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1918 lnfluenza Pandemic - South Africa: Fatalities

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  • Roelof Johannes Strydom (1878 - 1918)
    Doop/baptism Roelof Johannes Strydom, 1878, Heidelberg GP [ ] Huwelik/marriage Roelof Johannes Strydom (25) & Sophia Johanna Steinberg (21), 1905, Bethal MP [ ] Sterfkennis/death notice Roelof Johann...
  • Christiaan Arnoldus Jacobus Ebersohn (1905 - 1918)
    Sterfkennis/death notice [ ]
  • Christiaan Arnoldus Jacobus Ebersohn (1875 - 1918)
    Huwelik/marriage Christiaan Arnoldus Jacobus Ebersohn (24) & Martha Maria Repetsky (geb Pienaar) (21), 1901, Carolina MP [ ] Huwelik/marriage Christiaan Arnoldus Jacobus Ebersohn (27, wewenaar) & Ch...
  • Jan Adriaan Botha (1885 - 1918)
    Doop/baptism Jan Adriaan Botha, 1885, Reddersburg FS [ ] Sterfkennis (boedel)/ death notice (estate file) [ ] Siviele sterfkennis/civil death notice Jan Adriaan Botha, 1918, Bloemfontein FS [ ]
  • Hendrik Johannes Faber (1887 - 1918)
    Baptism Vryburg Concentration Camp Marriage Death Note: He died during the Spanish Flu Epidemic in 1918.

1918 lnfluenza Pandemic - South Africa: Fatalities

Please add to this project any SA profiles of those who died in the 'Spanish Flu' pandemic of 1918.

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South Africa was the country fifth hardest hit by the 1918 flu.

  • The SA death toll was almost as high as the total for the USA
  • Almost half a million people probably died from the flu epidemic in South Africa, and 62 percent of those who died lived in the Cape
  • 1,6 - 3 million people out of a population of almost 7 million were affected by the flu
  • Between 22,8 and 43,97 out of every thousand people in the country died from the flu (2 - 4 percent)
  • 140 000 people died in seven weeks from September - October 1918

Exact figures are difficult to determine in South Africa, as legislation did not provide for the recording of death tolls amongst large sections of the black population - especially those living in rural areas. Under normal circumstances recording of these details was sketchy, so it could be assumed to have been even less reliable during the crisis brought on by the epidemic in the last quarter of 1918, when even the recording of deaths amongst whites in urban areas was incomplete. To arrive at figures indicating official death tolls historians have to rely on estimates extrapolated from figures supplied by the government-appointed Influenza Epidemic Commission and the figures released for the May 1921 census. The latter found that, based on expected population increase statistics, the total for the African, coloured and Indian populations was almost half a million short.The Union Government, in their census report, concluded that this shortfall "was undoubtedly due to the enormous mortality during the devastating epidemic of influenza in the intercensal period, and corresponds almost exactly with the number of deaths estimated as having occurred during the epidemic.".


The first cases of an unusually severe and deadly strain of influenza, popularly called Spanish Flu or 'Great Flu', were diagnosed on 14 September, 1918 in Durban. This started the worst pandemic ever in South Africa. Of a total population of just over 6 million at the time, nearly half contracted the disease, while close to 140,000 died within a few weeks. The disease spread throughout the entire country and often whole families were ill or dying, with nobody left to care for them. Doctors and nurses did their best, but were too few to treat the ill. The Black and Coloured sections of the population were most severely affected, especially the mineworkers, who suffered dreadfully. The death-rate under Whites was also unusually high. Deaths were usually due to secondary bacterial infections, causing pneumonia. As this was before modern antibiotic treatment was available, there was no effective cure. The epidemic peaked in October.

Origin in SA:

By the end of 1918, more than 127 000 Blacks and 11 000 Whites had succumbed to the epidemic. While some controversy exists as to the exact source of infection and its spread in South Africa, there is general agreement that the participation of soldiers in the War was a direct contributory factor in its arrival in South Africa. Its arrival here was initially linked to two ships, the Jaroslav and the Veronej, which arrived in Cape Town on the 13 and 18 September with members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) on board. It was established that both ships had docked at Sierra Leone, one of the places regarded as a central point of infection. In general about 500 000 people died of the epidemic in South Africa, the fifth hardest hit by the pandemic worldwide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Spaanse Griep, van oorseese strand,

Wat maak jij in ons vaderland?

Het ons dan nie genoeg gelij.

Vir reg het ons so swaar baklei.

Baje vrouwe, kinders en mans

Is deur honger, moord, koe'el en lans,

In die doodsvallei gejaagd,

Hul lot word deur die volk beklaagd.

Spaanse Griep, jij is nog ‘n dolk

In die deurboorde hart van 'n volk,

Wie s'n wonde glad nie wil heel,

Want hui verlies is al te veel; . . .

Spaanse Griep, gaat tog weg van hier,

Want as jij nou nog langer duur,

Dan blij daar oor, slegs hier en daar,

Van ons uitgemoorde volk 'n paar'

(Philips: 1987: 91)

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

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

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

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

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

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


  • Edgar, Robert R. and Sapire, Hilary (1999). African Apocalypse: The Story of Nontetha Nkwenkwe, a Twentieth-Century South African Prophet. Athens, Ohio and Johannesburg: Ohio University Press).
  • Grundlingh, Albert, (1982). ‘Black men in a white man's war: the impact of the First World War on South African blacks’. African Studies Seminar Paper, African Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand.
  • Grundlingh, Albert (1987).Fighting Their Own War: South African Blacks and the First World War. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
  • SA Railways and Harbour Magazine, December 1918
  • Phillips, Howard (1988). ‘South Africa's Worst Demographic Disaster: The Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918’ in South African Historical Journal, (20), 1988.
  • Phillips, Howard (1987). ‘The local state and public health reform in South Africa: Bloemfontein and the consequences of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic of 1918’ in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol 13, No. 2, pp. 210-233.
  • Phillips, Howard91987).‘Why Did It Happen? Religious and Lay Explanations of the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 in South Africa’ in <emkronos< em="" style="font-size: 12px;">Vol 12 (1987), pp. 72-92.</emkronos<>
  • Mantzaris, Evangelos A. "The Indian Tobacco Workers Strike of 1920: A Socio-Historical Investigation." Journal of Natal and Zulu History 6.1 (1983).
  • Mantzaris, Evangelos A (1995) Labour Struggles in South Africa: The Forgotten Pages 1903-1921. Collective Resources.
  • Mantzaris, Evangelos Anastasios (1984). ‘Radical Community: The Yiddish Speaking Branch of the International Socialist League (ISL), 1918-1920. University of the Witwatersrand, History Workshop, 1984.
  • Maylam, P. ‘The Struggle for Space in Twentieth Century Durban’, pp 3-10. In Maylam and Edwards,The People’s City. (Pietermaritzburg, 1996)
  • O'Meara, Dan (1977). ‘The Afrikaner Broederbond 1927–1948: Class Vanguard of Afrikaner Nationalism inJournal of Southern African Studies Vol 3, No.2 (1977), pp.156-186.
  • O’Meara Dan (1983).Volkskapitalisme: Class, Capital and ideology in the Development of Afrikaner Nationalism 1934 -1948. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
  • Wallis, F. (2000). Nuusdagboek: feite en fratse oor 1000 jaar, Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau. Potgieter, D.J. et al. (eds)


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