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Posts tagged ‘South African War’

Christmas in a Camp

Earlier this year I went to the launch of Elizabeth van Heyningen’s The Concentration Camps of the Anglo-Boer War: A Social History at the Book Lounge in central Cape Town. The result of years of hard work in archives scattered around South Africa and Europe, this book has become – and will remain for some time – the standard history of the camps established for Boer and black civilians during the South African War (1899-1902).

Instead of the usual collection of hipsters in search of free food, academics in need of free wine, and people from the publishing world, this was attended by a largely elderly, white and Afrikaans audience. (I was easily the youngest person there. I am 31.) When Elizabeth and Albert Grundlingh, who hosted the event, opened the floor to questions, she received question after question about why she does not describe the deaths of so many Boer women and children in the camps as genocide.

There were 14,154 officially recorded deaths in the camps for black civilians, but it is likely that the number was closer to 20,000. Estimates of deaths in Boer camps range from 25,000 to 34,000. In these camps, 81 per cent of deaths were children. Despite these incredibly high numbers, as Van Heyningen explained, the camps were not part of a deliberate British policy to exterminate the Boer population. (In contrast, for example, to the genocide of the Herero in German South West Africa between 1905 and 1906.)

The tragedy of the camps was that people died as a result of chaotic and negligent mismanagement and poor provisioning. Inmates arrived usually in poor health, and were victims of the epidemics of measles and typhoid, for instance, which swept the camps. In fact – and this is one of the most important arguments in Van Heyningen’s scholarship on the camps – the British saw them as a means of transforming the white populations of the two Boer Republics into the future subjects of a united South Africa firmly under British rule.

Concentration-Camps

This interpretation of the camps almost caused a riot in the Book Lounge. I was almost, but not entirely, surprised. Firstly, because it underscored – again – the gulf between debates among guild historians and the reading public. And, secondly, because Boer suffering in the concentration camps was one of the most powerful strands within a historiography constructed in the 1920s and 1930s to bolster Afrikaner nationalism.

The point is not to deny that people – both black and white – suffered both physically and psychologically in the camps, but, rather, to argue that camps deserve more detailed and nuanced study as a result of the fact that British authorities saw them as being crucial to the making of a modern South Africa. Hospitals and schools, in particular, were used to pull Boer families into what Alfred, Lord Milner, and other officials believed to be the light of British rationality, order, and civilisation.

Which brings me to Christmas parties. In December 1901, around a year after the first camps for civilians were established and when mortality rates had begun to stabilise and decline in response to a raft of reforms, camp superintendents were ordered, and were provided with the means, to organise treats and celebrations for the inmates of the Boer camps. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, at the Belfast Camp, women in sewing circles and schoolchildren were encouraged to make ‘toys and useful articles’ for presents. On the 25th:

the tree was erected in a large room, and, after partaking of refreshments, the little ones were filed through the room containing the Tree and each drew a number from a bag on entering and received small garment or toy – and on leaving each got in addition a bag containing cake, sweets and dates.

At the Heidelberg Camp, ‘all children in the Camp under the age of 12’ were given ‘1 small jam-tart, 1 parcel sweets dates and biscuits.’ There were sports days with prizes, and lots and lots to eat – in contrast to the usually monotonous rations of camp living. The Irene Camp’s Christmas picnic – held for the schoolchildren – was particularly lavish:

On the day fixed, that is Friday the 20th December, all the Teachers and all the children assembled on the School grounds at 5.30 in the morning and the roll was called, when 900 answered their names. All the wagons in Camp has been requisitioned and every available ox, mule and donkey was inspanned and these wagons with their respective teams conveyed all the School children with their Teachers to the spot where several large Store tents had been pitched the day before, and where 100 men and women helpers were waiting in readiness at the 6 large Army Camp boilers and various numbers of large pots and kettles etc. to do the necessary waiting and cooking. A huge supply of bread and cakes had been baked… An ox had been killed by me the day before and the whole of it was cooked during the day on the spot. The children were served three meals during the day, exclusive of sweets and fruit and coffee, tea etc. and enjoyed themselves by playing games of all kinds and competitive sports amongst themselves.

In other camps, there were full Christmas dinners, with roast chicken, plum puddings, and fruit.

So how to interpret these Christmas parties? All superintendents reported (unsurprisingly) that children appreciated the parties and presents, and games and sports days were well attended. It also appears that some officials went out of their way to provide dinners and picnics which inmates would enjoy and remember. But interpreting these Christmas parties as a moment of happy wartime friendship across enemy lines – as a kind of South African version of the 1914 Christmas truce – would be glib. Although not denying the genuine altruism of some superintendents, these Christmas parties had a series of political and cultural functions.

Funded handsomely by the British administration, the parties were an attempt to foster goodwill: to demonstrate to Boer civilians that the camps were being run in their best interests by a benevolent administration. They were also intended to show to an international media – and newspapers did report on the parties – that the camps for Boers had improved since the outcry abroad earlier that year over the high mortality rates.

Perhaps more subtly, these parties also introduced Boer civilians to a tradition which officials believed to be entirely British: to a Christmas with a tree, a roast dinner, plum puddings, and games. Ironically, though, the Christmas traditions replicated in the camps had been invented as recently as the 1840s. Decorated Christmas trees, crackers, and cards had all become popular during the middle of the century, helped along by the increasing buying power of the British middle classes. Carol singing was revived; the Christmas dinner as we know it today emerged in this period. Although some of these rituals were already present in the British religious calendar – gift giving, for instance – they were moved closer to Christmas, and were augmented with borrowed traditions, most notably the tree, from Germany. Christmas was associated with the Victorian cult of domesticity: it was the moment of the year which celebrated the closeness of the family.

This supremely invented tradition was introduced to the camps for Boer civilians as one strategy – among many – for remaking them British. There were no such parties in camps for black civilians – or, at least, there are no records of them. Most of the reports on these camps were destroyed shortly after the war, but it is probable that British authorities balked at the thought of spending more money on black camps, which were already run on the cheap. Their inmates were made to grow their own food, for instance. Whereas Boer children were sent to school, to be educated to be future subjects of the British Empire, black children were to be taught how to work – and performed manual labour alongside their parents, while some were hired out as domestic servants in towns and cities. In this way, Christmas parties assisted in the moulding of white, imperial identities.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Story of the Teeth

I was born with comically bad teeth. I have only one wisdom tooth – welded firmly to my jaw – and had multiple permanent teeth for some of my milk teeth, and none for others. (I still have two milk teeth.) That I don’t look like a caricature of a Blackadder-ish wisewoman is down entirely to my parents’ swift removal of me to a brilliant orthodontist who – with the aid of braces, plates, and two operations – gave me a decent set of teeth.

I spent rather a lot of my childhood and adolescence in pain, as my teeth and jaw were cajoled and wired into place. (I must add, though, that my parents provided me with an endless supply of sympathy, and soft, delicious things to eat, as well as plenty to read.) It was partly for this reason that I never understood the outrage that greeted the news of Martin Amis’s decision to spend around £20,000 in fixing his teeth, ending decades of persistent toothache.

Of course, much of the anger about this amount was linked to his lucrative move, in 1995, from the late Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent who helped him to build his career, to Andrew Wylie, causing an acrimonious rift with Julian Barnes, Kavanagh’s husband. Indeed, AS Byatt later apologised to him for having criticised both his dental work and his acceptance of an extraordinarily high advance negotiated by Wylie, explaining that she had had toothache at the time.

In his memoir, Experience (2000), Amis writes evocatively of the hell of toothache: that it seems to be the only manifestation of dull pain which can’t be blocked out or ignored. It demands attention. (Apparently James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov were fellow martyrs to tooth pain. There is, clearly, a link between toothache and stylistic experimentation.)

It’s no wonder that modern dentistry is usually cited as one of the best reasons against time travel. The dentist Horace Wells (1815-1848) originated the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anaesthetic during dental surgery. Wells died – partly as a result of an addiction of chloroform, ironically – before nitrous oxide became the anaesthetic of choice, rather than ether for example, among dentists. In South Africa, I’ve found evidence to suggest that it was possible to have teeth extracted under anaesthetic from around the 1880s – although it’s likely that this was available to wealthier patients before then.

In fact, the state of one’s teeth has been a potent indicator of class difference since at least the nineteenth century. Access to dentists and technology – powders, pastes – to prevent tooth decay meant that the middle and upper classes had better teeth than those who were poor, whose diets tended to feature substantial amounts of tooth-eroding sugar, and whose visits to dentists – who had usually had little or no training – were done only in case of dire emergency.

In the pub conversation described in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), the speaker refers to a friend, Lil, who worries that her recently demobbed husband will leave her, partly because she had aged so much during the recent Great War:

Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set

As false teeth became cheaper and more widely available, it seemed to make better sense to have all one’s teeth out at once, rather than suffer a lifetime’s worth of dental pain.

We attach a wide range of meanings to teeth: from the elongated incisors of vampires, to the whiter-than-white rictus grins of celebrities. My friend Shahpar in Dhaka points out that in south Asia, some Muslims associate oral hygiene using the bark of the miswak tree with holiness, as they believe that the Prophet used the bark to clean his teeth. More generally, people in the region place an exceptionally high value on having a healthy, full mouth of teeth – reflected in some truly appalling jokes.

I’ve been reading about anxieties about oral hygiene and dentistry recently, hence this interest in shifting cultural and social constructions of teeth. During the early decades of the twentieth century, global anxieties about infant mortality and childhood health, resulted in a heightened concern about the care of children’s teeth. This was part of an infant welfare movement which had emerged all over the world at the end of the nineteenth century, in response to unease about high rates of infant mortality (usually as a result of diarrhoea), the apparently failing health of urban working-class men, and eugenicist anxieties about maintaining white control over political, social, and economic power.

Denture Shop, India, 1946*

Although child welfare campaigners during the nineteenth century drew parents’ attention to the need to instil in their children good habits of dental hygiene, the discourse around the state of children’s teeth during the early twentieth century differed. To be fair, rotting teeth and gum disease are the cause of a range of health problems, and it makes sense to direct public health policy towards making dental services freely available.

But particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, preventing poor oral hygiene and tooth decay began to take on moral overtones. Doctors and child welfare activists increasingly understood bad oral health as a signifier of chaotic, ‘unscientific’ upbringings – which, they believed, tended to occur in working-class families. Writing about Major General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice’s influential 1903 study of the large numbers of volunteers who were deemed to be physically unfit to fight in the South African War (1899-1902), Anna Davin explains:

If, as it seemed, these puny young men were typical of their class (‘the class which necessarily supplies the ranks of our army’), the problem was to discover why [they suffered from so many physical ailments], and to change things. Proceeding to speculate on possible explanations, [Maurice] accounted for the prevalence of bad teeth among recruits by unsuitable food in childhood (‘the universal testimony that I have heard is that the parents give the children even in infancy the food from off their own plates’), and decided at once that ‘the great original cause’ (of bad teeth at this point, but subsequently, and with as little evidence, of all the ill-health) was ‘ignorance on the part of the mothers of the necessary conditions for the bringing up of healthy children’.

This was one of several essays and articles which argued that poor nutrition in childhood – most notably feeding babies food meant for adults – caused ‘bad teeth’ and, thus, compromised health in adulthood. The best means of remedying this situation was to encourage mothers (and in the minds of doctors, welfare campaigners, and policy makers, these mothers were inevitably working-class) to adhere to ‘scientific principles’ in raising their children, chief of which was providing babies and young children with a diet calibrated precisely to their needs. These principles and diets were formulated by health professionals – medical men – and they, as well as nurses, health visitors, and others, encouraged mothers to abandon ‘superstitious’ and ‘ignorant’ childrearing practice in favour of properly ‘scientific’ guidelines.

Those doctors and campaigners influenced by eugenics argued, though, that children’s moral character depended on good dental hygiene. (Susanne Klausen explains what we mean by ‘eugenics’: ‘in its broadest definition…eugenics was concerned with improving the qualities of the human race either through controlling reproduction or by changing the environment or both.’) In The Story of the Teeth, and How to Save Them (1935), Dr Truby King, the extraordinarily influential founder of the global mothercraft movement, argued that the health and strength of babies’ and children’s teeth depended, firstly, on the health of the pregnant and lactating mother, and, secondly, on proper nutrition.

Breastfeeding – not on demand, but at regular intervals depending on the age of the baby – was, he believed, the foundation for the development of strong teeth and jaws. The introduction of nutritious food once the baby was six months old should, he wrote, encourage the child to chew, thus stimulating the nerves and blood vessels in the face, causing the milk and permanent teeth to emerge quickly and cleanly.

King had dire warnings to those parents – particularly mothers – who, he suggested, ‘gave in’ to the demands of their babies and children:

Decay of the teeth is not a mere chance unfortunate disability of the day – it is the most urgent and gravest of all diseases of our time – a more serious national scourge than Cancer or Consumption….

Why? Because oral hygiene and healthy teeth ensured that the citizens of the future would be morally good, productive, conscientious individuals:

‘Building the Teeth’ and ‘Forming a Character’ are parts of construction of the same edifice – standing in the relationship of the underground foundations of a building to the superstructure.

Our dentists tell us that nowadays when they insist on the eating of crusts and other hard food [necessary for encouraging the child to chew and, thus, in King’s view, develop its jaw], the mother often says ‘Our children simply won’t!’ Such children merely exemplify the ineptitude of their parents – parents too sentimental, weakly emotional, careless, or indifferent to train their children properly. The ‘can’t-be-so-cruel’ mother who cries half the night and frets all day on account of the mother’s failure to fulfil one of the first of maternal duties, should not blame Providence or Heredity because her progeny has turned out a ‘simply-won’t’ in infancy, and will become a selfish ‘simply-can’t’ in later childhood and adolescence. Power to obey the ‘Ten Commandments,’ or to conform to the temporal laws and usages of Society is not to be expected of ‘SPOILED’ babies when they reach adult life. …

Unselfishness and altruism are not the natural outcome of habitual self-indulgence. Damaged health and the absence of discipline and control in early life are the natural foundations of failure later on – failure through the lack of control which underlies all weakness of character, vice, and criminality.

Good teeth meant good citizens. Bizarre as this thinking may have been, it did – often – have positive outcomes. For instance, similar views held among South African doctors and child welfare campaigners were behind the establishment of a network of dental clinics for poor children – albeit mainly white children – during the 1920s and 1930s. Children whose parents could not afford private dental care, could attend these clinics gratis.

One of the most striking characteristics of eugenicist thinking was its tendency to blame mothers’ ignorance, stupidity, or credulousness for the poor health of their babies and children, ignoring the environmental factors – the contexts – in which they raised their offspring. King’s implication was that mothers were ultimately responsible for the ‘vice and criminality’ of society: if they, he wrote, had simply disciplined their children, feeding them properly and ignoring their demands, then all adults would be productive, self-controlled citizens.

Although King’s reasoning is demonstrably bonkers, this tendency to blame (single) mothers for children’s anti-social behaviour persists, particularly within right-wing political and media circles. This is a strategy which absolves the state and other institutions of any responsibility for ensuring that children are adequately care for.

The study of attitudes towards teeth and dentistry reveals a range of beliefs about parenting, childhood, and, nutrition. It seems, then, that we are not only what we eat, but we are also how we eat.

Sources cited here:

Anna Davin, ‘Imperialism and Motherhood,’ History Workshop, no. 5 (Spring 1978), pp. 9-65.

Susanne Klausen, ‘“For the Sake of the Race”: Eugenic Discourses of Feeblemindedness and Motherhood in the South African Medical Record, 1903-1926,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 23, no. 1 (March 1997), pp. 27-50.

Antora Mahmud Khan and Syed Masud Ahmed, ‘“Why do I have to Clean Teeth Regularly?” Perceptions and State of
Oral and Dental Health in a Low-income Rural Community in Bangladesh’ (Dhaka: BRAC, 2011).

Truby King, The Story of the Teeth and How to Save Them (Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombes, 1935).

Further Reading:

Naomi Murakawa, ‘Toothless: The Methamphetamine “Epidemic,” “Meth Mouth,” and the Racial Construction of Drug Scares,’ Du Bois Review, vol. 8, no. 1 (2011), pp. 219-228.

Alyssa Picard, Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2009).

David Sonstrom, ‘Teeth in Victorian Art,’ Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no. 2 (2001), pp. 351-382.

* This photograph is from Retronaut.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Whose Heritage?

On 24 September, South Africans celebrate Heritage Day, during which they’re supposed to commemorate the rich and diverse cultural inheritance of the Rainbow Nation. That, at least, was the intention in 1996. Now, Heritage Day is a day of rallies and speeches organised by the government, or National Braai (Barbecue) Day – an initiative launched in 2007 to unite the nation in its shared enthusiasm for incinerating meat over wood fires.

Although there is something deeply ridiculous about a National Braai Day, there’s a logic in recasting Heritage Day into an uncomplicated, fun event which includes just about every South African. Not only did the then-Department of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology include food as part of South Africa’s cultural heritage, but most South African cuisines include some form of barbecue. Everyone – from the middle classes in leafy suburbs, to township dwellers – can, and does, braai.

The originators of National Braai Day manage – probably unwittingly – to solve, or to negotiate, the deeply troubling question at the heart of Heritage Day: what on earth do we mean by ‘heritage’?

Like most historians, I find the idea of ‘heritage’ problematic – and particularly in societies, like South Africa, with long histories of nationalist politics. ‘Heritage’ is constructed: it’s what we – the state, and other institutions – select from the past, and what we choose to remember. Usually, we decide to remember those events and people who are useful for the construction of national identities. What we leave out of these narratives of national becoming is almost as important as what we decide to include.

Under apartheid, European explorers like Vasco da Gama, various early Dutch officials, Voortrekkers (pioneer farmers), Boer generals from the South African War, and nationalist politicians were immortalised on bank notes, in statues and monuments, and in thousands of street names. These white men – and some women – represented what the apartheid state defined as South Africa’s heritage – alongside events such as the Battle of Blood River, the songs in the FAK Sangbundel, volkspele (‘folk-games’), and some kinds of Afrikaans literature.

Those aspects of South African history which could not be mobilised in the construction of a narrative of the triumph of white, Afrikanerdom, were ignored. So there was no room for the miners’ strikes of the early decades of the twentieth century; the histories of the ‘hendsoppers’ and ‘joiners’ – Boers who surrendered to, or joined, the British army during the South African War; the implications of the 1913 Land Act for Africans; and the Bulhoek Massacre, for example.

Perhaps inevitably, the ANC has engaged in its own process of myth-making in post-apartheid South Africa, having claimed the 1976 Soweto uprising as its own event (in fact, the exiled ANC was completely taken by surprise by these student protests); interred Sara Baartman – a Khoi woman who toured Europe in various freak shows between 1810 and 1815, and who is now seen as an emblem of African suffering and exploitation under colonial rule – in a grave in the Eastern Cape, a region she probably never visited, but which is the heartland of the ANC; and has renamed airports, cities, and streets.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town, presented this year by Ben Okri. Biko exemplifies what happens to difficult figures during processes of national myth-creation: as the originator of the Black Consciousness Movement and often critical of the ANC, Biko stands outside of the traditions, events, and movements which the ANC has used to create its version of a South African history. It’s telling that the ANC did not – to my knowledge – release a press statement on 12 September, the thirty-fifth anniversary of Biko’s death, and has done very little to transform him into a hero of the liberation struggle – as they’ve done with Sol Plaatje, for instance.

Although much of Okri’s speech was very, very bad – a woolly, rambling call for a national and nationalist renewal – I liked his opening point that we need to hold on to Biko’s ‘incisive’ questioning, and ‘forensic’ thought. It’s this kind of critical thinking which holds governments to account – particularly when they harness the past in the name of ‘heritage’ to prop up their claims to legitimacy.

One of the best examples of a thoughtful engagement with the pasts that we choose to remember is Jacob Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia (2009). In this memoir-cum-essay, Dlamini makes the – potentially uncomfortable – point that for all the viciousness of life in a township in apartheid South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, black South Africans found ways of living – occasionally happily – under an oppressive regime.

He argues for remembering the strategies that people used to cope with the violence and discrimination of apartheid South Africa, suggesting that as we commemorate acts of resistance to the apartheid state, we should also remember the complex, ordinary lived experiences of the majority of South Africans.

As an historian and as someone who lived through the transition, I think that this is such an important point. Having been raised in a very politically aware household – both my parents were at various times engaged in anti-apartheid activities, and my mother was a Black Sash activist when I was little – I remember watching on television Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison just a few kilometres from our house; shouting ‘vote yes!’ during the 1992 referendum; the riots after Chris Hani’s assassination in 1993; the bomb drills at school; frightening white men dressed in AWB uniforms driving through Paarl, where we lived until 1995 ; listening to radio announcers enumerating the numbers of people killed overnight in the Vaal Triangle, KwaZulu-Natal, and other flashpoints; and the alternating terror and euphoria of the 1994 election.

But it was when ordinary, everyday things began to change, that I realised the implications of the transition to democracy.

It’s difficult to describe the experience of being so isolated from the rest of the world as sanctions were introduced against South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. As English-speaking opponents of apartheid, our family was doubly isolated – we didn’t have a large social circle in the small, conservative town where we lived.

One of the ways my parents coped with this isolation was through books and, particularly, magazines ordered from abroad. Our meals demonstrated particularly well how different we were from the conservative, white society around us, but also how isolated we were from the rest of the world. My mother cooked from Elizabeth David’s books, and also from Robert Carrier, the Supercook series, Good Housekeeping, and Katie Stewart’s recipes in Country Living. When my friends from school were eating lamb chops, rice, potatoes, and overcooked cabbage, we had paella, coq au vin, pasta in various forms, moussaka, and kofte. We drank proper coffee. We didn’t add Aromat to our food.

Making these dishes required some inventiveness: Arborio rice for risotto was almost impossible to find, and I can remember the first time I saw red peppers, mascarpone, ricotta, watercress, and couscous in the shops. My mother became adept at finding substitutes for the ingredients we couldn’t buy.

We have two thick recipe files at home – one for cakes and puddings, and the other for everything else. They comprise clippings from magazines and newspapers – Fairlady, the Financial Times – as well as recipes from friends, including my great-aunt’s amazing vinegar pudding, and, more recently, print-outs from blogs. Some of the recipes are older than I am, and we keep adding recipe cards, torn-out pages from magazines, and bits and pieces from the internet. These files – eccentrically categorised by my sister – are a record of my family’s experience of the past thirty or forty years: they’re a catalogue of our heritage.

They don’t, though, fit into the narratives of national becoming pedalled by the government and, even, the organisers of National Braai Day. What’s missing – among many things – in our Heritage Day celebrations is an acknowledgement of ordinary, lived experience under apartheid – of the multiple ways South Africans adjusted to living under an oppressive regime.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Eat the Rich

Today’s City Press includes a fantastically interesting article about the increased incidence of obesity in post-1994 South Africa. The piece explores the links between the country’s transition to democracy and the fact that 61% of all South Africans – 70% of women over the age of 35, 55% of white men 15 years and older, and a quarter of all teenagers – are obese or overweight.

The reasons for these incredibly high levels of obesity are, as the article acknowledges, complex. In many ways, South Africa conforms to a pattern emerging throughout the developing world. In a report published a few months ago, the World Health Organisation noted that lifestyle-related diseases – like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity – are now among the main causes of death and disease in developing nations. These diseases of affluence are no longer limited to the West.

For the new South African middle classes, fast food and branded processed products, like Coke, are markers of sophistication: of having ‘made it’ in this increasingly prosperous society. But, as in the rest of the world, those at the top of the social scale tend not to be overweight:

contrary to popular myth, obesity is not a ‘rich man’s disease’.

Indeed, the most affluent urbanites can get into their SUVs and drive to gym or to Woolies food hall where, for a price, they can load up their trolleys with fresh, top-quality groceries – from free-range chickens to organic lemons.

This means, says [Prof Salome] Kruger, that ‘the highest income earners are thinner’.

For urban dwellers who earn less, fresh food is usually more difficult, and expensive, to buy than processed non-food:

But for your average city dweller – earning money, but not necessarily enough to own a car to get them out to the major supermarket malls – food is where you find it.

Typically, this is in small corner shops selling a limited, and often more expensive, range of fresh foods. Fruit and veg can be hard to find among the toothpaste and toilet paper spaza staples.

‘R15!’ It’s taxi fare from Orlando to the Pick n Pay in Soweto’s Maponya Mall – and it was 25-year-old road worker Lindiwe Xorine’s reply when City Press asked her how far it was to the nearest supermarket.

We call these areas where access to fresh food is limited, ‘food deserts’. It’s entirely possible to buy fruit, vegetables, and free-range meat in South African cities, but high prices and bad transport infrastructure limit people’s ability to purchase these products.

We’re dealing, effectively, with the effects of mass urbanisation since the ending of influx control in the mid-1980s and the 1994 elections.

The migration of South Africans from rural to urban areas has been a key factor in the nation’s radical change of lifestyle habits.

Twenty years ago, restricted by apartheid laws, just 10% of black South Africans lived in urban areas. Today, more than 56% do.

Alison Feeley, a scientist at the Medical Research Council, says this massive shift to a fast-paced urban life has resulted in dietary patterns shifting just as dramatically from ‘traditional foods to fast foods’.

But this isn’t the first time that South Africa, or indeed other countries, has had to cope with the impact of urbanisation on people’s diets. During the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused agricultural workers to abandon farming in their droves, and to move to cities in search of employment, either in factories or in associated industries. In Britain, this caused a drop in the quality of urban diets. Food supplies to cities were inadequate, and the little food that the new proletariat could afford was monotonous, meagre, and lacking in protein and fresh fruit and vegetables.

One of the effects of this inadequate diet was a decrease in average height – one of the best indicators of childhood health and nutrition – among the urban poor in Victorian cities. In fact, British officers fighting the South African War (1899-1902) had to contend with soldiers who were physically incapable of fighting the generally fitter, stronger, and healthier Boer forces, most of whom had been raised on diets rich in animal protein.

This link between industrialisation, urbanisation, and a decline in the quality of city dwellers’ diets is not inevitable. For middle-class Europeans in cities like London, Paris, and Berlin, industrialised transport and food production actually increased the variety of food they could afford. In the United States, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, a burgeoning food industry benefitted poorer urbanites as well. Processed food was cheap and readily available. Impoverished (and hungry) immigrants from Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy were astonished by the variety and quantity of food they could buy in New York, Detroit, and San Francisco.

It’s difficult to identify similar patterns in South Africa. We know that the sudden growth of Kimberley and Johannesburg after the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1882) stimulated agriculture in Griqualand West and the South African Republic. Farmers in these regions now supplied southern Africa’s fastest growing cities with food. The expansion of Kimberley and Johannesburg as a result of the mineral revolution was different from that of London or New York because their new populations were overwhelmingly male – on the Witwatersrand, there were roughly ninety men for every woman – and highly mobile. These immigrants from the rest of Africa, Europe, Australia, and the United States had little intention of settling in South Africa. As a result of this, it’s likely that these urban dwellers weren’t as badly effected by poor diets as their compatriots in the industrialised cities of the north Atlantic.

Cape Town’s slums and squatter settlements were, though, populated by a new urban poor who migrated with their families to the city during the final three decades of the nineteenth century. Most factory workers were paid barely enough to cover their rent. Mr W. Dieterle, manager of J.H. Sturk & Co., a manufacturer of snuff and cigars, said of the young women he employed:

It would seem incredible how cheaply and sparsely they live. In the mornings they have a piece of bread with coffee, before work. We have no stop for breakfast, but I allow them to stand up when they wish to eat. Very few avail themselves of this privilege. They stay until one o’clock without anything, and then they have a piece of bread spread with lard, and perhaps with the addition of a piece of fish.

This diet – heavy on carbohydrates and cheap stimulants (like coffee), and relatively poor in protein and fresh produce – was typical of the city’s poor. It wasn’t the case that food was unavailable: it was just that urban workers couldn’t afford it.

In fact, visitors to the Cape during this period commented frequently on the abundance and variety of fruit, vegetables, and meat on the tables of the middle classes. White, middle-class girls at the elite Huguenot Seminary in Wellington – a town about 70km from Cape Town – drank tea and coffee, ate fruit, and smeared sheep fat and moskonfyt (syrupy grape jam) on their bread for breakfast and supper. A typical lunch consisted of soup, roasted, stewed, curried, or fried meat (usually mutton), three or four vegetables, rice, and pudding.

It’s also worth noting that the Seminary served its meals during the morning, the middle of the day, and in the evening – something which was relatively new. Industrialisation caused urban workers’ mealtimes to change. Breakfast moved earlier in the day – from the middle of the morning to seven or eight o’clock – lunch (or dinner) shifted to midday from the mid-afternoon, and dinner (or tea) emerged as a substantial meal at the end of the day.

Factory workers in Cape Town ate according to this new pattern as well. The difference was the quality of their diet. A fifteen year-old white, middle-class girl in leafy Claremont who had eaten an ample, varied diet since early childhood was taller and heavier than her black contemporaries in Sturk’s cigar factory. In all likelihood, she would have begun menstruating earlier, and would have recovered from illness and, later, childbirth far more quickly than poorer young women of the same age. She would have lived for longer too.

Urbanisation changes the ways in which we eat: we eat at different times and, crucially, we eat new and different things. By looking at a range of examples from the nineteenth century, we can see that this change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The industrial revolution contributed to the more varied and cheaper diets of the middle classes. Industrialised food production and transport caused the urban poor in the United States to eat better than many of those left behind in rural areas, for example. But it’s also clear that it exacerbates social inequality. In the 1800s, the poor had too little to eat and that which they did have was not particularly nutritious. Children raised on these diets were shorter and more prone to illness than those who ate more varied, plentiful, and protein-rich food. Now, the diets available to the poor in urbanising societies are as bad, even if the diseases they contribute to are caused by eating too much rather than too little.

Most importantly, we have an abundance of food in our growing cities. Just about everyone can afford to eat. The point is that only a minority can afford good, fresh food, and have the time, knowledge, and equipment to prepare it. Food mass produced in factories helped Europe and North America’s cities to feed their urban poor a hundred years ago. I’m not sure if that’s the best solution for the twenty-first century.

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