A Land Dispossession History 1600s-1990s


Hands clean fruitHands clean fruit

Anyone who travels over the vast expanse of South Africa is immediately struck by the great variations in its landscape and the differing contexts and conditions under which Black rural people live. The picture of Black rural South Africa in the hinterland of the former Transkei, Natal and Limpopo where there is still attachment to the soil, differs greatly from that of the Free State and the Cape countryside where, to a large extent, rural people eke out a living as farm workers on commercial farms. These in turn are very different from the coastal areas where subsistence fishers face a daily battle for survival. Despite these differences however, there are many commonalities. The first is the abject poverty and underdevelopment, the daily battle for survival that confronts the rural poor. But there are other similarities too. There are for example few, if any, places in the country where Black rural people are able to sustain themselves off the land alone. In fact, in many of our rural villages, people have lost all contact with the soil, subsisting almost completely from social grants and urban remittances. These peculiarities can only be understood by going back to the past - to the history of land dispossession and the manner in which European settlers accumulated capital and laid the foundations for their own well-being at the expense of the indigenous people.

The struggle between Boer and Briton, the mining revolution, the struggles of the White working class, the creation of the Bantustans, the ravages of the migrant labour system and the pass laws have left an indelible mark on the landscape of the country and on the lives of the indigenous population that endures to this day. Overcrowding and underdevelopment in the former Bantustans, poor soil quality in the marginalized lands that people were coerced onto, lack of resources, landlessness and land hunger are but some of the problems that the new democracy in South Africa has to confront. It is a matter of great and outstanding concern that there is a deep-rooted sense of deprivation and injustice amongst the majority, who daily have to live side by side with the opulent wealth of the few; accompanied by their experience that being Black still means being desperately poor with few options for escaping the poverty trap.

Underpinning this inequality is a racially skewed distribution of land. Land policy in South Africa over the past one hundred years actively supported the emergence of White commercial agriculture and capitalist profiteering through, among other measures, eliminating independent African production and restricting access to land in small communal reserves designated solely for African occupation. While acting as reservoirs of cheap and largely male labour, these communal areas were also 'dumping grounds' for those (the elderly, women, and children) deemed surplus to the labour needs of the White economy. The resolution of the land question in favour of White capital was thus central to the making of contemporary South Africa.

The Constitution of South Africa was adopted in order to:
"...Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights..."

(Preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996)

This was the promise made to all the citizens of SA, Black and White, rich and poor. As we celebrate ten years of democracy and its astonishing achievements, we need to recall this promise and ask to what extent the poor have had access to social justice and fundamental human rights. Reflection suggests the wisdom of acknowledging that land is key to redistributive justice in South Africa and that without an equitable resolution of the land and agrarian question, there can be no lasting peace.

Proportions of households below the poverty line:

  African Coloured Indian White
1989 51% 29% 6% 3%
1993 50% 26% 8% 3%
1996 57% 22% 9% 3%
1997 55% 21% 6% 4%
2001 62% 29% 11% 4%

Following is a brief review of the history of colonial conquest and land dispossession in South Africa, which recounts a deliberate process of coercing Africans into the economy on extremely unequal terms.

The text and gallery of images included in this feature are adapted from a rural people's Photo-documentary Exhibition convened by the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and the National Land Committee (NLC).


• Baldwin, A. (1975). "Mass removals and separate development", Journal of Southern African Studies, April volume, pp. 215 - 227.
• Beinart, W. (1994). Twentieth Century South Africa, Cape Town: Oxford University Press.
• Beinart, W & Dubow, S. (1995). Segregation and Apartheid in 20th Century South Africa, Routledge.
• Freund, B. (1976). “Forced resettlement and the political economy of South Africa”, Review of African Political Economy, 7, pp. 87 - 107.
• Greenberg, S. (1980). Race and state in capitalist development, Johannesburg: Ravan Press & Yale University Press.
• Hall, R. et al. (2004). Evaluating land and agrarian reform in South Africa: Final report, Occasional Paper 10, Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies. University of Western Cape.
• Lacey, M. (1981). Working for Boroko: The origins of a coercive labour system in South Africa, Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
• National Land Committee. (1994). Report from the Community Land Conference, Johannesburg: National Land Committee.
• Platzky, L & Walker, C. (date unknown). The surplus people: Forced removals in South Africa, Johannesburg: Ravan Press
• Ross, R. (1993). Beyond the Pale: Essays on the history of colonial South Africa, Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
• Saul, J.S. & Gelb, S. (1986). The Crisis in South Africa, London: Zed.
• Southall, R. (1982). South Africa's Transkei, Cape Town: Heinemann.
• Worden, N. (1994). The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, segregation and apartheid, London: Blackwell.

Last updated : 12-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011

Donate with Snapscan