In a Time of Plague: Memories of the ‘Spanish’ flu epidemic of 1918 in South Africa

Review by Elsabé Brink

24 April 2020

Part 1: The 1918 pandemic unleashes

      Mrs E Louw, b 1897 (aged 21 in 1918):  “…The ‘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.

Falling ill

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.

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, 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, 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 ….”

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.


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.”

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, 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.”

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.

Spanish flu (source: wikipedia)

Cape Town

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.

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.”

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.”

Mr NA Reinbach, b 1899 (aged 19), stated, “It was over 50 years ago this October [1972] 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.”

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, 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, 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.”

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 ….”

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 ….”

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, 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.”

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 ….”

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 ….”

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, 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.”

 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, 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.”

Spanish flu (source: wikipedia)

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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, “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, 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.”


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.”

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, 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, 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. 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”.

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.”

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.”

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?’”

Spanish flu (source: wikipedia)


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, 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.” 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 ….”

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.”

“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 ….”

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”.

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,

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.

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].

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.”

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, 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 ….”

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. 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:


Review by Catherine Burns – SA Journal of Science 2020; 116 (3/4.)

Review published: 26 March 2020

‘It chose the beautiful ones….’

“It was only the illness and dying of people that I remember. And the funerals, Oh! My brother Elias [Plaatje, an evangelist] had just caught the ’flu and died in the same ’flu. The ’flu really comes with the soldiers from overseas. Because people didn’t even know what was causing that fever. Oh, it was terrible. People working in the mines who had died – they just made one grave for them. The children eight to twenty were mostly dying. Even the doctors could do nothing… I was supposed to get married in 1918, then the ’flu came, and I got sick. I was in Kimberley for buying my wedding gown… the ’flu was very strong over September and October and over by November and towards December. …Even the Europeans in Barkly West had to collect this ‘wel-als’ bush. You only collect that bush in the veld and boil it…”

Martha Bokako (born 1890), interviewed 22 November 1980 by Andrew Reed (p.95)

Martha Bokako was mourning her family’s deep loss, and recovering from a serious bout of ’flu in Pniel (Western Cape) in late 1918, and yet she recalled anticipating the life ahead of her – including her hope that her postponed wedding plans would resume when her fiancée, an ordained minister, had recovered from the most thoroughgoing and severe epidemic the region had ever faced. In the 3 months Martha Bokako refers to here, South Africa lost about 4% of the total estimated population; millions of loved ones were left in mourning and many children were left orphaned and unmoored.

Her full account, with that of 127 of her fellow South Africans, has been collected by Professor Howard Phillips of the Department of History at the University of Cape Town in In a Time of Plague: Memories of the ‘Spanish ’Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa. This unique, harrowing and deeply engaging collection, has been edited and brought to life with a lucid and crisp introduction, carefully annotated throughout, to bring the specific geographical, medical and social details of the hundreds of witnesses to this epidemic into our world a century later. The letters and accounts in this collection locate South Africa in a tri-continental frontier – a region deeply imbricated in global movements of people, goods, animals, ideas, ideologies, forms of exchange and extraction. With people and microbes came also their microscopic parasitic cousins – viruses. The Union of South Africa, established in 1910, was one of the newest political formations in the world and the meeting place for people of the sub-continent, from Europe, and, with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, with new arrivals and cargoes from Atlantic African ports, from east Africa and the Mediterranean, and from ports and towns along the Indian Ocean. This book traces the routes of the epidemic through the words and memories of witnesses and survivors in accounts gathered in the 1970s and 1980s and is contextualised with painstaking archival research.

This book is the work of a lifetime of reading, collecting and analysing by Howard Phillips. In his earlier seminal scholarly works on the influenza epidemic in South Africa, Phillips demonstrated that the race- and class-based official responses were rooted in the approaches of neo-colonialism by health and state planners of the day. He has shown how these were mitigated, but not obviated, by many acts of civic unity and generosity, courage, and shared resources and responses. One consequence of the post-epidemic era was the state, and elite society, doubling down on segregation as a state planning response to disease vulnerability and contagion. Phillips has also shown that the epidemic forced certain contradictions into the forefront of state health planning – initiating a set of universalistic public health goals; crafting policy and legislation around health provision; and acknowledging key individual and population-based health needs. This propelled the first country-wide health architecture, which, over time, led to providing better national care, even in the face of continuing gross iniquitous spending and racially divided facilities and institutions. A glaring example of such a contradiction is that even as this influenza epidemic devastated natal health, and undermined many generations of women’s faith in the efficacy of medical institutions, it also initiated the first state (rather than the hitherto missionary institution-dominated) efforts at comprehensive pregnancy, immunisation and infant care. In this collected volume, ordinary people’s interpretations and voices are foregrounded.

Martha Bokako’s eloquent account of the ’flu epidemic in South Africa that struck in 1918, with the horror of October in her mind, echoes the many traumatic accounts, recorded in handwritten and typed letters and detailed interview-based recollections. People from the region – from the Cape Province through the Karoo across to communities on the Eastern seaboard and up into the interior of the country – including the huge conurbation of the Witwatersrand, responded to queries from researchers in heartfelt texts, or shared their memories in person. It is rare in South African scholarship to have a wide cross-section of ordinary people’s responses to an event or a calamity gathered in one collection. Coming alive in these pages are the causes and ramifications that Phillips summarises in his Introduction, and in the pages that follow, these searing memories form part of a wider whole. We begin to see a citizenry speaking in chords – experiencing and remembering a time when, for all that separated them, the memories and spectral images of this event coalesced and aggregated. Through Xhosa, Tswana, Afrikaans and Zulu into English translations we hear the ring of specific haunting phrases, cast around starkly similar factual accordance and details. In uncannily similar metaphorical phrases we understand that the epidemic was a shared national event, and how people at the time – even as children – understood that it was linked both to the dying days of World War I and the black and white servicemen on their way home. In these accounts, the specific descriptions of the care for the dead, the donkey and horse carts, railway carriages, and trucks filled with linen and blanket-wrapped pyramids of corpses, often move to a shared horrified memory of witnessing, or recalling being told about, the unconscious few rising from what had been their presumed death to terrified onlookers.

In every story there is a reference to the terror; the sense of common destiny; the sharing of provisions and acts of enormous selflessness; the hastily arranged food and health stations; and the desolation of survivors who lost most of their family members. Tellingly, given the lack of effective biomedical treatments at the time, the detailed descriptions of medications used and shared – such as boiled and dried garlic; boiled and mashed lemons; boiled bush remedies; the use of iodine; carbolic acid; copious amounts of brandy, and even champagne in one account; the rubbing of tissue-salts, and the use of fresh and boiled milk, especially for pregnant women and children – also ring in unison. The accounts in this book are moving and suggestive of experience and memory knitted together as the basis for some forms of shared community for the witnesses and survivors – reminding us that the depth of this common bond could have provided the basis for a very different way out of the crisis.

Two key themes stand out. First, the movement of people (miners, traders, soldiers, workers, herbalists, wedding parties, families, school children, bankers, prisoners, farmers) speeding up through trains and new motorised transport forms, and on the water via engine-propelled ships, driving epidemics across vast territories. And second, the power of metaphor to cement memories.

Phillips includes a section of black-and-white photographs of people affected by the epidemic, and of newspaper advertisements and covers of sheet music and fictional writing inspired by the 1918 ’flu. In the early 1920s, Reuben Thlakele Calusa, a prodigious South African born composer, crafted several influenza-linked songs that were published by Lovedale Institution Press. The ethnomusicologist, Austin C. Okigbo, traced the lyrics and sheet music through archives and through pressed recordings of these songs made in London in the 1960s, analysing the lyrics of Influenza 1918 that was devoted entirely to the ramifications of the epidemic in the Cape, along with the song Intandane (orphan). In the first stanza of Influenza 1918, Caluza wrote (here translated into English by Okigbo and his researcher):

In the year nineteen eighteen we’re killed by the disease called influenza. Which finished our beloved relatives. Mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. In other households no one was left. It took young women and men. It chose the beautiful ones. It even took the good-looking men. It took the teenagers It took even the young maidens. It took the engaged ladies. It took the strummers [bridesmaids]. Even the grooms. It was like there was a black cloud over the earth. Black and grey clouds filled the mindscapes of the survivors.

Angela Gilham (nee le Roux), born in Cape Town 10 years after Martha Bokako, recounted her own harrowing memories of the ’flu, in an echo of Caluza’s song. She wrote a lengthy and gripping account which ended: …I sincerely trust that I have not bored you with this lengthy tale but I am so thrilled to think how my own life was lengthened at that sad period whereas so many young people were sent to an untimely death. Oh! It was dreadful. Even when October comes each year and skies become grey, my thoughts still go back to 1918.

Angela Gilham (born 1901), interviewed 8 June 1972 by Richard Collier (p.29).


1. Phillips H, Killingray D, editors. The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–19: New perspective. London: Routledge; 2003.

2. Phillips H. Black October: The impact of the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 on South Africa. Archive Yearbook of South African History 53(1). Pretoria: The Government Printer; 1990.

3. Okigbo AC. South African music in the history of epidemics. J Folklore Res. 2017


REVIEW BY GEORGE DEHNER – Society for the Social History of Medicine

Review Published: October 2019

With In a Time of Plague, Howard Phillips, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Cape Town, adds to his impressive collection of material related to Spanish flu. As well as his publications, Phillips was also co-convener of the interdisciplinary conference ‘The Spanish Flu 1918–98: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 after 80 Years’. In a Time of Plague is part of the prestigious Van Riebeeck Society for the Publication of Southern African Historical Documents series, now in its second century of publishing.

The literature on Spanish flu has greatly expanded in the last few decades, spurred by research breakthroughs on the virus and its pandemic impact, a broadening of pandemic topics to incorporate social and cultural elements, and the 100-year anniversary of the disaster. Few can offer what Phillips has collected here in In a Time of Plague, which provides the direct recollections of 127 survivors of the dreadful ‘Black October’ (as it is commonly known as in South Africa). The accounts come from three remarkable sources: letters sent to Howard Phillips in response to his 1978 request for accounts of Spanish flu survivors; letters from South Africa collected by Richard Collier in 1972–73 in response to his newspaper appeals for stories to support his 1974 book The Plague of the Spanish Lady; and interviews in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu conducted by Phillips in the years 1978–81. The strength of these recollections lays in addressing what Phillips sees as a deficiency in the literature on Spanish flu: the ‘relative silence about the personal’ nature of the catastrophe (p.xxii). This testimony can no longer be duplicated as it comes from those who were children, teenagers and young adults during the crisis and so have vivid memories of the events. Gathered here are the voices of those who endured the infection, witnessed the stunning impact of death and disease, and participated in the make-shift efforts to provide comfort and support to family members, neighbours and strangers.

The collection of sources is far from ideal, however. First, the testimony primarily comes from those who have survived into their seventies which privileges those of certain economic status or occupations. English speakers predominate in the collection, with only a smattering of Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu speakers represented. Also, appeals in newspapers for survivor’s accounts of will only reach the literate, and generally, only the literate will pen letters in response to such requests. And, of course, there are always the problems of memory distorted by the decades that have passed since the events.

Still, bearing these limitations in mind, the collection has a unique power in Spanish flu historiography. Phrases such as people ‘dying like flies’ and images of the apparently endless parade of carts and drays delivering coffin-less bodies to hastily dug trenches were frequently repeated. First– and second-hand reports recount the narrative of those thought dead suddenly sitting up and scaring the driver. The ubiquity of this story leaves the reader to ponder whether there was widespread misidentification of the deceased or if this speaks to a persistent and widely held urban legend. The psychic scars of the survivors are palpable in their testimonies.

Phillips’ essay effectively sets up the collection and describes the unique experience of Spanish flu in South Africa where the deadly second wave arrived in Cape Town in the southwest in October 1918, while the milder first wave had only just begun circulating in the east, northeast in September. Therefore, most of the Union suffered the onslaught of the deadly second wave without the ‘best preventative against the deadly second wave [which] seems to have been a dose of the first’ (p.xvi). The footnotes also usefully identify physicians and prominent people identified in the first-person narratives.

In a Time of Plague is a welcome addition to the literature on Spanish flu and will appeal to medical, social and cultural historians as well as those with a general interest in Spanish flu. These personal viewpoints of the disaster provide a flesh-and-blood perspec- tive to the often-numbing statistics of the disastrous pandemic.

George Dehner

Wichita State University


REVIEW BY JULIE PARLE in the SA Medical Journal

Review Published: May 2019 (Vol 109 no 5)

This is a timely, significant, moving and often absorbing compilation of testimonies, letters and memories of one of the most important events in South African (SA) history; yet, paradoxically, one that has been largely forgotten: the ‘great’ or ‘Spanish’ influenza epidemic of 1918 – 1919. This virulent infectious disease visited the region in waves. The first – its impact relatively muted – via Durban, affected people in the then Natal hinterland, followed by the Witwatersrand region in September 1918. A few weeks later, the second, far deadlier mutation of the virus struck. Over 6 weeks it scythed through the Cape, the then Orange Free State, and the Ciskei and Transkei, and indeed across the country, as far north as Messina. A third, milder wave occurred in August 1919.

Many readers will know that the global pandemic resulted in ~50 million deaths (3 – 4% of the total population). Its lethal impact on SA is not as widely appreciated, with ~300 000 – 350 000 people perishing– most of them between 18 and 40 years of age – during ‘black October’. Losing ~5% of its people, SA was ‘… probably the fourth worst-hit state in the world after Western Samoa (22%), India (6.2%) and Gambia (5.7%) …’. The social and economic conse- quences for the country were profound.

After a succinct introduction, there are extracts from 127 letters and interviews from survivors and family members collated in the 1970s and 1980s. These are supported by a number of illustrations. The epidemic had a terrible toll, leaving behind ‘a generation’ of flu orphans, widows and widowers, as well as a legacy in national public health legislation whose implementation by no means benefited the majority.

Representing as broad a cross-section of South Africans, black and white, as it was possible to muster, this is a unique contribution to our history, giving glimpses into medical beliefs and practices of the time, and of the turns towards – and away from – religious healers and rituals in times of crisis. Evident too is the persistence of poverty and hunger in facilitating the work of pathogens in whichever age.

A sombre, yet deeply humane, testimony of the personal and social trauma of the epidemic and its impact in shaping 20th cen- tury SA, this book gives us much to think about as citizens of a globalised world where, it is widely predicted, a new, equally disastrous, plague of illness is likely to emerge within the foreseeable future.

Julie Parle

School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa


RESENSIE DEUR ELSEBE BRITS – Vrye Weekblad (19 April 2019)

Die Groot Griep: Vergete stemme se stories van seer herleef.


Net meer as ’n eeu gelede het die “Driedaggriep” 350 000 Suid-Afrikaners in slegs ses weke uitgewis. Nou is daar ’n stem aan dié verskrikking gegee danksy ’n nuwe boek wat die verhale van oorlewendes deel, vertel ELSABÉ BRITS.

Daar is op hele huishoudings afgekom wat dae lank dood in hul beddens gelê het. Perdewaens het deur die strate gery met die dooies in komberse toegedraai om hulle in massagrafte te gaan begrawe.

Mense het medisyne gedrink wat geen snars gehelp het nie, hoewel hulle dit nie geweet het nie. Baie het waar hulle in lang toue by depots oor die hele land vir sop, brood of melk staan en wag het, op die plek dood neergeslaan.

Dít was die Swart Oktober van 1918.

Die Groot Griep, ook bekend as die Spaanse Griep, het Suid-Afrika heeltemal lamgelê. Dié pandemie waarin die meeste mense tot nog toe in die land se geskiedenis gesterf het, is egter nou vergete. Veral die intense lyding. ‘Mense het medisyne gedrink wat geen snars gehelp het nie, hoewel hulle dit nie geweet het nie. Baie het waar hulle in lang toue by depots oor die hele land vir sop, brood of melk staan en wag het, op die plek dood neergeslaan.’

Sowat 350 000 mense het binne ses weke gesterf, en tot vier miljoen van die land se (toe) sewe miljoen mense het siek geword. Dit is dus 5% van die bevolking wat omgekom het, en na raming sowat 60% wat siek was, verduidelik prof. Howard Phillips, ’n historikus aan die Universiteit van Kaapstad. Vyf persent van ’n bevolking klink dalk min, maar dit is geweldig baie. Sou ’n mens dit na die hedendaagse Suid-Afrika omskakel, sou dit só lyk: Die land het 57,7 miljoen mense en 5% hiervan is 2,9 miljoen. Die FNB-stadion in Johannesburg kan ’n maksimum van 94 736 mense hanteer. As 5% van ons bevolking sterf, sal dié mense 30,5 FNB-stadions vul.

Sowat 40 jaar gelede het Phillips vir sy doktorsgraad in geskiedenis onderhoude gevoer met 170 Suid-Afrikaners van alle bevolkingsgroepe wat dié wêreldwye pandemie oorleef het. Dit was die laaste plaaslike generasie wat die verskrikking beleef het en wie se verhale opgeteken en bewaar is saam met sowat 40 briewe wat hy ontvang het.

Dié unieke stories is nou deur die Van Riebeeck-stigting uitgegee in ’n boek getiteld In a Time of Plague: Memories of the “Spanish” Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa.

Niks en niemand onaangeraak

Toe hy met mense in ouetehuise gaan praat het, “was dit soos ’n kurk wat uit ’n bottel getrek is. Die herinneringe het uitgevloei. Baie mense, sommige weeskinders, het nooit voorheen daaroor gepraat nie. Meestal omdat dit te seer was of omdat hulle gedink het die nuwe generasies sal nooit glo hoe vreeslik dit regtig was nie.”Winkels, poskantore, banke, skole, howe en kerke het gesluit. Die treine en trems het gestaan. Hospitale het ineengestort en mense is in tentedorpe versorg, tuis of glad nie. Boerderye het tot stilstand gekom. “Niks en niemand is onaangeraak gelaat nie,” vertel hy.

In een van die aangrypendste verhale in die boek vertel ’n vrou bekend as Ma Jones (29 in 1918) van Kimberley hoe sy vyf babas wat wees gelaat is, geborsvoed het. ’n Kennis van haar het op ’n jong ma afgekom, dood in haar huis met die baba wat op haar bors lê en vasklou. Hoe die “arme baba aan haar (probeer) drink, maar sy was lank reeds dood …”

Die Engelse, God, sonde en hekse blameer

Die eerste golf van die griep was van Maart tot Mei 1918 in die Noordelike Halfrond. Dit was matig, maar hoogs aansteeklik en die virus het die vermoë ontwikkel om vinnig van een mens na die volgende oorgedra te word. Die griep het nie in Spanje ontstaan nie, maar is só genoem omdat dié land tydens die Eerste Wêreldoorlog neutraal was. Spanje se koerante kon dus sonder sensuur verslag doen en die eerste berigte van die griep is van daar ontvang.

Die tweede golf van September tot Oktober 1918 was ’n verskrikking omdat die virus in dié kort tyd gemuteer en dodelik geraak het. Dit het Suid-Afrika se hawens binnegekom saam met troepe wat van die oorlog teruggekeer het.

‘Knoffel, suurlemoen, kinien, brandewyn en aspirien was gewilde medikasie.’

Die meeste mense wat dood is, was tussen 16 en 40 jaar oud, wat vreemd was vir griep. Dié raaisel is in 2005 opgelos toe die virus se genoom gekaarteer is. Die jonger mense se sterker immuniteitstelsel het fataal oorreageer en veroorsaak dat hul immuniteitselle hul organe aantas.

Phillips sê dit is ook die “Driedaggriep” genoem omdat baie mense binne drie dae dood is.

Die ergste was dat mense nie geweet het dit is ’n virus nie – die griepvirus is eers in die vroeë 1930’s ontdek. Knoffel, suurlemoen, kinien, brandewyn en aspirien was gewilde medikasie. Phillips vertel mense het mekaar, die Duitsers, die Engelse, God, sonde en hekse blameer – party het selfs voorspel die oordeelsdag is naby.

As die ‘lyke’ skree

Angela Gilhan (18 in 1918) kon onthou hoe sy op ’n dag die wa met die lyke op in Hoofweg, Kaapstad, gesien het. Daar was houtkiste op waarin goedere vermoedelik verpak was. Die wa het deur ’n knik gery en ’n “lyk” het uit ’n kis gerol. Skielik het hy begin skree. Die man was net bewusteloos, nie dood nie. Verskeie mense vertel verhale soos dié waar die “dooies” op die waens of elders wakker geword het, meestal in komberse, want die kiste het gou opgeraak.‘Hy het later ook tussen die lyke wakker geword, maar die drywer het so groot geskrik dat hy glo die pad gevat het. En daar staan die perdewa met die lyke in die middel van die straat.’

Nog ’n man het in St. Georgestraat in Kaapstad siek geword en toe ’n glas brandewyn by ’n blomwinkel gekry, maar dit was te veel vir sy gestel en hy het op die sypaadjie flou geword. Die lykswa het hom sommer opgelaai. Hy het later ook tussen die lyke wakker geword, maar die drywer het so groot geskrik dat hy glo die pad gevat het. En daar staan die perdewa met die lyke in die middel van die straat.

Stan Stone (13 in 1918) van Claremont, Kaapstad, onthou hoe dié tonele hom “hard gemaak het. Dis hoe ek geraak het. Dit het my karakter geslyp. Ek was baie bang gewees …. jy weet, hoe jy vrees om te sterf. Maar nou, jare later (1978), wanneer ek terugkyk en ek dink aan al daardie dooie mense wat ek gesien het …. en ek wonder wat is dit? Voor dit het ek ’n myl gehardloop as ek ’n lyk sien, maar daarna het ek nie geworrie nie.”

Die weeskinders

Lyke is by die honderde op Woodstock se strand buite Kaapstad uitgepak en het soms dae daar gelê terwyl massagrafte in Maitland gegrawe is. Kimberley met sy derduisende mynwerkers wat in swak behuising gebly het, is net so swaar getref.

Die land is met sowat 900 000 weeskinders gelaat wat albei of een ouer verloor het. Dis mense wie se stories vergete geraak het in die nadraai van die einde van die Eerste Wêreldoorlog. Phillips vertel die swart en bruin mense het meestal dié kinders in hul eie families ingeneem, maar die wit mense se kerke en die regering het ’n magdom weeshuise gebou. “Ons het nog nooit voor of ná dit soveel weeshuise gebou nie … Daar is kinders wat van hul sibbe geskei is en hulle nooit weer gesien het nie.” Omtrent al die mense, veral die kinders, verwys in hul verhale na die waens met lyke wat daagliks verbygekom het. Die voete wat by die komberse uitgesteek het. Sommige met kaartjies aan die tone, ander nie.

Hester Coetzee (sewe in 1918) van ’n Vrystaatse plaas skryf in 1972 in ’n brief: “… ek het my ma se kreune gehoor en skielik het dit stil geraak … Ons (sy en haar twee boeties) het haar saam met my pa gaan sien. En ek voel steeds hoe my bene bewe, soos nou, terwyl ek dit neerskryf. ’n Gevoel van volkome verlies het hulle laat bewe.” Haar pa is ook dood en sy en haar jonger broer is na een familie gestuur en die ouer broer na ’n ander.

Dit was juis die kinders wat na die sopkombuise en depots gegaan het om sop, melk en ander voorraad vir hul siek gesinne te kry omdat die ouer mense erger deur die virus geraak is. In Phillips se boek is daar hartroerende stories van klein kinders so jonk as sewe wat tot drie keer ’n dag heen en weer met kannetjies sop gehardloop het om hul ouers te voed.

Phillips vertel van Gertrude Kumalo (25 in 1918) van ’n nedersetting in KwaZulu-Natal met wie hy in 1981 ’n onderhoud gevoer het. Sy het skielik ’n meesleurende, hartseer lied (van 17 reëls) begin sing:

“Ngonyaka ka nineteen eighteen
Saqedwa ukufa esikubiza ngokuti kuyi influenza
Yazi qeda izihlobo esizitandayo
Omama na obaba no Sisi no Bhuti
Kwemnyimizi kwaqotula a kwasala’ muntu …”

Die lied, “Influenza (1918)”, is deur Reuben Tholakele Caluza (1895 – 1969) geskryf en getoonset en in 1930 opgeneem (Caluza’s Double Quartet 1930) en in 1992 heruitgereik. Luister na ’n gedeelte van dié lied (derde liedjie van bo) – hy het dié koor in 1930 self begelei.

Op die derde dag is jy klaar …

Popema Mhlungu (reeds ‘n volwassene in 1918) van KwaZulu-Natal het haar verhaal in 1982 vertel: “Wanneer jy die griep kry, word jy siek vir twee dae en op die derde dag is jy klaar … My susters is in daardie tyd almal dood … Jy huil vir niks.” Dan vertel sy van die “amandawe”* wat ná die griep kom en wat jou “brein laat huil vir niks”. Dié “amandawe” het nooit vir Mhulungu weggegaan nie. “Selfs nou is daardie siekte, die amandawe, nie heeltemal klaar nie. Dit kom soms nog na my,” sê Mhulungu.

* Amandawe beteken “hulle”, maar in Mhulungu se geval klink dit of sy na ’n tipiese depressie of trauma verwys.

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