Saving the Child to Save the Nation: Poverty, Whiteness and Childhood in the Cape Colony, c.1870–1895

Publication Type:

Journal Article


S. E. Duff


Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 37, p.229–245 (2011)



Children were central to efforts to eradicate white impoverishment in the Cape Colony in the late nineteenth century. The education and training of poor, white children were believed to be the most effective ways of breaking cycles of poverty, and of ensuring continuing white control over the Cape's resources. Yet a closer reading of the evidence presented to the 1894 Labour Commission and the committee appointed to investigate the Destitute Children Relief Bill suggests that this interest in poor, white children also stemmed from concerns about the children themselves. Destitute white children – both male and female – were described, frequently, as representing a threat to the social, moral, and even economic order, and this view of poor white children shaped official responses to white poverty. This concern for white children reflected not solely their status as ‘children’ – that they represented the colony's future, were fairly malleable, and could be more easily ‘reached’ by projects and schemes to eradicate white poverty – but also their problematic class position in a colonial racial order that sought their reform, direction and education into acceptable productive citizens.

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