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The Influenza epidemic

In March 1918 an international influenza pandemic broke out, that led to the deaths of 50 million people worldwide. The pandemic spread simultaneously in Europe, Asia and North America over a twelve-month period between the last months of 1918 and the beginning of 1919. The First World War, while not the direct cause of its outbreak, contributed to its rapid spread worldwide. Soldiers, malnourished and battle weary were particularly vulnerable to infection. As they were constantly being moved between different theatres of war across the globe they spread the virus to many countries, including South Africa, where it made its appearance in September 1918. By the end of 1918, more than 127 000 Blacks and 11 000 Whites had succumbed to the epidemic. While some controversy exists as to the exact source of infection and its spread in South Africa, there is general agreement that the participation of soldiers in the War was a direct contributory factor in its arrival in South Africa. Its arrival here was initially linked to two ships, the Jaroslav and the Veronej, which arrived in Cape Town on the 13 and 18 September with members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) on board. It was established that both ships had docked at Sierra Leone, one of the places regarded as a central point of infection. In general about 500 000 people died of the epidemic in South Africa, the fifth hardest hit by the pandemic worldwide.

According to historian, Howard Philips, the ‘Spanish flu’ spread to South Africa in two waves, the first being via the port of Durban, from where it spread to the rest of Natal and the Witwatersrand. Within two weeks the epidemic spread to the rest of the population. The second wave of infection spread from Cape Town harbour to the rest of the Cape, the Orange Free State and the Western Transvaal. A second trajectory of the epidemic spreading from the Cape, reached the Northern Cape, Ciskei and Transkei. This second wave is regarded as the one that came with the ships the Jaroslav and the Veronej.

A number of factors contributed to the rapid spread of the epidemic throughout South Africa. Firstly, South Africa had a number of ports and harbours from which sailors and soldiers spread the infection. Secondly by 1918, South Africa had a well developed railway network of 10 000 miles, making it easier for the epidemic to penetrate the most remote areas. Thirdly the migrant labour system ensured that the virus travelled with infected miners on their way to the mines or home. According to Philips, between in six weeks 300 000 South Africans had died of the flu.

On a social-psychological level the flu epidemic led to increased levels of social anxiety among a population that had felt the impact of a world war. For both Afrikaners and Africans, the flu epidemic came after a number of crises impacting on both, resulting not only from the war, but from political and social dynamics within South African society. For Afrikaners, the epidemic followed a series of calamities that included the death of 26 000 women and children in the Anglo-Boer War, the failure of the 1914 Rebellion, and the growth of the poor White problem.  A reader wrote to De Burger the following letter:

‘So 'n treurigheid: oorlog, droogte, hongersnood en pestilensie; aan alle kante dreig die gevaar ons, terwijl die spaanse griep duisende van slagoffers daagliks om ons heen weg maai' (Philips: 1987: 90).


Such suffering: war, drought, hunger, and plague; danger threatens us from all sides, while daily the Spanish flu decimates thousands in our midst.

The sense of despair was communicated in the following poem published in the November 1918 issue of Die Vaderland:

'Spaanse Griep, van oorseese strand,
Wat maak jij in ons vaderland?
Het ons dan nie genoeg gelij.
Vir reg het ons so swaar baklei.
Baje vrouwe, kinders en mans
Is deur honger, moord, koe'el en lans,
In die doodsvallei gejaagd,
Hul lot word deur die volk beklaagd.
Spaanse Griep, jij is nog ‘n dolk
In die deurboorde hart van 'n volk,
Wie s'n wonde glad nie wil heel,
Want hui verlies is al te veel; . . .
 Spaanse Griep, gaat tog weg van hier,
Want as jij nou nog langer duur,
Dan blij daar oor, slegs hier en daar,
Van ons uitgemoorde volk 'n paar'   (Philips: 1987: 91)

For Africans the epidemic came after the hardships of the 1913 Land Act, war-time inflation, the droughts of 1914-1916, and floods of 1916-1917.

'It is as if the Plagues of Egypt are upon us. First the awful War, then this pestilence and now boils, and the near dread of a famine, the season is so against all crops and fruits.' (Philips: 1987: 149)

It is not surprising, historian Howard Philips notes, that the epidemic gave rise to a number of millenarian prophecies, which tend to surface in times of great social distress. According to Philips, the flu epidemic ‘was one of several natural disasters and disease which gained Enoch Migijima’s Israelite movement a large following”. In the region of King Williamstown, ravaged by the epidemic, the prophetess Nonketha Mekwenke emerged as the leader of a movement that preached a form of salvation that combined aspects of Christianity and traditional Xhosa religion. She drew on the notion of the Apocalypse which, in the context of thousands dying as a result of the flu epidemic, gained her a large following among rural women and migrant workers in the Ciskei.

In the rural areas of the Transkei the epidemic led to an increase in witch-hunting as a bewildered population tried to find an explanation for the deaths of close relatives.  The Commissioner of Police of the Transkei Division stated in his annual report for 1918 that

The witch-doctor has been more active than in previous years. The recent Influenza Epidemic ravaged the Natives and in their ignorance they ascribed the visitations to various causes and reasons, blaming friends and relatives for having caused the illness and death of those near and dear to them. There has been an increase of Smelling-Out cases and a resultant increase in the number of crimes of violence reported, also mainly due to the witch-doctor.' (Philips: 1987: 86)

According to Philips, the increase in witch-hunting was so serious that it led to the introduction of more stringent penalties for those found guilty of witch-hunting.

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Last updated : 05-Feb-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Jan-2014