Health, environment and the racialisation of space in Pietermaritzburg/Edendale, 1880-1950: Revisiting the 'sanitation syndrome'

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Seminar Date
April 7, 2010
Pietermaritzburg/Edendale – the two dominant components of the present-day municipality of Msunduzi – have tended to be overlooked in the historiography of urban South Africa. This is surprising on several levels. Pietermaritzburg was the capital of colonial Natal and is currently the centre of government of South Africa’s most populous province. It retains one of the continent’s richest legacies of colonial architecture with over 800 historically significant buildings. Counting environs, its population of close to a million people makes it the 7th or 8th largest urban centre in the country. Edendale, for its part, was one of the first and largest black freehold communities in South Africa, had the first functioning multi-racial local authority advisory board, is the home of what was once an internationally renowned hospital, and was the scene for some of South Africa’s worst political violence in the period of transition to democracy. Pietermaritzburg used to promote itself as the healthiest city in South Africa, if not the world - “the Mecca of those who seek healthy surroundings” (PMB 1936, 75). Edendale today has some of the highest rates of HIV prevalence in the world.2 Msunduzi, I should add, in March 2010 earned the distinction of becoming the largest municipality in the country yet to be placed directly under provincial administration in order to avert bankruptcy and a total collapse of services delivery. My primary objective in this paper is to rescue this interesting place from an undeserved obscurity in the historiography of South Africa, perhaps to show, as Parnell (1995) has encouraged, that local urban histories can significantly enrich our understandings of historical change that at present mostly derive from studies of the big cities and satellites only. Indeed, my secondary objective is to assess whether the history of Pietermaritzburg and Edendale supports several strong claims about health, environment and racial segregation that are prevalent in the historiography almost to the point of “received wisdom.” This includes, above all, explanations of urban segregation that draw upon Maynard Swanson’s concept of “sanitation syndrome,” a concept that posits the co-optation of scientific knowledge by racist whites to achieve the politically difficult goal of moving Africans out of the city into locations. Acknowledging severe limitations in the historical sources, I have been particularly concerned to find evidence of African agency and of the role of women and gender in the racialisation of space through the medium of initiatives to improve health and the environment. The period 1880-1950 encompasses Edendale’s transformation from prosperous African farming village to a notorious slum and to an increasingly multi-racial collection of communities prior to the imposition of the Group Areas Act.
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