on the Cape Flats and there they were dumped. That suburb was named Ndabeni and it became the first African location.

“The same happened in Port Elizabeth, all under fear of bubonic plague. Not the idea, but the actual implementation of forced removal of black Africans in South Africa really has its trigger (in the pandemic).”

The establishment of Soweto in Gauteng can also be traced back to forced removals triggered by the plague. When bubonic plague becomes widespread and severe enough in humans, it can be spread by coughing and becomes the much more lethal pneumonic plague.

This happened in Johannesburg in 1904, and white authorities pointed fingers at the Indian and African population living in what was then known as “Coolie Location”.

Phillips said 3 178 people, including Indian, African and coloured people, were forcibly removed and taken to a tented camp at Klipspruit.

“It was renamed Pimville, and then became the core of Soweto. Why Soweto is where it is, (can be traced) back to the eviction of the population in 1904.”

When Spanish flu struck South Africa in 1918 and killed 300 000 people within a month and a half, it only served to speed up the trend of forced removals and segregation implemented by colonial powers.

“(In Cape Town), Ndabeni was regarded as too close to the city and a new township was established, called Langa,” Phillips said. “The same is true in Johannesburg and PE.”

This characteristic of pandemics to reveal things about a society and speed up extreme action is already evident with Covid-19, he said.

“Pandemics generally do a couple of things: they reveal things about society which otherwise are not so apparent – you can see that very obviously with Covid-19.

“They create an intense fear of death, and they reveal people’s attitude to others. They tend to speed up patterns and trends which were there before, but hadn’t gained particular traction.”

This is not necessarily only negative in effect, and Phillips pointed out that it may play out in the present day with the rapid implementation of the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme, which has been under discussion for many years.

“I will speculate that Covid-19 is going to be the opening for rapid response with the NHI,” he said.

“That’s exactly what happened with Spanish flu – one of the very first things they did was to establish a National Department of Health, which still exists and is headed by Dr Zweli Mkhize today.”

*Phillips is the author of Plague, Pox and Pandemics: A Jacana Pocket History of Epidemics in South Africa

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