Deviancy and Disease: Non-Normative Behavior and Water Supplies in Colonial South Africa, 1830-1900
This seminar explores the history of water supplies in Colonial South Africa and argues that municipal officials and urban residents co-created a set of expectations that dictated how these cities built, used, and managed water infrastructure, particularly in relation to their public health needs and desires.
By 1899, residents in Port Elizabeth were fed up with the lack of sanitary infrastructure in their city. “At present, householders are helpless,” wrote the editor of Cape Daily Telegraph that July. “However excellent their intentions maybe they are obliged to deposit liquid matter in the streets.” They called the action “a disgrace to the community,” not only because residents were dumping their “diseased” wastewater into public spaces but also because the city had made little provision for doing otherwise.
As South African municipalities constructed water infrastructure, their residents contested how to use, manage, and maintain different infrastructural pieces despite a rising number of city laws regulating the “proper” ways to employ and manage that infrastructure and the water it held and policed. Municipal officials often used public health rhetoric and discourse as a justification for regulating and prohibiting certain actions and behaviours, arguing that poor habits around water supplies and infrastructure led to the spread of disease and an increase in mortality rates. At the same time, many residents—often white and middle class—took up this rhetoric against one another and the municipality itself, both resulting from and influencing municipal legislation and discourse.
Building on scholarship on the history of public health, infrastructure, and deviancy, this paper argues that municipal officials and urban residents co-created a set of expectations that dictated how these cities built, used, and managed water infrastructure, particularly in relation to their public health needs and desires. The city itself may have built the infrastructure, but its residents shaped how it was used in their daily interactions with it. Through this often-tense connection between administrators and urban residents, a particular water use and management culture emerged along the South African coast that impacted how the ports viewed their clean wastewater. By virtue of its everydayness, so-called illegal behaviour in and around water supply and drainage infrastructure led to a reconceptualization of water as a public health problem in the South African port city, moulding how municipal officials and residents used and managed the waste and clean waters in their midst.
Kristin Brig-Ortiz, PhD candidate in the history of medicine, Johns Hopkins University