New Directions in the History of Nursing: International Perspectives

By Barbara Mortimer; Susan McGann | Go to book overview
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Race, identity and the nursing profession in South Africa,c.1850-1958

Helen Sweet and Anne Digby1

You may already have heard of the threatened Nurses Strike here at Sulenkama. It “broke” on 3rd June [1949]… That morning every probationer nurse was sitting by the roadside with her cases packed at 6 a.m., waiting for the bus, and leaving a fairly full hospital quite unattended. Had they carried out their intention we would have had no alternative but to stop admitting patients and gradually to empty the hospital… Prompt action and the guiding action of God saved the situation. 2

Historically, strike action by nurses has been, and still is, quite unusual. But moments of crisis and confrontation expose issues otherwise obscured by such factors as the ordered hierarchy of a hospital, the distribution of power between White and Black, or inequalities between men and women. In the case of the Sulenkama mission hospital, to be discussed in our case study, the causes of disaffection among these young, Black nurses revealed a complex layering of issues, so that an unpublicized event at an obscure mission hospital serves as a lens to clarify some of the stresses within the South African nursing profession. The first section of this chapter places South African nurses in historical perspective, high-lighting the growth of qualified Black nurses, and the way in which mission hospitals played an important early role in their training; the second section provides an analytical narrative of the incidents at Sulenkama and the final section brings these two perspectives together in reflecting on professional development within a context of transcultural nursing studies.


Nursing in South Africa developed in a fragmented way. Provision of domestic nursing care for Dutch and British families ranged from approved Dutch midwives to the untrained female slaves and family members of settlers and lay care providers, all of whom practised rudimentary home nursing and used folk remedies, patent medicines and herbal treatments. 3 African health care was provided by an equally diverse range of indigenous practitioners, with nursing of the sick shared between family members and the 'wise women' of the community, who might also practise as traditional childbirth attendants. 4 Institutional nursing de-


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