Confined to my home, in comfort, with a full larder and uncapped Wi-Fi and a view over False Bay to the Cape Flats, I find myself pondering a question raised by the history I am reading: where is the line between quarantine and segregation? And another: how does an epidemic change society, or expose its underlying fissures?

The threatening coronavirus epidemic underscores the gross inequality of our society — and this division was actually written into law as a response to previous SA epidemics. In a seminal essay published 40 years ago, the historian Maynard Swanson tracked the way the bubonic plague of 1901 was used by the Cape authorities to achieve what they had always desired, namely “no less than the mass removal of Cape Town’s African population, even though the number of Africans contracting the plague was less than either whites or coloureds”.

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