Black October : the impact of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 on South Africa

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This is the first serious study of the worst natural disaster in South African' history and of the impact of this disaster on the country and its people. utilising both published and unpublished official and unofficial sources, newspapers, periodicals and the recollections of over 200 'flu survivors, it traces the course of the epidemic in five main areas where its severity paralysed everyday life, viz. the Witwatersrand gold mines, Cape Town, Kimberley, Bloemfontein and the Transkei. Each of these five chapters concludes with an examination of the results which the epidemic produced locally, in spheres such as housing, sanitation, welfare schemes, the provision of medical facilities and racial segregation. Part 2 of the study surveys the makeshift efforts of the small sub-department of Public Health to combat the epidemic and makes clear how its inadequate performance brought about wide-scale agreement as to the urgent need for the creation of a fully-fledged Ministry of Public Health. Part 3 focusses on fundamental medical and aetiological issues which the epidemic raised and discusses the range of answers offered by contemporaries to questions relating to the identity, treatment and cause of the Spanish 'flu. Both medical and lay opinion on these matters are investigated and it is suggested that in 1918 most South Africans found 'scientific' answers to these questions foreign to their thinking. The attempts of the lay public to explain why the disaster occurred provide sharp insights into the prevailing world-view of much of the population. Part 4 concentrates on the results of the epidemic at a national level, both in the short and in the long term. Chapter 9 deals with its demographic impact and concludes that the Spanish 'flu epidemic was the single most important episode in South Africa's demographic history. Chapters 10 and 11 examine its more creative results - from the provision of facilities for the thousands of 'flu orphans and the rush for life insurance to the passing of the Public Health Act of 1919 and the establishment of an autonomous Ministry of Public Health. Less obvious consequences are noted too: Central Government recognition of the importance of the social welfare of (White) citizens and an enhanced anxiety about the dangers of infection across racial and class barriers and the measures taken to reduce this threat. The Conclusion argues that the Spanish 'flu epidemic was a landmark in South African social, medical and administrative history. Coming at a time when features of the new state were still being moulded, the epidemic impressed its mark on, the country in a number of fundamental ways. In addition, a study of the episode highlights aspects of contemporary South African life and thought usually hidden from the historian. The glimpses which it affords of prevailing attitudes, anxieties and assumptions at a popular level in 1918 are invaluable. Finally, the Conclusion considers why the devastating 'flu epidemic has been ignored by historians and forgotten by the majority of the people of South Africa.

Bibliography: leaves 439-535.