Part Two | The 1918 flu pandemic that made cities

The so-called Spanish Flu that marched across South Africa a century ago influenced the way our cities are laid out today. What can we learn from that earlier outbreak?

The last time an airborne pandemic ran through Johannesburg, a century ago, it was a very different place.

In the south, rich deposits of gold had given rapid rise to mine compounds. In the north, along the ridges of what are today Parktown and Houghton, were the vast estates and mansions of the few people who profited from those deposits. But there was little in between other than an expanse of unplanned shanties and hovels, according to Catherine Burns, a medical historian at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.

As the influenza spread from the mines and into the working-class settlements that surrounded them, some of the worst-affected areas were Doornfontein, Jeppestown and Troyeville (what is today the eastern fringe of the inner city), and what was then known as the Malay Location (around what would later become Fietas).

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In the pages of the Rand Daily Mail newspaper, these “places of desolation”, a stone’s throw from the most profitable mines on the planet, took on a Dickensian character, with “the super-slum known as the Malay Location possibly the worst of the lot”. They were made up of rickety wooden homes, many without enough blankets or candles, where people lived alongside horses and chickens. Residents barely allowed fresh air into their homes for fear of letting what little warmth they had escape.

Circa 1929: A map of Johannesburg in the wake of the flu pandemic. (Map supplied by Johannesburg 1912)

In the midst of these shabby shantylands, however, there were also homes with “walls decorated with lithographs” and mosques of “hues so vivid that it must be difficult to worship in them”.

The Vrededorp Coloured School in the Malay Location looked directly onto the entrance of the Brixton Cemetery. And during Black October in 1918, it was a view of “hearse after hearse” in “unending funerals”. The coffins of black people were accompanied by “nothing but the driver and the coffin”. The considerably fewer belonging to white people were decked in flowers and followed by mourners.

A hand tinted photograph of the Crown deep gold mine, Johannesburg in the early 1900’s. Image supplied by Hilton Teper.

Off to the races

The shortcomings of a decentralised public health response are best illustrated by contrasting the immediacy of the response to pandemic, then and now. Where President Cyril Ramaphosa shut down South Africa’s economy after only 402 confirmed cases of Covid-19, life in Johannesburg in late 1918 carried on largely unencumbered well into Black October. A tongue-in-cheek advertisement for the 12 October horse races, in the midst of an increasingly alarming death rate, read, “Come to the Races To-Day and get cured of the influenza”.

Circa 1918: A poster warning of the ‘influenza epidemic’ released by order of the government. (Image supplied by Pictorial History of Johannesburg, Anna H Smith)

When Johannesburg’s economy eventually did slow down, it was the Chamber of Commerce that recommended limited trading hours for the city’s stores. The power of local government authorities had to be extended for schools, theatres, concert halls and bioscopes to be closed, and for public meetings to be prohibited.

But by 14 October, the virus had worked up an unstoppable head of steam. “Fresh cases were arriving every minute” at the Johannesburg General and Twist Street Emergency hospitals. Eight in every 10 of these were “exceedingly critical”, with patients in the grip of pneumonia.

Circa 1888: At the turn of the 20th century, Johannesburg was a frontier town. This is a view up Rissik Street to Hospital Hill, where the General Hospital would soon be built and later deal with thousands of cases of influenza. (Image supplied by JHB 100 Years)

An urban reckoning

Throughout Black October, the Mail’s editorial pages pressed for the need to address “the slum evil in the towns of this country”, which it saw as a principal vector for disease. The newspaper would play host to a debate that took on increasingly racialised terms.

A leading architect, in calling for better urban planning and “wiping out plague spots”, opined that “whites, blacks, coloureds and yellows are herded together in squalid courtyards frequently reeking with filth. Children are born and bred in an atmosphere of crime and immorality,” he said, “and never get a chance to be anything but vicious in their instincts.”

The seeds of Johannesburg’s segregation, and the central role that disease would come to play in it, could be found in the answer he proposed to the problem: centralised planning, courtyards surrounded by well-serviced tenement buildings for poor whites, and to “segregate natives and coloured races to their own well-planned quarters”.

A response published two days later in the Mail went a step further by suggesting that it was not a lack of planning but racial mixing that had produced the conditions in Johannesburg’s slums. As an antidote, it proposed that “in any district where two-thirds of the inhabitants are non-European, no European family shall in future be allowed to take up its residence”. Similarly, “where two-thirds of the residents are European no non-European shall be allowed to move into that district.”

“As families move they will take up their residence in their prescribed districts and ultimately there will be a complete separation of the white and black races in urban areas.” The advantage of this approach, it was suggested, was that it would be “the same law for both white and black. It is not class or race legislation.”

The disquiet around working-class white people having black neighbours, who were seen as primary carriers of the virus, was captured in cases like that of Mrs L Seabrook. Finding Seabrook guilty of “harbouring natives”, a magistrate said that “for the sake of a few pounds”, the widow had “allowed natives to live on her premises” and that “such conduct was a danger to the whole community”. Seabrook had 12 black tenants on her property in Regent’s Park, most of whom were suffering from the flu. Two women and two children had died.

Undated: The living conditions of impoverished people exposed by the 1918 influenza, and the racist fears this stoked, played a major role in shaping the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923. (Image supplied by the DISA archive)

The ‘South African flu’

Johannesburg’s experience of the flu outbreak was by no means unique, and not even the most severe. Outside of the city, South Africa was among the three worst-hit countries in the world.

Mine compounds of a different kind to those in Johannesburg were part of the reason that Kimberley was hit so hard. Diamonds are easier to smuggle out of a mine than gold. As a result, says Burns, the workers at De Beers and other Kimberley diamond houses were policed and contained more strictly than their counterparts on the Witwatersrand gold mines. It’s partly what made the diamond mines such fertile ground for the spread of the virus.

In addition, according to University of Cape Town historian Howard Phillips, Kimberley was not exposed to the first wave. Without any immunity, the town, which Phillips describes as “an absolute hell hole” at the time, was defenceless in the face of the influenza.

On 2 October 1918, four deaths had been reported on Kimberley’s mines. Ten days later, by which point 500 people a day were dying in Kimberley, there had been more than 1 300 deaths on the mines. By the time mortality rates were reportedly decreasing on 18 October, more than 2 200 mineworkers had died.

Deaths from the so-called Spanish Flu in Kimberly, which had no immunity and where mineworkers were tightly policed. It was amongst South Africa’s worst hit towns during the influenza pandemic. (Source: In a time of Plague, Howard Philips)

It didn’t take long for diamond miners to begin fleeing the devastation, often carrying the disease to their rural homes. But it took until 22 October before the Mail first mentioned the experience of the pandemic in South Africa’s “native territories”. No supplies had yet been sent, the newspaper reported, and Lady Frere and Cala had “practically no medicine and no official instructions”. Reliable statistics were difficult to come by, but “up to 2 000 deaths” were reported a week later in the King William’s Town district alone.

Meanwhile, the virus had run amok at its port of entry in Cape Town. By 12 October, with 600 people dying every day, “whole households were stricken down” in so-called coloured communities, with the “dead and dying and those in the first stages of the disease being huddled together in ghastly confusion”. At one cemetery, it was reported that “the coffins were piled in heaps, and it is probable that the gravediggers will have to work all night”.

A later report that 7 400 people had died officially of flu in the first 25 days of October in Cape Town was widely considered to be an underestimate. There were already 5 000 deaths before the peak of the virus, by which point so many people were dying that graves were not being dug to their usual depth and it was “impossible to issue death certificates for hundreds of native and coloured victims”.

Neither were smaller towns spared. Towards the end of October, a sudden surge was reported in Potchefstroom, where there was a large poor white population. Some employers turned their sick domestic workers adrift, while black people had been found dead in the streets. “The sights and smells that have met the voluntary workers in the past few days are simply appalling,” the Mail reported. “Poverty, starvation and misery abound. Children are crowded into shanties where their elders are lying stricken with fever and pneumonia.”

Undated: The gravestone of Maria Elizabeth de Kock on which is engraved ‘Ontslapen aan de Spaanse Griep’, which translates to ‘Died of the Spanish Influenza’. (Image supplied by Sarah Welham, Johannesburg Heritage Foundation)

The pandemic next time

Like the coronavirus, the 1918 flu pandemic stripped South Africa to its unvarnished worst. Then, as now, poverty was a yardstick for vulnerability as existing social crises were exposed and deepened.

The centralised, if fractured, public health department through which South Africa’s coronavirus response was coordinated is one of the legacies of that forgotten pandemic. Another is our unequal cities.

Some of the heated debates on racial mixing in South Africa’s urban shack settlements, stoked by the flu, ran in the Rand Daily Mail. These played a central role in the racialised grid that descended on South African cities through the 1923 Native Urban Areas Act and was entrenched in the decades that followed.

The squalor exposed by the flu, according to Phillips, meant that in the years following the pandemic, the idea that the government should intervene in housing markets on behalf of impoverished people emerged for the first time. In the case of black people living in cities, however, those interventions were mostly engineered to keep them separate from white people.

Circa 1915: Black mineworkers from the United Main Reef Gold Mining Company. (Image supplied by Hilton Teper)

And while efforts to keep impoverished residents healthy, and particularly to end white poverty, were bolstered, they were in part driven by the supposed threat that impoverished people posed of infecting the wealthy. The spectre of disease would become one of the main rationales behind the state-led evisceration of neighbourhoods, and the wholesale segregation of cities according to race – a scar cut so deep that we are yet to recover from it.

So, while the flu brought Johannesburg to its knees during Black October, it has lived as a malignant ghost in the city long after, haunting its streets for a century.

As South Africa takes tentative steps on the long road out of the coronavirus, some have suggested that it is a path that, more and more, will be paved with pandemic. It seems unimaginable that we will forget the coronavirus. But the 1918 influenza – still alive in the ways our cities are divided, if not in our bodies – shows that the material impact of a pandemic can outlive the memory of it. The century-old lesson of Black October is that the only thing more menacing than living through a pandemic is forgetting one.

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