In a time of plague: Memories of the “Spanish” flu epidemic of 1918 in South Africa
Van Riebeeck Society Second Series, No 50, Cape Town, 2018
E-book available from HiPSA (Historical Papers Southern Africa), email: [email protected]
Part 1: The 1918 pandemic unleashes
32. Mrs E Louw, b 1897 (aged 21 in 1918): “… [T]he ‘plague’ came upon us in Cape Town with the force of a tornado.”
In recent times, the Covid-19 pandemic has dominated the international and local media. Phrases such as “flattening the curve”, “social distancing”, “self-isolation”, “lockdown” or “shut down”, “personal protective equipment”, “respirators” and “ventilators” have gone into everyday language. Increasingly, references to another, largely forgotten pandemic have inched their way into the headlines. This pandemic is known as the “Spanish” flu of 1918, because during World War I (1914–1918), a relatively free press in neutral Spain first began reporting on a new flu epidemic. During the first wave of this epidemic, many soldiers fell ill, but relatively few lost their lives. In March 1918, a more virulent influenza strain originated in Kansas and spread to military bases across the USA, from where American troops carried this strain to the Western Front in Europe. In late 1918, infected soldiers, returning home from the battlefields of Europe, became carriers of a much more deadly strain of “Spanish” flu to countries across the globe. Between March 1918 and August 1919, the pandemic engulfed the globe in three waves. It killed about 50 million people, or 3–4% of the global population.
South Africa was not spared. The pandemic raged in the country in September and October 1918, during which about 60% of the South African population contracted the virus. Within six weeks, the virus had killed between 300 000 and 350 000 South Africans. According to Howard Phillips, the renowned South African historian of epidemics, “… the estimated overall mortality toll of 4.4% made it the fourth worst-hit state in the world after Western Samoa (22%), India (6.2%) and Gambia (5.7%)”.
The second wave of the “Spanish” flu “docked” at Cape Town in early September 1918 when the troopships Jaroslav and Veronej arrived with members of the South African Native Labour Corps on board. The Cape Town health authorities quarantined Corps members for two days, then demobilised them and placed them on five trains to transport them inland to their homes. A day after they had left, staff at the military camp and labourers in the harbour fell ill. Between seven and ten days after the demobilised soldiers had disembarked from the trains, a similar pattern emerged in towns, villages and rural areas situated along the railway lines. Villagers and families fleeing infected towns and migrant workers escaping from mine compounds spread the virus further inland. This second wave was extremely infectious and lethal, and death rates rose rapidly. The impact on the local black population was particularly severe.
With the exception of the scholarship of Phillips, scant reference has been made to this pandemic in local history books. In 1990, Phillips published his PhD thesis, “Black October”: The impact of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 on South Africa. In 2018, in commemoration of the centenary of the pandemic, he published a collection of testimonies of survivors, In a time of plague: Memories of the “Spanish” flu epidemic of 1918 in South Africa, which includes 126 interviews and letters which he and others collected in the 1970s. These interviews were transcribed “… exactly as they were spoken, with repetitions, hesitations and grammatical and linguistic errors”, according to Phillips. This editorial decision was most fortunate. Since interviews were numbered and the date of birth of all interviewees was recorded, the age of each respondent at the time of the pandemic could be calculated. This information is provided in bold. Interview “sound bites”, reproduced below, place the experiences of the survivors of the 1918 “Spanish” flu at centre stage during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, and will haunt modern readers for a long time to come.
The “Spanish” flu pandemic was ferocious but short-lived. Unlike other pandemics, during which mainly children and the elderly died, this pandemic claimed men and women between 18 and 40, including many pregnant women. Many died of acute pneumonia, which was incurable at the time. The flu affected all South African communities, and some say that it also took the life of the first prime minister of the Union of South Africa, General Louis Botha. 124. Albie Venter, b 1895 (aged 23), then living in Nuwe Smitdorp, a mining village close to Pietersburg (Polokwane), summarised beliefs held at the time. “At the time people said that the Spanish flu was brought ‘by people from overseas’, but it spread among those who lived in isolated little settlements. It just came suddenly, a strange sickness, it was blown by the wind. It was a terrible time. We saw only people digging graves to bury others. It was known as the ‘three day sickness’ – if you survived three days then you would live.”
In Cape Town, 11. Christina Davids, b 1899 (aged 19), recollected falling ill: “… I remember working on Saturday morning. Together with many others, I went home feeling ill. There were severe headaches, lameness of the legs and back and severe coughing. The illness raged on for four days, then subsided, after which I felt weak and dizzy ….” Also in Cape Town, 4. Margaret Lister, b 1886 (aged 32), recalled, “… I began to feel awfully ill … and by the afternoon I was shaking … I couldn’t stay up. And then I went off to bed, very cold and very hot … And the next day it was far worse ….” 118. Popema Mhlungu, b 1872 (aged 32), living in Natal, said, “If you get that influenza, you get sick two days now, the third one, finished. Many people died … everyone who was sick just died, so quick, plenty people …. My sisters all died during that time.”
Some interviewees reported on the spread of the virus in institutions. 98. Chief Azarias Theko Maama Letsie, b 1900 (aged 18), then studying in the Roma Valley, Lesotho, remembered “… quite vividly one morn in the Morning Mass of 6am when one of the Girls of St Mary’s Convent was attacked by a Pounding Head-Ache and acute pain in chest & loin. From there in 5 minutes two boys followed suit. After a week both schools had lost more than 20 students.” 69. Edith Goring, b 1899 (aged 19), added, “I was living in the women’s residence of Grey University College which was already in session when the Flu came to Bloemfontein …. Most of our men students were ill before any of the women students. They complained of excruciating back aches. I felt a terrible lassitude for a day or two before my temperature rose. Mine went to 103 degrees and a trifle higher my first night, then came down to 101 degrees and stayed there for a fortnight or so and finally came down to normal. Many patients were delirious to the point of violence and having to be tied to their beds. I was near one such in the emergency hospital. Two women in the bed along side of me turned livid: I saw purple and black blotches develop on them when dying …. I was told that all pregnant women died.” A Pretoria medical student, 120. Charles Niehaus, b 1901 (aged 17), described his personal experience of the onset of the disease: “I had been studying till about 10pm and went to bed feeling perfectly well. I woke up, however a few hours later with a splitting headache, pains all over my body, shivering, and a high temperature taken early next morning. I was kept in bed till my temperature was normal for a couple of days, and soon recovered but so weak [his emphasis]. Even without complications, the ‘Flu’ took it out of you.” 101. Mrs Geach, b 1898 (aged 20), a temporary teacher on a farm outside Cathcart, Eastern Cape, said, “It was very bad. I had 10 people down. And it was a terrible time …. It seemed endless …. We couldn’t believe where it had come from. There was evidently no cure. It was an unexpected plague …. You never knew the numbers …. A lot of our friends died. It didn’t take the very young. It took the older people … 40 and 50. And pregnant women. And it was quick …. It was a proper plague.”
In cities, towns and villages
The immediate impact of the epidemic could be seen in the streets of the cities, towns and villages in South Africa. The recollections of the 1918 survivors are an uncanny echo of the effects of the current lockdown as experienced by the 2020 South African population.
The pandemic hit Cape Town in mid-September 1918, and by 7 October had engulfed the city, with dead bodies lying uncovered on pavements from Sea Point onwards into town. 43. Stan Stone, b 1905 (aged 13), described the scene: “It was like a city of the dead, yes – it was awesome, it was quiet, you’d never hear a horse-and-cart, very, very, few motor-cars, and, you know, you’d miss the horses’ hoofs going round and the rumbling of the wheels on these gravel roads. It was really, really bad, very bad …. Just now and again a tram would come rattling through, and, of course trains were few and far between.” 15. Angela Gilhan, b 1901 (aged 17), remembered the weather: “Black October came. The sky was overcast. The weather was putrid. Dull, cold days with intermittent rain.” 44. Mr NA Reinbach, b 1899 (aged 19), stated, “It was over 50 years ago this October  that Cape Town was struck by the Plague during a howling black South Easter…. I saw death in the streets. Cape Town became deserted and looked more like a city of the dead. People were dying like flies. No one seemed to be making contact with one another. The stores and Bioscopes had no attendance and ultimately closed …. During the third week of the Plague, I witnessed people dropping dead in the street.”
Phillips recorded that the working-class areas of Cape Town were hardest hit: District Six, Bo-Kaap, “Little Sicily” near the harbour, Woodstock, Salt River, the African locations at the docks and the local black township, Ndabeni. As assistance was not forthcoming from the central government’s three-man Public Health Department, the Cape Town City Council took action. It divided the city into districts, each served by a relief food depot and providing soup kitchens and free medicines, including vaccines. In these designated districts, subcommittees organised burials, transport, and cleaning and disinfecting of streets. Six temporary hospitals were set up as well. Volunteers were called for to assist with running these efforts. On 10 October 1918, 442 deaths were recorded. Overall, the Cape Town death toll topped 4 300, or 3,5% of the population.
- Irene Beater, b 1905 (aged 13), remembered, “I believe the black population suffered severely. Carts used to travel along the roads with the dead just rolled in blankets. I think they were buried somewhere near Salt River. The convicts were turned out, doped with drink, and forced to dig graves.” 19. Dennis Scholtz, b 1885 (aged 33), recalled, “I mean the town was like, at a standstill. Activities were at a standstill … very few people … very few about, but long death columns [in the newspaper]. It was really stagnation … like a ghost town … It was like, ‘Where are the people?’ The city seemed to be a dead city.” From Ndabeni, 23. Lillian Nontombi Mawu, b 1874 (aged 34), reported, “Somebody coming from somewhere fell dead in the street, but I know that in the houses there were 20 or 30 in one house. And in the morning when you come there early everybody’s dead. During the time … there were no dogs barking, there were no fowls crowing, no trains running, everything was at a standstill. Everything was quiet.”
Phillips commented on Bloemfontein: “The powers-that-be there cherished the belief that, because of its climate, pure air and modest size, Bloemfontein was the cleanest, healthiest city in the Union and that this would be proof against an outbreak of any disease becoming serious …. The final death toll came as a rude awakening. Nearly 1,300 deaths in a population of 30,767.” As a 17-year-old, 76. Mrs Anne Frayne’s, b 1901 (aged 17), perception of Bloemfontein was “… one of complete unreality. Of daily living completely disorganised, of empty streets, of closed houses where people were lying sick or dead. All schools and colleges were closed and I think business houses and shops must have remained open if there was a skeleton staff, otherwise they must have closed their doors ….”
Kimberley was infected with the virus by unwitting carriers who had arrived from Cape Town in late September 1918. Kimberley, at the time, had a disproportionately high percentage of young men – migrant workers who lived in the mine compounds, demobilised soldiers in army camps and young men (and women) living in the local congested townships. The death toll soared.
- Dudley Drever, b 1903 (aged 15), remembered what people said: “Kimberley was like a dead town and many couldn’t go to work …. The flu came from Europe and people said that it was because of the war. Soldiers were killed and their bodies left lying around rotting. Germs were picked up from this, which caused the ‘Spanish’ flu. A red flag was put outside the house if a doctor was needed by sick people inside.” 63. Mrs ME Hardcastle, b 1909 (aged 9), observed the devastation: “We as kids used to see the carts passing to go to the cemetery at first with coffins then with bodies wrapped in blankets as the coffins had been used up and people were dying faster than others could make ….” 92. Erna Westphal, b 1901 (aged 17), recalled, “Bioscopes and all public gatherings, except of course church, were banned, and finally all shops were closed except those which supplied food, which were open part of the time. All people who could get out of Kimberley left as fast as they could ….” 64. Joe Sperber, b 1900 (aged 18), remarked, “The De Beers Company have compounds for their African staff, and there was considerable loss of life in these compounds. Undertakers ran out of coffins, and corpses were wrapped in blankets and buried. The Africans were buried in mass graves, and there were hardly enough coffins for European victims.”
In the rural areas
In 1918, almost 70% of the South African population lived in the rural areas, residing mostly in the Transkeian Territories, the southern Cape, the Natal hinterland and the northern, western and eastern Transvaal. These areas were not well served by the railway network. Hence the epidemic reached these areas about a week later, when sick migrant workers and soldiers returned home. Phillips found that local magistrates in control of large districts had to initiate efforts to control the pandemic without resources or assistance. They received no timely, practical advice or directives regarding prevention measures from the central government. Small country towns were a little better off. The local doctor and sometimes a small hospital staffed by a few nurses formed the only – though better than none – defence against the pandemic.
- Mrs CE Bronkhorst, b 1900 (aged 18), said of De Rust, a village close to Oudtshoorn: “People said, ‘The flu is here’. They heightened our fears by telling us, ‘You get sick and you die’. People did not know how to treat it.” From Piketberg in the Western Cape, 86. Jan Dommisse, b 1902 (aged 16), reported, “Nobody knew anything about the flu. This was brand new in Piketberg at that stage; it was hardly known … the whole village was down. And when I say the whole village is down, that is literally the truth. White and coloured were down, the doctor was down, the magistrate was down, all prominent people were down except the sergeant in the police. The name was Sergeant Baker.” 105. Frederica Kriel, b 1892 (aged 26), said, “Next day Aliwal North was dead. Shops closed, no post, no servants and I was that dizzy I also clung to the wall for support but we were not bad. Old people got it mild; it was from about 20 to 40 years that thousands died within three to five days. In those days there were no phones, so [we] had no news of the family.”
- Diyandi Mbauli, b 1903 (aged 15), was terse: “At the time of the flu I was a young boy … in the Ciskei, aged 15. My two eldest brothers … died in that flu. One had children already ….” 113. Dinah Zaula, b 1897 (aged 21), recollected that in the Transkei [Eastern Cape], “[a]t the time there was no doctor …. Even witchdoctors know nothing …. There was no medicine at all. Doctors know nothing about that flu … didn’t give any medicine. It was accepted as something that just was. When this started, the afternoon, the day started a wind, a very big wind …. The following day everybody said some people were sick …. That thing was so quick … was very bad. Some people are sick there. Some people are sick there …. They didn’t have a name. It was infulawenja [dog fever]. Some people came to get some medicine from the shop, but some others say they don’t have ….” 119. Petrus Ndaba, b 1900 (aged 18), remembered seeing in Cullinan, near Pretoria, “… a man sitting on a step with his head on his arms – he was dead. Many people died, too much, it was awful.
The community response
Across the country, the task of caring for the sick fell on the shoulders of municipalities, village management boards, local resident magistrates, NGOs as well as volunteers. Some authorities opened emergency hospitals to tend to the sick and, in places, came up with free vaccines or flu mixtures. They organised home visits to take soup and food to the sick and cart away the mounting number of corpses. Many people resorted to traditional cures.
In Cape Town, 32. Mrs E Louw, b 1897 (aged 21), was impressed that “… the Mayoress and others organised a band of helpers who did fine work. Soup kitchens and free distributions of bread etc. were arranged.” 13. Winifred Petersen, b 1901 (aged 17), of Cape Town was heartened: “… [O]ne of the things that really sticks in my mind is the amazing way that people stood together to help. It brought Europeans, non-Europeans together, making soup and taking them out, knocking on doors that hadn’t been opened for days and finding most of them dead and the baby crawling over the family, because the whole family was gone …. Nobody thought in terms of ‘Oh, I might get it’, you know. Church groups stood together and women would come together and cook soup and take it out … most of the shops, most of the businesses were closed, some for a day, some for longer, it depends on how sick the people were ….” In an interview with Phillips in 1981, 71. Mr H Selby Msimang (1887–1982) (aged 31 during pandemic), one of the founders of the ANC, looked back on the pandemic: “Despite all differences with whites, the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic created a spirit that was never known before in Bloemfontein. Whites were sympathetic – they became friends and brother to people in [Waaihoek] location. It seemed as if everyone in the town took an interest in what could be done. Cars were going to and fro to give help to those in need. There was a feeling of brotherhood – it never again existed.” He added, “You would talk to a man in the morning and in the afternoon he’d be flat. You’d talk to a man and in a short time he’d have convulsions and be dead. I have never seen anything like that.”
- Mrs ME Hardcastle, b 1909 (aged 9), said, “Mom used to go to the Kimberley Hospital [for a shift] from 3pm to midnight, come home and after a few hours’ sleep used to go out with us to the city hall; there we were given eggs, lemons, tablets and a can of hot soup.” 76. Mrs Anne Frayne, b 1901 (aged 17), related: “I was seventeen at the time, living at home with my father and mother. Mother spent her days making soups and custards, which my father put into his car and distributed to various houses. The procedure was simple to knock at the door and if there was no response one walked in and did what one could.” 42. Jenny Stern, b 1903 (aged 15), from Cape Town, remembered her mother’s remedies: “Mother … beat up the egg and the brandy and we used to drink it hot. And momma also took garlic and crushed it to a paste with camphorate. But I do know that at the City Hall and in De Villiers Street they had little bottles of red medicine which they gave. Whether it helped or not, I don’t know. … I know everybody was crying out for lemons. Food was there plenty …. Blankets were distributed ….”
Numerous home remedies were used to treat patients. 94. Gideon PF Heymans, b 1897 (aged 21), recalled, “If you ask me what remedies were taken, people tried everything you can think of. Garlic, Meth Spirits, Camphor, laxatives but what was of any consequence I do not know.” 11. Christina Adams, b 1899 (aged 19), remembered, “… [A] remedy we used, was a pink medicine issued at Claremont Town Hall. We also poured boiling water onto wild garlic and drank that. Another remedy was a drop of turps on a teaspoon of sugar.” 13. Winifred Petersen, b 1901 (aged 17), said, “… [P]eople would pay anything to get a clove of garlic … wormwood … you make that and you put the garlic in. That was the poor people’s remedy … because it worked so well.” From Kimberley, 55. “Ma” Jones, b 1889 (aged 29), said, “Quinine was used, but only when you get a chance to go to the hospital, you get it and get some of it through there.” In Bloemfontein, 81. Charles Kohler, b 1897 (aged 21), remembers being told not to drink water unless it was boiled, to be hygienic he wore a disinfected white dust coat with a Red Cross armband and being advised not to kiss. He gargled with Condy’s Crystals every day and got an injection.
- Edna Aldworth, b 1906 (aged 12), recalled, “… [T]here were no drugs in those days, and of course, nearly all the people who had the flu, got Pneumonia, still no drugs, we used to watch my mother make antiflugestine jackets. These were cut out of cotton wool and the antiflugestine [a waxy ointment to draw out the inflammation] which came in a smallish tin from the chemist, was put into the oven (coal stove) and when very hot, it was spread on with a knife, the jacket was then applied to the patient as hot as he could stand it. This was to remove the inflammation in the lungs …. My recollection of making mustard plaster for students with bad backs, hurrying, as fast as my feet would carry me, to administer these, and finding, when they had no effect, that I’d used saffron, stored in a mustard tin! Trying to housekeep in other peoples’ houses sometimes leads to such a fiasco.”
During the Bloemfontein epidemic, Arthur, Mrs Aldworth’s late husband, “… was 11 years old and a Boy Scout, and with his mother went to the hospital to offer his services. In those days there were very few cars, also very few telephones. He had to run messages, carry trays to patients and do all sorts of things. After the flu had spent itself, the Boy Scouts presented thirteen special badges throughout S. Africa to scouts who had done their duty and one was presented to my husband Arthur Power Aldworth. This remained one of his most treasured possessions.” 82. Hennie Venter, b 1907 (aged 11), also volunteered. He was given two buckets of soup and a mug on a yoke across his shoulders and was told, “Don’t knock – just go in.” People in the houses he entered were lying down, sick or dead. He had to report the deaths. “It was a terrible time. You only worried to give a sick man a cup of soup – you didn’t have time for anything else.” 76. Mrs Anne Frayne, b 1901 (aged 17), went “… to work in one of the emergency hospitals, which was in a school, and the first day I spent in a room with other girls, making shrouds, but the next day was moved into a ward full of sick and dying men …. I went down with the flu, and my mother took to her bed at the same time.”
In Piketberg in the Western Cape, 86. Jan Dommisse, b 1902 (aged 16), was put to work. “And Jack Reitz and I, being youngsters of 16, were then roped in by the sergeant to try and … help mix this [medicine] – we did it all in one of these big zinc baths. We made it up in wholesale quantities …. Jack and I after we had mixed the medicine, would then set off with whatever containers we could get and we covered the village. During the day, wherever there was anybody sick, they used to just come out.” In Cape Town, 44. Mr NA Reinbach, b 1899 (aged 19), “… took up relief work with a friend of mine by the name of Van der Spuy. He was another that had not been affected. We concentrated on District Six, had to force our way into locked premises only to find whole families wiped out, let alone the stench of Death. … During our relief work, we met death everywhere in a short time. I became quite hardened to seeing death everywhere. I sometimes wondered how many were buried alive.”
Part 2: The 1918 pandemic abates
- Stan Stone, b 1905 (aged 13), spoke of “… the flu which was actually like a raging forest fire, completely out of control, it burnt itself out exactly as a forest fire would do.”
In the course of his research, Phillips found that the best form of protection against the deadly scourge of the “Spanish” flu pandemic was an early dose of the flu, which afforded people a measure of immunity. 3. Elizabeth Wightman, b 1899 (aged 19), was fortunate. “I was the lucky one, because I got the bug before anyone realised what was going on and I was in bed a couple of days and then up. I had a headache, a bad headache but it was a different headache from any other headache I have ever had ….”
The efficacy of this acquired immunity became apparent after the pandemic, when death rates were calculated. Phillips found that Natal [KZN], the southern Transvaal [Gauteng] and the northern Orange Free State [Free State], where the pandemic had first taken hold in September 1918, recorded the lowest death rates in the country. In Durban, the death rate was 0,6%; in Johannesburg, with its congested compounds, 0,9%; and in Kroonstad, 0,7%. In comparison, in October 1918, during the second wave of the pandemic, Cape Town recorded a 3,5% death rate, Bloemfontein 4,3% and Kimberley a massive 8,9%. In rural areas such as Mount Frere in the Transkei [Eastern Cape], 7,8% of the rural population died, in all probability after having been infected by migrant workers returning home from Kimberley. However, in the neighbouring district of Mount Ayliff, 1,4% of the population died. The Natal railway line connecting this district with the outside world probably contributed to the acquired immunity of people who contracted flu during the first wave of the pandemic.
Reaction of the authorities
In 1918, the South African authorities were unprepared for the onslaught. In 1918, doctors had no knowledge of the human influenza virus. This virus was first identified 15 years later in 1933, and the development of antibiotics and antivirals lay far in the future. In 1918, the recently formed Department of Public Health had few strategies to combat the pandemic. Advice, instructions and sometimes even rumours were spread in newspapers or by word of mouth. Often, interviewees clearly remembered “… what people said”. 4. Margaret Lister, born 1886 (aged 32), conveyed, “My relations said there was something in the paper about this and said people mustn’t worry. They should stay in bed for a couple of days and then they must be encouraged to get up and walk about! Carry on as you used to.” 50. Douglas P Veary, b 1895 (aged 23), recollected, “At first people did not think it was a serious illness and were told that it was best for people who had fallen ill to stay in bed for a few days. Those who did and then got up to carry on with their duties seemed to be the ones that suffered most.” 96. Mr PS Du Plessis, b 1903 (aged 15), remembered, “Farmers called the ‘Spanish’ flu ‘die kakie pes’ [khaki plague] because they believed that it came from the war and they still hated the English. They would say, ‘Die boere het die Kakie pes gekry’ and ask, ‘Hoe gaan dit met die Kakie pes?’”
In 2020, the first line of defence against the spread of Covid-19 has been isolation and a national lockdown, with citizens being ordered to remain at home and venture out only to buy essentials. In 2020, regular and thorough handwashing with soap as well as hand sanitisers has become standard hygienic practice. A few of the 1918 interviewees spoke of isolation measures and heightened hygiene measures implemented in 1918. In the cases where these measures were practised, they were highly successful in protecting people.
- Mr GW Cook, b 1910 (aged 8), reported that in 1918, his father, the principal of the Industrial School of Potchefstroom, situated a short way outside the town, successfully implemented a “lockdown” of the school. “He soon became aware of what was known as the Spanish Influenza Epidemic, which I recollect started in Cape Town. He was a man with a scientific turn of mind and extremely forceful personality. He decided that he would endeavour to isolate the whole school and by sheer strength of character persuaded his staff and pupils to co-operate. By the time the first cases of influenza occurred in Potchefstroom he had instituted the isolation procedure. Nobody was allowed to leave the school and he threatened to forcefully prevent anybody who might leave from returning. All supplies and post were by arrangement, dumped on an old disused concrete platform in the veld outside the school and fetched some hours later. The isolation was complete and there was not a single case of illness in the whole complement of about 200 pupils and staff.
- Ethel M Hart, b 1906 (aged 12), remembered, “… Auntie and Daddy were told what to do to try and prevent their family and servants from getting this flu. We Europeans and the servants fairly lived chewing stick cinnamon until all the danger of the flu was over. No one on Glencoe [our farm] caught this influenza …. A bath of disinfectant water was placed beside the road near our huts, for the use of anyone leaving or coming to our farm, and one of our maids was told to see to the washing and ironing of the clothing which passed through the disinfectant water.” On the farm, one person only was permitted to leave to collect post, groceries and medicines at the station, provided he followed this procedure. On their farm near De Rust, 89. Mrs CE Bronkhorst, b 1900 (aged 18), recalled how her father gave them, as a preventative, bitter aloe tablets, which they kept on having. “They were so bitter that the germs didn’t attack you. Even the flies kept away. Newspapers and letters which arrived from other places were first placed outside in the sun ‘to kill the germs’.”
- Erna CM Westphal, b 1901 (aged 17), remembers the strict hygiene measures implemented by her mother on their mission station. “I don’t know if it was the ‘salies-tee’ [sage tea], or just the good air of Pniel combined with the strict hygiene which was responsible for the good health of the population of Pniel, but for the whole of that period there were only 11 deaths, and of these two were aged folks who were dying of old age and seven were miners who had fled home to die there. This was out of a population of a couple of thousand people, Pniel was a very big mission station. It stretched all along the big bend of the Vaal River ….”
The pandemic took its psychological toll on survivors. Symptoms they described point to what today can be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. This manifested in different ways across the communities. According to Phillips, interviewees often confessed that they simply wanted to forget about the tragedy, while others would not talk about it because they thought that no one would believe them, so horrific were their experiences. Their terse comments capture the enduring trauma which they experienced.
- Fred Appolis, born 1908 (aged 10), relived his local experiences: “The only thing which helped our coloured people was wild garlic and milk. That’s why we coloured people of the Cape got it in our minds, that it was the Flu that helped to end the First World War. Oh it was terrible. I don’t like to think of it.” 17. Isaac Ospovat, b 1903 (aged 15), observed, “Walking around, you know. You were all in a sort of dreary state, frame of mind. There was no willingness to do anything …. People were just walking around …. The first question to ask [somebody], ‘Anyone in your family got the flu?’ That’s what happened. It was a terrible thing ….” 94. Gideon Heymans, b 1897 (aged 21), voiced the thoughts of many survivors: “I only know, it came, it claimed its victims, and it went and all I can say as far as my memory goes, it was the darkest month I experienced in my life.” 55. “Ma” Jones, b 1889 (aged 29), mused, “I don’t hope for anything like that again. That’s worse than a war … I used to know when I was younger how many people died in the First World War which they can trace, but that epidemic took more in those couple of months, it takes more away. Husbands without wives, children without mothers …. I got such a shock; well goodness me, I can still picture it ….” 83. Stanley Daubney, b 1902 (aged 16), remembered a plague of flies after the epidemic – “millions of flies”. People would dip the branch of a tree into a paraffin tin filled with a mixture of arsenic and sugar, and then hang it up. The flies were attracted and were poisoned by the mixture.
- Anna Helmbold, b 1906 (aged 12), said that when she went back to Heilbron by train that year, “… the countryside was lush and beautiful after good summer rains”. She would never forget the joy of being able to go home, but “… in spite of the lushness of veld, there was a cloud, a dreadful depression over one all the time”. 69. Edith Goring, b 1899 (aged 19), looked back: “After the flu, apart from general weakness, we were leaden-footed for weeks, to the point where each step meant a determined effort. It also was very difficult to remember any simple thing, even for five minutes. People whose temperature was very high (105 degrees or so) for days on end, lost all their hair, two or three months later. Fortunately it grew again. My sister Gladys lost hers ….”
- Popema Mhlungu, b 1872 (aged 46), spoke of the magnitude of the impact of the pandemic in black communities: “Popema knows about amandwane/amandiki [a spirit possession in times of stress] … it makes your brain to get mandiki when people just cry. You cry for nothing. Then they ask you, ‘what’s wrong?’ During that time while you are crying, you know nothing why you are crying. Then for a while you come up again like a stroke. At my place you go lie down …. Influenza was before amandwane. Amandwane came after. Amandwane came after influenza. Because I myself had it after the influenza. I was also sick by amandwane. Witchdoctors used to help [us] about that ….” Even at age eight, 116. William Kubeka, b 1910 (aged 8), was also aware of this aftermath: “That amandwane was after the influenza. I saw many people like that and they even run away ….”
Interviewees recalled how the impact of the tragedy would revisit them. 15. Angela Gilhan, b 1901 (aged 17), exclaimed, “Oh! It was dreadful. Even when October comes each year and skies become grey, my thoughts still go back to 1918. I am now 70 years and 7 months [in 1972]. 94. Gideon PF Heymans, b 1897 (aged 21), observed, “When I hear people talk of the Flu, I think to myself this is a mockery. What I saw and was called ‘Spanish’ Flu, I never wish to see again.” 13. Winifred Petersen, b 1901 (aged 17), mused, “They called it, the old people still call it ‘Black October’ up till now …. It started gradually, just one or two and then so many were affected …. I think they didn’t realise in the beginning that afterwards it would spread so quickly.” In Cape Town, 45. Ted Jones, b 1904 (aged 14), took comfort from nature: “And then I seem to remember the Cloth settled on Table Mountain and the blessed South Easter raged carrying with it the cursed germs. No longer did people die. Few homes escaped the dreadful scourge ….” 96. Mr PS Du Plessis, b 1903 (aged 15), emphasised, “The smell of the 1918 flu you will never forget – so pungent, the smell of fever – it just came into your nostrils with a bang. Even after the flu I can still remember it.”
Counting the cost
Phillips pointed out that in South Africa, the 1918 pandemic highlighted socio-political issues which demanded attention. The embryonic Public Health Department was expanded; in 1919, a new Public Health Act was promulgated; and in 1920, the first Housing Act was passed. In Cape Town, the garden city suburb, Pinelands, was laid out, and in 1920, the newspaper The Cape Times launched the Fresh Air Fund to enable inner city slum children to enjoy a seaside holiday. This fund still exists today. Racial segregation became entrenched in the town-planning layouts of the new townships for black people on the outskirts of cities. The Langa township was laid out some distance from the centre of Cape Town, as was the township of Batho in Bloemfontein, as well as the Western Native Townships in Johannesburg. In 1923, the Native Urban Areas Act was passed to proclaim separate living areas for white, black, coloured and Indian people.
By 1925, a significant drop in the number of children of school-going age became apparent. This was a direct result of the high death rate among pregnant women during the epidemic. Phillips found that, in commemoration of the traumatic time of their birth, some children were named Ora Pro Nobis (Pray For Us) or Myra (Lament), for example. As a great number of parents died during the pandemic, almost 900 000 children were unexpectedly orphaned and left destitute. Nationwide, 23 new orphanages were built, three of which catered only for black and coloured children. Siblings were often separated from one another and placed with different members of their extended families, sometimes never to be reunited again. During the 1920s, dozens of boys in Cape Town who failed to find such a refuge had to survive as street children. 95. Hester Coetzer, b 1911 (aged 7), and her two siblings lost both their mother and their father because of the pandemic, one parent dying shortly after the other. Hester vividly recalled, “… [M]y uncle came to tell us that she [her mother] had died. We went in to see her, accompanied by my father, and I still feel the shaking of my legs …. A feeling of utter loss made them shake like that …. We were taken to our grandparents, where we received almost all the love in the world, but the shock of our great loss remained with us all our lives. We were fortunate in having relations who wanted to care for us, but the deaths of those dear ones left an indelible impression on our minds” [her emphasis].
For many years, during the month of October, death notices published in the “In Memoriam” pages of local newspapers were stark reminders to survivors of the ongoing grief and trauma of loved ones lost during the tragedy. Heeding the marketing call of not dying uninsured, many also took out life insurance and other policies. According to Phillips, others turned to religion. A number of independent Zionist churches emerged. Two women visionaries, Johanna Brandt, who was Afrikaans, and Nontetha Nkenkwe, a Xhosa woman, preached about the flu. Ms Brandt claimed that it was a turning point in history, and the prophetess Nontetha that the pandemic was sent to punish sin. The Church of the Prophetess Nontetha still exists today. Many traditional African people believed that the evil originated in the actions of malevolent witches and wizards. Both locally and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, “witch-finders” were employed to “smell out” alleged evildoers.
Despite the extensive documentary evidence on the pandemic available in South Africa, historical studies of the impact of the “Spanish” flu pandemic on South Africa have been few and far between. The extensive scholarly work done by Phillips is the exception. He surmises that this is the case “… perhaps because it seems to stand outside the main themes of the country’s modern history, its significance difficult to fathom at a macro, national level”. This collection of testimonies of survivors of the pandemic in the book under review, In a time of plague: Memories of the “Spanish” flu epidemic of 1918 in South Africa (2018), is the latest addition to Phillips’s long list of publications on this topic.
Testimonies by survivors, recorded irrespective of race, class, age, gender and geographical locations, add breadth and depth to the overall grim picture of the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic. Despite recollections having been recorded some 60 years after the event, the voices of the interviewees echo eerily across time as they attest to the trauma and horror of a time when they performed tasks seldom required of young people in peacetime. These memories of the survivors of the 1918 “Spanish” flu pandemic have a striking and frightening immediacy during the time of Covid-19.
In a time of plague: Memories of the “Spanish” flu epidemic of 1918 in South Africa (Van Riebeeck Society Second Series, No 50, edited by Howard Phillips) is well worth being read in its entirety. An electronic version of the book, the e-book In the time of plague, is available from the Historical Papers Southern Africa (formerly the Van Riebeeck Society), email: [email protected].