Marc Epprecht

Welcome to Greater Edendale examines an often overlooked element in the history of anti-colonial/apartheid politics in southern Africa—class shame hinging upon perceived sexual immorality.

Let us start with a powerful insight to come out of early feminist histories in Africa: while colonialism, Christianity, and racial capitalism brought some advantages to African women and girls compared to the immediate pre-colonial era, they also introduced new layers of oppression and disadvantage, not least of all by profoundly disempowering—if not “emasculating”—African men. Rather than a generalized excess of authority over women, it was African men’s widespread loss of authority and dignity as men under colonial rule that generated some of the pathologies that became manifest in criminal gangs, alcoholism, and gender-based violence. A strong component of that emasculation was a racialist ideology that constructed African men’s sexuality as irredemiably dangerous or incompatible with the needs of a modern, civilized society.


This analysis sheds light on the otherwise baffling behaviour of modern African leaders like Thabo Mbeki (seeming to deny the link between HIV and AIDS, or to minimize black men’s violence against black women), Jacob Zuma (rationalizing rape), and Robert Mugabe among many others (for blaming the West for corrupting Africans’ natural heterosexual purity, which I discuss in greater depth here). These men had many motives but they were in part articulating a deep, sincere rage at the emasculating discourses from a long history of white settler racism. That does not make their statements and policies any less harmful. But it does caution Western scholars to be alert against echoing colonial denunciations of African masculinity from a position of assumed moral superiority. We may also deepen our empathy if we recall the complex sources of the rage and shame in earlier generations.

Africans’ anger against white racism was without question a powerfully unifying and trans-generational force that still justifiably resonates politically. But it does not explain everything. In some cases, anti-colonial politics were shaped by fears and rivalries among Africans themselves, and in particular among Africans seeking to ascend the colonial hierarchies of material wealth, political influence, and social respectability. In colonial Natal, the latter were known as the amakholwa, and, I argue, they played a significant role in derailing a progressive experiment in social medicine and multi-racial local authority centred on the largest historical amakholwa community, Edendale. The evident failures of the “experiment at Edendale” by the late 1950s then helped to set the stage for the implementation of grand apartheid in Natal. I don’t want to overstate any direct connections, but there are some suggestive echoes of class shame in amakholwa rhetoric from that era with controversial attitudes expressed by contemporary African leaders around ostensibly shameful issues such as homosexuality, HIV/AIDS and men’s sexual rights over women.

The amakholwa coalesced as a distinct “tribe” in the 1830s-1850s. They had diverse origins but united through their conversion to Christianity and rejection of many aspects of traditional African culture, including polygyny, inherited chiefs, and communal land tenure. They became the vanguard of a literate, land-holding, market-oriented class of Africans who largely bought into the British liberal ideology of social advancement through hard work, education and merit. They fought on the side of the British in the colonial wars of the 1870s-1890s.

George Town village, Edendale ca. 1900. View looking east toward Pietermaritzburg with the Methodist church and monument to the soldiers who fought with the British in the Anglo-Zulu wars. Photo courtesy of Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository.

Edendale was one of numerous autonomous amakholwa communities established around Natal in the nineteenth century. It started out as an agricultural village in 1851 just outside the capital city of Pietermaritzburg. By 1942 it had grown into Natal’s third largest, and one of its most demographically and culturally diverse urban jurisdiction. A patchwork of amakholwa villages, informal settlements, farms and orchards, it had become home to thousands of non-amakholwa Africans, Indians, and Coloureds, plus several hundred people of European descent. Proposals to manage such a diverse but mostly very poor population foundered through the 1930s on the usual South African rocks of who would pay and how could white supremacy be maintained if blacks were allowed to participate as citizens with equal rights.

Edendale produced several important leaders of resistance to white supremacy, including founding members of what became the African National Congress (ANC) such as Richard and Selby Msimang. Gender and sexuality were a long-standing theme in their protest tradition. Notably, while the amakholwa rejected many indigenous traditions around marriage and courtship, they retained their loyalty to what they called “marriage gifts”—effectively bridewealth. They deeply resented colonial efforts to interfere with the custom and bridled at the ways white settlers used the issue to deny amakholwa full access to British law. They fought back against white accusations of “Black Peril” (black men’s supposed incorrigible and dangerous lust for white women) rhetorically in their newspapers and literally in at least one case of running battles with young white vigilantes. They protested the disrespect shown to African women by soldiers at the nearby fort. They repeatedly demanded powers of a local authority in order to police women’s liquor brewing (and consumption) and the brazen sex trade as conditions in the village deteriorated. And they led calls for Pietermaritzburg to construct a formal township that would provide decent accommodation for African workers and families.

Failure to address amakholwa protests was a serious blot on white liberal conscience. It also constituted a growing danger to the health of white Pietermaritzburg—Edendale’s worst slum areas were directly upstream from the city, and the focal point of several epidemics. The Edendale and District Public Health Area Local Health Commission (LHC) was created in 1942 as an experimental form of developmental state that was intended to finally address the issues.

The LHC (or kwaPoyinandi in isiZulu) placed most of the peri-urban sprawl west of Pietermaritzburg under one local authority. Its first Commissioner was Thomas Wadley, a former mayor of Durban and national MP. Wadley was the equivalent of an executive mayor and the LHC had all the powers that regular city possessed. These it applied with gusto in the spirit of social medicine then being pioneered in nearby Pholela, an impoverished migrant labour reserve just up the hills to the west of Edendale. Its mandate was not simply to provide clean water, healthy homes, erosion control, and curative medicine, but also to conduct research, surveillance, primary health education, and programs to subsidize and stimulate household food security and income generation. The LHC was also enjoined to tutor a multi-racial Advisory Board in the art of modern municipal governance, with the promise of eventual transition to a normal, democratically-constituted, self-governing town council.

My interest is in how and why the social medicine model fizzled out in its Edendale iteration, even though a number of scholars have described Pholela as ahead of its time and a model for primary healthcare that would later be taken up globally. A key to that puzzle can be found in a remarkable meeting that exposed the profound tension between the white liberals pushing the experiment and male amakholwa elites who feared the implications for their social aspirations. Indeed, core activities of the LHC brought it into direct engagement with African women to an extent that had never happened before, and which deeply disturbed the aura of amakholwa dignity.

The meeting took place in the boardroom of the LHC office in Pietermaritzburg on the 18th of July 1944. Present were the chief native commissioner of Natal, all the top LHC officials, Natal’s leading African official, A.W.G. Champion, Chief Edgar Mini of Edendale, and “some 20 natives (including five women).” The occasion was to hear and respond to Champion’s allegations of scandalous misrule by the LHC, which he had attacked in a letter in highly inflammatory language (“dictators,” “confusion,” “acting communistically”—“The natives complain that the Health Commission is not a useful body to them but has come to create untold miseries and the ultimate result will be to have many natives sell their properties to look for places elsewhere”). Champion demanded an impartial judicial enquiry. Such an investigation had the potential to be deeply embarrassing to the provincial administration and to bring the nascent LHC experiment to a standstill.

Champion came from an amakholwa community north of Durban (Inanda). He had risen to prominence in the 1920s as a trade unionist and “minister of labour” within the ANC. Now, as the most prominent member of the Native Representative Council, the government took him very seriously. This meeting makes clear that they also did not understand him very well, or the anxieties of the class of people he came from. After several testy exchanges between Wadley and Champion around the LHC constitution and generally oppressive nature, Wadley`s confusion becomes evident. Why, Champion wanted to know, was the commission asking women about miscarriages: “In our Native Code such a thing is not allowed. What good purpose does it serve? … What is at the back of the Government’s wanting to know about miscarriages?”

Wadley fell silent. His Medical Officer of Health then intervened to explain the medical need for such information. Primarily it was to identify the main cause of stillbirths—syphilis—and therefore be able to offer timely treatment to the women. Champion acknowledged the doctor’s explanation as “very good” but then proceeded to reveal an even deeper grievance: why was the research about miscarriages, and implicitly the sexual lives of the mothers, being made public?

Mr. Champion: This publicity is only given to us because we are very poor. It is not done in the case of Europeans.

Mr. Wadley: Yes it is.

Mr. Champion: I have never seen it in the Press. We have nobody to bring our complaints to about the publicity given to us. It makes people afraid to go to Edendale.

What, then, were the people of Edendale demanding the commission do? Champion got straight to the point: “I want you to tell these newspapers to stop this information. There are many things which for the good of the country are hidden. Hide as much as you can for the sake of good government.”

Wadley was clearly taken aback by this turn in the discussion. In his eyes the scandal was not that syphilis was present among the women of Edendale. Rather, it and the many diseases of poverty in Edendale were symptomatic of the real scandal: the exploitation and neglect of Edendale’s population by their comfortable white neighbours. Somehow the citizens of Pietermaritzburg had to be made to realize the consequences of their complacency about the economic and health crisis in African communities. The publication of hard evidence of the health costs of racial capitalism would go farther towards that goal, and towards building the political will for broader change, than moralistic tut-tuttings about African women’s looseness: “‘[Pieter]Maritzburg people will have to meet their obligations one day with better wages for its employees… Anything that can make Pietermaritzburg sit up we should not discourage… I cannot agree that we should hide things. I think the more publicity that is given to Edendale the better.”

Champion was not convinced. He asked, pointedly, “Suppose a native came from Bulwer. How would you know that he really came from there?” and “What do the people of Inanda, etc., think of Edendale?” Bulwer? Inanda? The people of the latter, his home town, were amakholwa, respectable Christians whose identity and political aspirations to a large extent hinged on the image of propriety, and feminine domesticity. Natives from Bulwer actually meant the surrounding tribal reserves like Pholela, that is, supposedly simple folk who might get the wrong ideas about their social superiors if secrets about life in town were made known. In making these coded references, Champion was underscoring his concern that frank health propaganda profoundly shamed the people of his own class. Wadley conceded, “I had no idea that there was such a revulsion of feeling, however. We will note this.”

The LHC did subsequently back away from the more intrusive elements of the social medicine experiment, and by the early 1950s effectively disavowed it as a model in favour of more politically-sellable curative medicine. The latter took concrete form in 1954 with the opening of Edendale Hospital, which rose above the surrounding community like a gigantic monument to the benevolent state. In the short run, such dramatic performances of therapeutic medicine were effective for the achievement of key health objectives, and for winning support for the idea of “separate development” (that is, apartheid). In the longer run, however, that model set the stage for intensely violent conflict in the 1980s and early 1990s, and Natal’s emergence as the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the country.

Edendale Hospital – Photo by M. Epprecht

Social medicine, and the promise of self-government in a multi-racial community, of course had many enemies in the South Africa of that era and it is possible that the experiment would have failed regardless. Yet, the fact that prominent progressive African leaders opposed it, in many cases claiming to speak on behalf of and mobilizing African women, took significant wind out of the liberal sails behind the ideas. The LHC meeting of the July 18, 1944 brings our attention to this neglected aspect of the history of political struggle in South Africa.

I do not mean to suggest that a direct line connects the prickliness of Champion then to that of Mbeki et al in the twenty-first century around perceived slights to African men’s dignity by prurient and/or controlling whites. I simply want to emphasize the historical depth of that prickliness, including, on the one side, the preference for secrecy among African leaders about connections between gender, sexuality, and health and, on the other side, the evident naiveté of white liberals on the issue.

epprechtMarc Epprecht is a professor in the Department of History and chair of the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is a scholar of southern Africa, especially in the colonial era. His research into gender and sexuality focuses on non-normative sexualities and contestations around masculinities; HIV/AIDS; environment and health; and contestations over development. Epprecht has authored numerous articles and books on the history of gender, sexuality and development, including Heterosexual Africa, Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa, and ‘This Matter of Women Is Getting Very Bad’: Gender, Development and Politics in Colonial Lesotho.

Creative Commons License

NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

For permission to publish any NOTCHES post in whole or in part please contact the editors at

Leave a Reply