One just has to watch, for example, Will Smith in I Am Legend, which starts well enough, New York’s streets hauntingly emptied by the virus; but then, all too predictably, the dog gets the chop, and it’s downhill from there. Infected people appear somehow to have acquired these superhuman/beastly leaping and smashing and snarling and cannibalistic powers. Hollywood must have in stock just a single spitty-roary-snarly sound-effect track which has been used for every zombie movie since 1978. So boring so silly.
Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011), in contrast, is a chillingly accurate reflection of today, with the sole exception of the rate of infection – but even that may not be so far off. It is all there: its beginning in bats, transferred through the wet markets of China; the manner and ease of its spread; the race to find a vaccine, with all its testing, time delays, and difficulty of choosing who to give it to first; the misinformation on the internet; the tensions between the WHO and the US government; the outbreaks of violent desperation on militarised streets; the altruism alongside the selfishness; the venal journalists and the profiteers; the striking nurses and the dying doctors; the face-masks, the banning of handshaking, even the phrase ‘social distancing’. The self-isolation and the fear.
Again and again, one has to say, Don’t claim we weren’t warned.
But that’s all American. What of South Africa, which of course has had its historical share of plagues, pestilences and epidemics, affecting both humans and animals? (See Howard Phillips’ Jacana pocket history, Plague, Pox and Pandemics.) The last and only true pandemic, I think, was the so-called Spanish ‘flu of 1918, which now is suddenly coming back into historical focus. But before that there were many less sweeping, nonetheless damaging outbreaks of smallpox, horse-sickness, rinderpest, anthrax, measles, cholera, and even bubonic plague, some of which are by no means eradicated. After that the scourge of HIV/AIDS, which also hasn’t gone away; millions have learned instead to live with it, thanks to anti-retrovirals. The same, most likely, will eventually be the case with Covid-19, even if and when a vaccine or treatment medications can be produced in sufficient volume.
What do our creative literatures have to say?
Russel Brownlee’s fine novel, Garden of the Plagues (2005), is set in the embryonic Cape Town of the 1670s, when it was under the governorship of Simon van der Stel. A ship has arrived from the Far East, with four people on board dead of mysterious causes. One young woman with that group has survived. The ship and crew, like the many stranded cruise liners today, are not permitted to dock, but the woman is lodged for observation with the nearest to a doctor the settlement boasts – the gardener, amateur botanist and sometime physick Adam Wijk. A kind of love develops. She does not, it turns out, have the plague; but meanwhile the town is gripped with fear. People self-isolate; soldiers patrol the streets, enforcing the lockdown. In the end, though, the really dangerous plagues, in Brownlee's representation, are diseases of attitude and mind, greed and drunkenness, prejudice and violence against women and the indigenes. It’s a nuanced and tightly observed novel, and it’s a pity Brownlee appears to have published nothing since.
The following century at the Cape was dominated, epidemically speaking, by smallpox – already ancient and global. Outbreaks were recorded in 1713, 1755 and 1767. Locals called it “amaas”. The first epidemic in particular is widely credited with practically obliterating local Khoekhoen groups, though historian Robert Ross judges these later accounts to be probably exaggerated. The nineteenth century recorded repeated outbreaks; ships coming into our ports were routinely quarantined. Still, a thousand people died in Cape Town in 1858; a quarter of Colesberg’s coloured community in 1860. The Xhosa were repeatedly stricken in the years leading up to the 1856 Cattle Killing; they compared smallpox’s facial cicatrices to anteater turds. As Jeff Peires showed in his study The Dead Shall Arise, expanded on by Andrew Offenburger, the Cattle Killing was associated with a devastating outbreak of lungsickness among the Xhosa cattle. But it was foreshadowed by smallpox, and amplified by drought and locusts. In most of the outbreaks, the African peoples were especially vulnerable; the authorities sequestered them, notably in an infamous “smallpox war” on the Kimberley diamond fields in the 1880s, and in an outbreak of bubonic plague in Cape Town in 1901. In time, Africans came automatically to be associated with contagion, and actual disease outbreaks helped form the township system that eventually hardened into apartheid.
Livestock were also riddled with diseases, some parasitic, some viral, throughout the nineteenth century: Dutch farmers called them brandziekte, lamziekte, dunsiekte , meltziekte... Newly appointed state veterinarians battled against resistance from farmers, and found novel germ and vaccination theories – it was the age of Jenner and Pasteur – getting politicized. A rinderpest outbreak in 1865 killed half a million cattle. Set in the Eastern Cape a few decades after the Cattle Killing, Marguerite Poland’s novel of missionary endeavour, Shades (1993), deals at one point with the more famous rinderpest epidemic of 1896. This had apparently started in East Africa and made its way south into Rhodesia and Bechuanaland. After it was first detected on a farm south of the Limpopo drastic measures, including fences and large-scale slaughter of animals, failed to prevent it filtering southwards. It not only killed thousands of cattle: it devastated the economy at all levels, and was a huge factor in diverting young black men, deprived of sustenance and a living, into the horrors of the migrant labour system. Its social effects could be pernicious, too. In the novel, Poland relates in unsettling detail how, at an armed checkpoint, a Xhosa priest is forced to go naked through an anti-rinderpest dip along with the oxen, while his white fellow-priest is not. An excruciating scene.
I haven’t yet found a South African fictional treatment of the 1918 pandemic: do tell me if you know of one. I did come across this bit in Breyten Breytenbach’s surreally lyrical memoir of the Boland, Dog Heart (1998). He writes of the Long Street Mission Church, turned into a museum. In 1918,
People come to die in great numbers within its walls during the influenza epidemic when it is converted into a house of passing away, of dark wind. It is believed that the epidemic – some call it the Spanish Plague – commences with the gathering of a crowd to rejoice at the Armistice of 1918. Peace festivities propagate the killer disease. The old Salvation Army hall becomes a makeshift hospital for whites. A soup kitchen for coloured people is opened in the Ebenezer Church Hall. All three local doctors fall ill (Wessels, Muller and Mrs Muller). Ds van Huyssteen, minister to the Dutch Reformed congregation, admonishes the voluntary workers to eat a little salt, take some snuff, and tie small bags of garlic and wildeals around their waists. Maybe it helps. ... Church services are conducted in the open air, under the tall trees of Lovers Walk. People are afraid to whisper to one another. Will you stop breathing on me! ... Burial proceedings are not held in the churches, either; there are short and simple graveside ceremonies with mourners gathered at a safe distance on the outskirts of the graveyard, they fasten cloths over their noses and mouths.
Andre Brink’s The Wall of the Plague was written in 1984, and clearly one of Brink’s purposes was to drive home to shielded, unthinking and silently complicit South African whites just how terrible their treatment of black and coloured people was. The main action occurs in France, where the Coloured protagonist Andrea Malgas delivers a dense, three-tiered narrative of three successive lovers, travelling at different times over the same ground while researching for a film on the 1340s Black Death. Her in-betweenness is a bit too neatly triangulated between her British, white South African, and Xhosa partners. The story only really gets going on page 124 or so; there are a lot of angry dialogues, overheated emotions, and showing off about the minutiae of French villages and cuisine; much of it an exercise in forensic tedium. It has its moments – terrifying flashbacks to South African experiences, interesting long quotations about the European plagues from historians like Barbara Tuchman and Phillip Ziegler. Malgas is obsessed with finding the remnant of a mediaeval wall, built to sequester a certain village from the plague. The wall failed, of course, and is so ruined now it’s hard to find. At some level, Brink seems to suggest that all walls – those between population groups in South Africa, pre-eminently – are doomed both to hurtfully divide and to break down. There’s a reference to Hitler’s SS as the ‘Black Plague’, and thence to apartheid’s Special Branch as similarly toxic (indeed, it’s implied, their lethal tentacles reach even into France). Such comparisons are tendentious at best, and to be sure Brink doesn’t push it, but despite some rather laborious dialogic philosophising, it all feels a bit tangential and muffled – perhaps necessarily so, given the novel’s timing. What it’s not about is actual plagues in South Africa.
Deon Meyer’s Fever (2017) is – sort of, being futuristic. This thriller might more accurately have been called After the Fever, though, since that’s when it takes place: really a post-apocalyptic Wild West Texas Rangers-type story, with a (mostly) moral cobbled-together community in the desert defending itself against bad guys, some good guys becoming bad guys in order to shoot the real bad guys, some bad guys proving to be good guys after all. It’s readable enough, chopped into digestible, sometimes redundant, chunks from various perspectives, but the machinery creaks along rather obviously. What is revealed in flashbacks about the viral outbreak itself – a corona virus that wipes out 95% of humanity – presumably didn’t constitute much of Meyer’s self-proclaimed ‘four years’ of research, since there isn’t anything there one can’t pick up from Wikipedia in twenty minutes. What seems in the midst of Covid-19 amazingly predictive is no more than what a quick read of history would supply. Still, the echoes ring true enough. Characters’ ideas compete. There is the view that the Fever was “actually good for the world”, humans having been so destructive. In contrast, the boy-protagonist’s father feels that technology was on the brink of solving everything, so he says: “The Fever, it’s horrible, the billions who died ... but I wonder if the greater harm wasn’t the interruption of what we were on the road to accomplishing. We had such problems before the Fever. Political and social and ecological, but we were finding solutions ... we never had the chance to continue all those developments, to use our ingenuity to solve those problems.” One character asks, “is it not maybe the earth that sent the sickness”, while the pastor puts it down to God. Global warming, plastics pollution, nuclear meltdown, misinformation, racism and inequality all get mentions if not exploration. When various characters are asked, there’s not much about the pre-fever world they really miss, apart from varieties of entertainment. That much seems true to the present: as lockdowns are eased, it becomes apparent that global ‘civilisation’ is more concerned to amuse itself in bars and stadiums, resume its profligate luxuriating, and get its hair done, than to really secure the environmental and economic foundations of its own future. Back in much of Africa, I fear, we are more likely to end up reverting to conditions closer to those of the 1860s.