Black workers, typhoid fever and the construction of the Berg River – Saldanha military water pipeline, 1942 – 1943

14 January 2011

War creates a huge need for labour to support the war efforts of the belligerent parties. In South Africa tens of thousands of ‘non-white’ workers were mobilised during the Second World War to satisfy the Union Defence Force’s (UDF’s) labour needs at home and abroad. This article, firstly, outlines the role of ‘non-white people’, particularly black Africans, in the UDF with special reference to those employed within the Union of South Africa. Secondly, it briefly delineates typhoid fever as an historical thorn in the flesh of military forces up to the early 20th century. It then looks briefly into the incidence of and perceptions on typhoid fever as a killer disease in South Africa on the eve of the Second World War. Against that background, the article investigates the employment of black workers on the construction of the Berg River-Saldanha Bay military water pipeline and the UDF’s response to the threat and subsequent outbreak of typhoid fever amongst the workers at the Berg River intake site in 1943. The article concludes that the public health authorities and UDF were aware of the threat of typhoid fever with regard to the Berg River water scheme, but did not take sufficient precautionary measures, which could have had serious repercussions for the Allied war effort. This incident should serve as a warning to the South African National Defence Force when deploying on peace support operations on the African continent where typhoid fever remains a serious threat next to Hiv/Aids.