After a decade of growth and booming profits, the 1918 Spanish Influenza brought about a permanent shift in the fortunes of the Transvaal Gold Mining Estates, the gold mining company in Pilgrim’s Rest. This was largely due to the labour shortages which the mine experienced for the first time in its history in the wake of the epidemic.
The Spanish Flu peaked as World War 1 was drawing to a close and thousands of soldiers were returning to their home countries, carrying the virus with them. In South Africa alone the death toll from the Spanish Flu was between 200 000 and 500 000, out of a population of about 6.5 million.
The disease reached Pilgrim’s Rest on October 14th, 1918, after a visit from an infected “boy from Johannesburg”. Within a week the Transvaal Gold Mining Estates had already recorded 500 cases amongst their employees.
According to mine records, the disease claimed the lives of nearly 200 employees within three weeks. This does not account for those who escaped for home and died there, or even collapsed and died on the roads because they were so weak. A major flight occurred the day after the mine manager, the magistrate and the native commissioner had toured the compounds and encouraged the labourers to stay and be looked after.
Rumours about the cause of the Spanish Flu abounded and were often associated with the war. Christian Silikane, an employee at TGME at the time, recalled people saying that the Germans dropped a bomb which spread the disease when it exploded. These rumours were probably one of the reasons why many of the labourers did not want to return to the mine once the epidemic subsided.
Previously TGME had very lenient labour policies compared to the large mines on the reef. For example, many employees lived with their families and farmed on land surrounding the mine. The mine even made provision for labourers to take time off to work on their lands during the planting season.
Following the Spanish Flu, the labour shortage was so serious that the mine was forced to make significant changes to its recruitment and labour relations policies. Eventually, this paved the way for labour unrest which the mine had never experienced before.