Maize, cattle and mosquitoes: The political economy of malaria epidemics in colonial swaziland

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Malaria was a major health problem in Swaziland during the colonial period. Prior to the commencement of vector control measures in the late 1940s annual outbreaks of malaria occurred during the summer and autumn months from December to May. These seasonal epidemics incapacitated large numbers of Swazis as well as a few Europeans. During most years the epidemic was limited to the lower regions of the country and was marked by relatively few deaths. In other years, however, the annual epidemic spread throughout the country and was accompanied by a high rate of mortality especially among young children. Colonial medical opinion ascribed these major epidemics to abnormally heavy rainfall and increased vector breeding. Yet they were also a product of long-term trends in the Swaziland political economy-the semi-proletarianization of Swazi herdsmen/cultivators and the subordination of Swazi economic interests to those of South African and local European capital-which produced a state of nutritional vulnerability among many Swazi families. This, vulnerability in combination with short-term economic crises, such as the worldwide depression of the early 1930s, and drought, gave rise to famine conditions which greatly increased the severity of subsequent outbreaks of malaria, as seen in the histories of the major epidemics of 1932 and 1946. 74These three years clearly illustrate how the occurrence of regional epidemics depended on a combination of several factors, the absence of any one of which could act to reduce the level of malaria in the country. In 1917–18 the occurrence of drought conditions and the loss of crops was followed by excessive rains. However, a strong cattle market allowed the Swazi to offset the loss of their crops. Moreover, the rains in 1918 were so excessive that they inhibited the breeding of the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which breeds in shallow hoofprints, potholes and ditches. In years of heavy rain such as occurred in 1918 these breeding places are repeatedly swept clean, disturbing the breeding sites and reducing the mosquito population. Excessive rains also appear to have accounted for the limited outbreak which occurred in 1925 despite the occurrence of famine conditions in the months preceding the outbreak of malaria. The epidemic of 1920, like that of 1918, was limited by the ability of the Swazi to sell their cattle. Moreover, there was no depression in employment opportunities as occurred in 1931 and to a lesser extent in 1945. The Swazi were therefore able to cope with the loss of their crops more successfully and were less vulnerable to malaria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)189-212
Number of pages24
JournalThe Journal of African History
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1984
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History


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