Building Out the Rat: Animal Intimacies and Prophylactic Settlement in 1920s South Africa

by Branwyn Polykett, University of Cambridge §

In the years between the two world wars another global war was declared, the war on the rat. The rat was a stray organic glitch in the logistics of imperial modernity, insinuating itself onto ships, transmitting infectious disease along trade routes, displacing local rodents, disrupting local ecologies and destroying crops and infrastructure. Public health authorities saw the rat as the “arch-contaminator”, amplifying and aggravating the “evils of bad sanitation” (Hogarth, 1929 p. 109), and “leisure loving citizens” were enjoined to join the war and to see the rat not as a constant, semi-domesticated companion but as a “living example of depredation, dirt and disease” (ibid), a dangerous pest to be eliminated, under the public health slogan, “Swat that Fly, Kill that Rat”.

In the first decade of the twentieth century rats brought plague to South African cities causing many human deaths in Cape Town and Johannesburg. In both cities, the threat of plague was instrumentalised by urban authorities to forcibly displace non-white South Africans and to reconstruct and reimagine cities as white spaces. Plague figured in what Maynard Swanson called the “sanitation syndrome”, the equation of “black urban settlement, labour and living conditions with threats to public health and security” which resulted in the segregation of South African cities, permanently changing what Swanson called the “racial ecology” of South Africa (Swanson, 1977). In the model of the ‘syndrome’ the social and the sanitary, the imaginative and the material, lock together with racist theory in the pursuit of social control. The invocation of the threat of disease allowed white employers full rights of control over the black workforce, while restricting access to the city and the political privileges it conferred to whites.

The sanitation syndrome is a powerful and compelling model with huge explanatory power for the sanitary segregation of colonial cities. It draws together political violence inflicted materially on the city and bodies of the colonised with the affective registers of disgust and fear through which this process was narrated and achieved. Within this syndrome, Swanson describes a world rigid with human intention. In this piece, I consider how a settler vision of nature – capricious, vulnerable, inhabited by people who barely comprehended the jeopardy of dwelling and coexistence – shaped South Africa’s war on the rat in the 1930s. While never quite coalescing into the mechanisms of expulsion and control described by Swanson, public health campaigns targeting animals problematised and sought to secure relationships between cities (understood as white) and the countryside that lay around them. As such, anti-rat campaigns were powerful instruments for allying the health of the nation with whiteness and proposing white settlement as a prophylaxis against epidemic disease.

By the 1930s South Africa in the 1920s and ‘30s plague became an ecological problem, a disease that appeared to pass through different species and to move across an environment altered and made vulnerable by settlement and cultivation. The heavy work of eliminating the species by rousing the public to kill would have to be rethought and new tactics of countering rats developed. A counter vision ran alongside calls to eradicate and contain, a purportedly more modest vision that proposed the regularisation and extension of infrastructure, a ‘building out’ of the invasive species. Seeing through the rat and the infrastructures which were proposed to eliminate it reveals the fractured lines of thought in settler modernity. These two techno-political gambits from the 1920s open up different ways of looking at the ties of interdependency cutting across species, those ties that segregation and sanitary regulation tried to work upon but could not sever.

When it came to the war on the rat, inhabitants of South Africa’s recently segregated cities were instructed to put their differences aside and unite against their animal enemy. To rouse people to new efforts of voluntary labour, public health officials appealed to the citizenship and solidarity of communities of newly re-settled Africans. A newspaper article announced that “When ‘zero hour’ arrives Wynberg, Simon’s Town, and the little townships in the semi-rural areas on the outskirts of the municipality will go ‘over the top’ with Cape Town, and for eleven days will ruthlessly harry, pursue and slaughter the great army of rats that now menaces the health of the whole population.” (‘Rat Offensive’ CTAR, 3/SMT/4/1/40 333). However, despite gung-ho military language, financial rewards for people who could produce evidence of dead rats, and striking campaign materials, it proved very difficult in South Africa to set the public to the unpleasant and time consuming task of species elimination, rat killing never united South African cities in the way they hoped.

Even without the enthusiastic participation of South African citizens, urban epidemics of plague characterised by high human mortality did not happen after 1914. The Chief Health Officer for South Africa, J. Alexander Mitchell argued that this was due to the foresight of urban authorities who had ordered the forced displacement, inoculation, disinfection and deverminization of the city’s native populations. However, Mitchell warned, there was no reason for complacency. Rather than “disappearing,” settler rats had migrated to the ambiguous and racially mixed edgelands of the colonial cities where they had infected South African veld mammals. No longer an urban phenomenon, where it could be subjected to rational management through those methods of corralling, cleaning and segregating humans that drew upon the management of livestock, plague was now imbricated in subtle and barely visible patterns of lethal exchange between species in the veld. As Mitchell put it, “instead of having fulminating, violent outbreaks as in Cape Town, there was a prolonged smouldering infection both in man and rodents” (CTAR, 3/SMT/4/1/40 333). The sanitation syndrome mobilised a racial politics of blame and used the full force of state power to impose quarantine. Here, Mitchell found that plague was flourishing outside of the settled patterns of social relations and human association, outside of the racialised prism of hygienic habits that centered bourgeois whiteness, outside, in other words, of the whole conceptual apparatus for its capture by experimental methods and its containment.

As settlement and cultivation drove down numbers of the rodents’ natural predators, rodent numbers grew and rodent behaviours changed. Through painstaking experimental research on the veld, the scientists reconstructed a chain of intimate association and infection between urban rats, peri-urban gerbils, and the wilder, geographically more mobile, rodents that shared burrows with the gerbils. Understanding these changes of transmission, however, did not mean that the scientists understood what triggered a ‘successful’ zoonotic epidemic. They solicitously tried to nurture viruses on the veld in order to observe their interspecies transmission but failed to trigger contagious events under experimental circumstances (Mitchell, Pirie and Ingram, 1929). In Mitchell and his team’s writings there is striking reverent respect for this kind of pathology that they experimentally apprehended and described as a kind of pure force rippling across the landscape.

The almost invisible relations studied by Mitchell were dramatically manifest in spectacular events such as the rodent invasion of De Aar. On November 5th 1928 the magistrate of De Aar, a small town in the Northern Cape Province telegraphed Pretoria to report that flea infested rats were dying in large numbers in the town. According to Mitchell’s report of the crisis, this had triggered a certain amount of panic as in 1924 “a virulent wave of plague infection in veld rodents” had “passed over” De Aar causing 29 human cases of plague and 18 deaths (Mitchell, 1930). This incident had subsequently been traced to an “unaccompanied native” who had entered the town. In 1929 the magistrate reported that “thousands of sick and dying rodents were swarming into De Aar,” what he described as a “great trek” of rodents – from West to East – was in progress. A local medical practitioner reported that he had “passed through droves of animals, numbering thousands over a wide area.” (ibid p. 394). The municipality mobilised rat killing gangs – equipped with sticks, lanterns and dogs – to operate at night on the outskirts and as far as possible prevent rodents entering the town”. Mitchell’s report of the incident in De Aar focuses closely on animal behaviour such as gerbils showing “uncharacteristic boldness” and “weaving about as if confused” and on the uncanny and troubling aspects of the strange event, which lasted for a ten days with a brief and unexplained recrudescence a few weeks later. The medical officer drew Mitchell’s attention to “a curious feature” of the later stages of the epidemic: “the presence of great numbers of white-breasted crows which had rapidly congregated and were very active in picking up and devouring the rodent carcases on the veld” (p. 396).

When it came to interpreting this singular event, Mitchell acknowledged that there had recently been two human plague cases in the area, but that it was important to eliminate this “complication” from the narrative of De Aar. In order to penetrate the opaque relations that had produced this natural event, it was necessary to tune out the “noise” of human transmission and to reconstruct the chains of association between species that culminated in a doomed “trek” of desperate rodents. This inscrutable event dramatically illustrated the volatile and vulnerable ecosystem of the veld and the ever-present possibility of a lethal enzootic that could be transmitted to humans.

What kinds of tactics and techniques of public health could be used to control and contain volatile nature? The next stage of South Africa’s war on the rat, Mitchell argued, would need to be adapted for South Africa’s specific ecology. Mitchell argued that it was necessary to create ‘fire-belts’ of rodent free zones around the cities. As no species would be capable of travelling across these belts, the plague that ‘smouldered’ in the veld would have no means of “leaping” these barriers and entering the cities.  Only animals that might be inclined to range across the rodent free zones were hares – an animal that attracted suspicion because of their habit of straying close to the burrows of gerbils. However, unlike rodents, hares were a “sporting” sort of animal, the kind of animal that farmers might be persuaded to hunt and kill. Cape Town would be protected by a “Hindenburg Line,” which marked the periphery of the zone within which rodent destruction teams worked to systematically eliminate species suspected of carrying plague. Mitchell claimed to have proved that within these boundaries, rodent and other suspicious species could be trapped, gassed, and shot to the point of extinction, thus protecting South African cities, farms, and mines from epidemics of plague and white installations from the turbulent ecological conditions engendered by the expansion of settler cultivation (CTAR, 3/SMT/4/1/40 333).

Mitchell’s militarized and securitized vision was not shared by all public health officials in South Africa. The threat of epidemic disease was taken extremely seriously in the 1920s and many were concerned about the disturbing reversal that appeared to have taken place between the previously contagious cities and the countryside. However, not everyone was convinced that the answer was to go to war. One person who proposed an alternative vision was Daniel Francois Malan, then Minister of Health, later a Prime Minister of South Africa, Afrikaner nationalist, and an architect of the apartheid. Rather than advocating killing, he argued that to rid ourselves of the rat we must “build it out” (National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria, G18/3/17). Malan claimed that India, Java and the United States had abandoned extermination and instead concentrated on “building out”. Advocates of this policy presented themselves as a sober alternative to the grandiose and quixotic schemes of killing. Their policy, however, was equally ambitious. As Victor Heiser, an American doctor who observed a “building out” campaign in the Philippines noted: “building the rat out of Manila was a difficult undertaking, requiring the reconstruction of the city, and obviously was a matter of years” (p. 99). The alternative to species elimination proposed by Malan and other South African advocates of “building out” was a campaign of modernisation via prophylactic settlement. Along with the standardisation of urban dwelling in the towns, building out in South Africa would eventually encompass the spread of “hygienic” white bourgeois norms of living across the territory.

Rats are consummately “awkward creatures” (Ginn, Beisel and Barua, 2014), those still feral animals that nonetheless co-opt our homes, our food and our waste to live alongside us in skin-crawling, hair raising intimacy. Rat killing manuals from the early twentieth century try to capitalise on this shudder to mobilise people to kill rats, going to great lengths to illustrate homes vulnerable to rats with all kinds of signals of bourgeois domestic comfort. Like many awkward and liminal creatures, rats have long lent themselves to problematisation and allegory, standing in for all kinds of unwanted humanity and stigmatised qualities.

The global war against the rat took on distinct local characteristics when it was waged in settler colonial states. This specificity cannot be reduced only to a colonial imperative to dominate a natural world seen as problematic, pathological and labile, but extends to the power of the war to draw together visions of a future world, not just a world without pests but a world of greater efficacy, security and segregation. As Aaron Jakes has written recently in the context of another ideological, exploitative “war” on nature, accounts of technopolitical modernity and the binaries that are produced through its practices leave the apparent necessity of this perpetual conflict unexplained (Jakes, 2016).

South Africa’s war on the rat gained its particular force in its power to evoke white futures and in an expansive ecological epidemiology that did not so much indict colonized subjects for “unhygienic” behaviours as ignore them. The colonizing force of settler medical science is not just operative when it takes racialized and colonized bodies as a target for purification and segregation. Both Mitchell and Malan’s visions of futures without rats have much to tell us about the stakes – political, infrastructural, and ecological – of our endless wars.


Works Cited

Ginn, Franklin, Uli Beisel and Mann Barua (2014) Flourishing with Awkward Creatures: Togetherness, Vulnerability and Killing, Environmental Humanities 4: 113-123

Heiser, V. (1936) An American Doctor’s Odyssey: Adventures in Forty Five Countries W. W. Norton & Co Inc.

Hogarth, A. Moore (1929) The Rat: A World Menace, John Bale, Sons & Danielsson.

Jakes, A. (2016) Boom, Bugs, Bust: Egypt’s Ecology of Interest, 1882-1914, Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12216

Mitchell, J. Alexander, J.H. Harvey Pirie and A. Ingram (1927) The Plague Problem in South Africa: Historical, Bacteriological and Entolomological Studies South African Institute for Medical Research.

Mitchell, J.A. (1930) Epizootic among Veld Rodents in De Aar and Neighbouring Districts of the Northern Cape Province, Epidemiology and Infection 29(4): 394–414.

Swanson, Maynard (1977) The Sanitation Syndrome: Bubonic Plague and Urban Native Policy in the Cape Colony, 1900-1909, The Journal of African History 18, 3: 387-410.


Branwyn Poleykett is a postdoctoral research associate in Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. She is currently writing a book on health communication in Dakar. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement number 336564.


This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism

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