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Article
Poverty & Charity in the Early Twentieth Century
During the Autumn of 1918 in the wake of the First World War, Cape Town was hit with a major epidemic of influenza known as 'the Spanish 'flu'. At its peak, 250 people were buried each day and a sense of crisis pervaded the whole city. Over 4,600 people died - representing a huge mortality rate of 35 per 1000 people.

Relief operations began, comprising of district committees that dispensed free food and medicine. White Capetonians prided themselves on the integrated effort to tackle the epidemic, but the high death rate shed light on the levels of poverty that had developed since the turn of the century.

During the Great War, the rate of urbanisation had risen, as had the cost of living, but no houses had been built. Young coloured women, most of whom were employed in factories, were pushed out of their homes in the evenings due to over-crowding.

White middle class women observed their presence on their streets as there was little alternative recreation. The Marion Institute was established by an Anglican Sister in District Six as a club offering singing, dancing and night school to provide an alternative to the streets.


In the 1920s there was an economic depression and unemployment rose in the Cape Town area. Poverty was exacerbated by high food prices in the Cape, due to the tariffs placed on agricultural production to support Afrikaner farmers.

Applications from white men seeking work rose as high as 30,000 during the depression. Debate about poverty between the wars tended to focus on poor whites, yet in relative terms they were substantially better off than many coloured families. Poverty and unemployment led to a rise in crime and drug abuse.

Families with young children and the elderly were particularly hard off, and their difficulties were often exacerbated by debts, particularly after the introduction of hire purchase. By 1939, the middle classes had begun to comment on the growth of peri-urban squatters in the Windermere and Retreat areas of the Cape Flats.


In 1941 severe flooding on the Cape Flats provoked social action, including the formation of soup kitchens and a Flood Relief Board. Mary Attlee, sister of the future British prime minister, helped to form the Cape Flats Distress Association (CAFDA) with a 'native representative' in the Senate as president. Students from UCT also became involved in basic health and welfare facilities, leading to the formation of the Student Health and Welfare Committee (SHAWCO). Both organisations remain large and active to this day.

The '39-'45 war brought convoys of ships through Cape Town which greatly boosted the demand for food (fresh and canned) and clothes. Although this boosted the economy it also led to rising food prices and the replacement of white bread with the 6d national loaf, described as 'tasting like damp sawdust'. Meat and fish became scarce and the price of potatoes rose dramatically.


Protests about food shortages were made and in 1943 the trade unions and women's organisations demanded better management of the food supplies. Smuts wanted to avoid rationing on the grounds that it was more difficult in a country with 'its different classes of population'. Frustrated by the lack of action, housewives marched upon Parliament to demand food rationing and a ministry of food. The result was price controls at Salt River Market and mobile markets in poorer districts.

Petrol and tyre rationing severely affected private car owners and public transport. However, employment was boosted by the construction of the new Duncan dock, and of the repair base at Wingfield aerodrome

The economic crisis, and the resulting social consequences, led to the professionalisation of relief work through the establishment of the Cape Town and Wynberg General Board of Aid, and the appointment of sociology and social work professors at Cape Town and Stellenbosch universities. Some liberals advocated a welfare state, but their voices were lost in the face of apartheid.




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