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Howard Phillips, University of Cape Town will present “The Silence of the Survivors: Why Did Survivors of the ‘Spanish’ Flu in South Africa Not Talk about the Epidemic?”
To dissect the label ‘forgotten’ which is as inaccurately applied across the board to the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 in South Africa as the label ‘Spanish’, this paper will draw a clear distinction between two categories of survivor, viz. institutions and individuals. In the case of institutions like the state, the military, the professions and faith-based communities, their silence stemmed mainly from a deliberate wish not to memorialise what was for them a comprehensive rout as they failed, by and large, to meet the needs of those dependent on them for protection or succour. On the other hand, the long silence of individuals about their experiences in the pandemic was, in the main, not the result of active suppression of memories but more a consequence of a reluctance to actively revive distressing memories of a doleful and frightening period of their lives. That they had not deliberately buried such memories in amnesia is made clear by the readiness with which, sixty years later—by when the pain of such memories had eased—over 170 of them willingly shared their graphic recollections of the pandemic in interviews with the author. Drawing on these almost unique recollections, this paper seeks to construct why, when and how their silence turned into speaking, thereby adding important dimensions to one-dimensional concepts of both silence and survivors.