Land: dispossession, resistance and restitution

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Forced removals on Highveld and "black spots", 1912-1991

In the early 1960s the Apartheid government moved swiftly to dislodge numerous Black communities on the Transvaal Highveld occupying land in what was considered “White South Africa”. Included among these communities identified for forced removal from designated White areas were the Bakwena ba Mogopa on the farm Swartrand and Bakubung ba Monnakgotla at Boons or Molote. This feature explores the history of Bakwena ba Mogopa, who, on the eve of the promulgation of the Natives Land Act of 1913 bought the farm Swartrand. Located outside the Scheduled Areas or the reserves set aside for Black rural communities, Swartrand survived throughout the segregationist era before being flattened in 1984.

In the face of impending catastrophe expected from the Natives Land Act of 1913, numerous independent farmers or sharecropper families spread across the Transvaal Highveld and the North Eastern parts of the Orange Free State and bought farms they could have inalienable rights to. It is significant that such land was not acquired for immediate occupation. Many of these families were in various forms of sharecropping accords and labour tenancy contracts they were not eager to forego. For the next three to four decades these families scoured the length and breadth of the Highveld in search of lucrative sharecropping opportunities. And even though the core aim of the Natives Land Act of 1913 was to put an end to sharecropping, the reality was completely different.

The Natives Land Act of 1913, a legislative fiat, could not immediately reorder rural society on the Highveld in ways envisaged in the legislation. The Act was transgressed not only by independent African farmers and sharecroppers but also by landowners. Much of the land in the region was owned by absentee landlords and speculators not particularly interested in agricultural enterprise. Using poor Whites or “bywoners” as caretakers on the land, these absentee landlords appeared unconcerned about what the land was used for. The “bywoners” allowed sharecroppers access to land in return for a share of the harvest. In the beginning the sharecroppers were expected to share the harvest equally with the bywoners. But as time went on the “bywoners” demanded a larger share of the crop, forcing sharecroppers to constantly be on the lookout for more lucrative contracts.

Sharecropping persisted in spite of the Natives Land Act of 1913. The government turned a blind eye to this transgression. The reason was that agricultural enterprise was labour intensive at this stage. African sharecroppers, many of whom were polygamous, had control over family labour which was critical in securing sharecropping accords. In addition to labour, independent African farmers had considerable supplies of livestock pivotal in an industry that was yet to be mechanised. Thus many families that pooled resources to acquire Swartrand continued with sharecropping for much of the first half of the 20th century.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression South Africa’s manufacturing sector took off. As the sector expanded so did the pace of mechanisation in agriculture. However, it was only after the outbreak of World War II that mechanisation in agriculture gained momentum, doing so at the back of an expanding heavy engineering industry geared towards advancing the war effort. At the end of the war key operations in the agricultural sector were being mechanised. The effect on the demand for labour in agriculture became apparent.

As the demand for labour declined, sharecropping came under extreme pressure. Some of the families that had contributed to the purchase of the farm Swartrand returned to the farm and were allocated their plots. In other families, some members, particularly elder siblings, headed for the cities in search of employment. They did this in the knowledge that they would return to Swartrand upon retirement. Although it was mainly adult, male siblings that took this option, there is evidence that women did, too. The women of Phokeng, the subject of Belinda Bozzoli’s research seem to have followed this trajectory.

By the mid-1950s, even the most enterprising and driven sharecropper was forced to seek access to land elsewhere. The prospects of entering into new accords were receding, forcing many independent farmers to consider the few “black spots” such as Molote and Swartrand, where they would continue with sharecropping. As it turned out, some landowners in Swartrand and Molote were always eager to attract sharecroppers forced out of White farms to their plots. Others under similar pressures went to other “black spots”, including Swartrand.  

Not all sharecroppers entering “black spots” were historically part of those communities. A significant number of sharecroppers drawn to Swartrand and Molote were Nguni families that had been on the Highveld since the last quarter of the 19th century and had come to the end of an era of lucrative sharecropping enterprises. They too required land for their livestock as well for growing crops.

Emerging victorious in the general elections of 1958, and growing in confidence, the Apartheid government announced its intentions to clear all White farming areas of “black spots”. A list of farms owned by Blacks was compiled and the inhabitants were informed. Molote was one of the first “black spots” to be forcibly removed and the land expropriated. At the end of 1966 and early in 1967 residents of Molote were forcibly removed from the farm and relocated to Ledig just outside Rustenburg.

There was lacklustre resistance to this measure, even though families were in danger of losing their lifelong savings. The community itself was deeply divided over whether or not to cooperate with the government. A section of the community questioned the legitimacy of the Regent, Cathrine Monnakgotla. Sensing that she needed to broaden her support base, Monnakgotla had welcomed Nguni families seeking access to land. In the contestations about the proposed move, Monnakgotla was backed by a section of the Bakubung and nearly all of the outsiders or matsenelwa. This is a derogative term used by the Bakubung to refer to their Nguni neighbours.  

No sooner had the Bakubung resettled in Ledig in 1967 than the government turned its attention to their neighbours at Swartrand. In 1969, the Bakwena ba Mogopa were notified by the government that they too should prepare for the day when they would be removed to an area over 100 kilometres west, known as Pachsdraai. For nearly fifteen years nothing happened. By the early 1980s, Swartrand had grown to about 420 families living in 332 houses built of stone obtained from the local hills. Swartrand had a primary school and a secondary school built by the community, a health clinic, four churches and several shops. In 1983 the government informed the community that the process of removing them was being revisited and they were asked to leave Swartrand voluntarily. This notice was accompanied by the threat that force would be used in the event the community resisted the measure. 

In November 1983 the community was given an order to move to Pachsdraai. A section of the community, led by the deposed leader Jacob More agreed to move. The majority resisted and opted to stay and await the showdown with the authorities. First, the community challenged the legal validity of the order. They claimed that because the order did not specify the area to which they were being relocated to, it was invalid. The courts dismissed the application but granted the community leave to appeal in May 1984.

However this was too late as the community was moved on 14 February 1984. Police arrived in two buses and 85 trucks. The schools, churches and houses were demolished and the community was forced onto trucks and transported to Pachsdraai. Those still resisting opted to move into Bethanie, a nearby village incorporated into the Bophuthatswana Homeland. As it turned out, the community would be away for just under six years. Changes in South Africa’s political landscape were rapidly nullifying these processes. In 1990, shortly after the exiled movements were unbanned and negotiations had begun, the community returned to Mogopa.  

The return was met with resentment and hostility by the White community of Ventersdorp. Located along the road that led to two farms owned by Eugene Terreblanche and his brother, the community was constantly harassed by leaders and supporters of the right wing Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging (AWB). Despite threats from the notoriously violent AWB, the Bakwena decided to stay in Ventersdorp and continue to do so. Reports are that the tensions between the two have not dissipated completely, flaring up from time to time.

Conclusion

The experiences of the Bakwena ba Mogopa and the Bakubung are largely similar. It is also evident that in the case of rural communities, the back of the resistance was almost always broken by sections of the communities that cooperated with the government. It is also evident that wealthier sharecropping families, considered outsiders by the locals, were the weak link of the resistance movement.


References:
• Van Onselen, C. 1996. The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South AfricanSharecropper, 1894-1985Keynote address by North West Premier Mme Edna Molewa at the Bakwena Ba Mogopa Snymansdrift Farm handover celebration, Bethanie Community Hall, Madibeng Local Municipality [Online] Available at: http://www.info.gov.za/speeches/2006/06082812151003.htm [Accessed on 02 September 2013  Tsimane E. (2008). Bakwena ba Mogopa gets king from Mmegionline[Online].Available at: www.mmegi.bwAccessed on 2 September 2013

Last updated : 24-Jul-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 11-Sep-2013