Physical fitness and economic opportunity in the Bechuanaland protectorate in the 1930s and 1940s

J. Livingston

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This article explores changes in the meanings of able-bodiedness in Bechuanaland in the 1930s and 1940s from a number of vantage points. In this period, Tswana ideas about able-bodiedness were increasingly determined in relation to industrial ideas about African labour. I argue that physical fitness took on new meanings as Tswana notions of male social and economic identity became increasingly dependent upon the ability to obtain industrial employment, and as British evaluations of their Tswana subjects followed suit. The discussion focuses on mine medical examinations, which had become the principal gateway to wage employment. The new modes of determining able-bodiedness were confusing to potential recruits and their families, generating multiple and overlapping sets of meanings and values of physical fitness. Through the examination process, both Tswana men and colonial officials (including doctors) tried to comprehend the general decline in health and the effects of local economic and cultural transformations. The medical examination had become a key arena for debate and, ultimately, control over local understandings of physiology and its encoded values.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)793-811
    Number of pages19
    JournalJournal of Southern African Studies
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - 2001

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Geography, Planning and Development
    • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
    • Sociology and Political Science


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