A Land Dispossession History 1600s-1990s

The Roots of Segregation: 1860-1910

By the 1860s, subjugation of African people in the immediate vicinity of the Cape had been achieved. Other than a small, enfranchised minority who owned land, the majority of Africans living here had been proletarianised and were reduced to the status of labour. This labour was kept subservient through legislation and force, or the threat of such.

Areas of African (Xhosa) occupation on the eastern frontier however, although annexed by the colonial authorities, were retained largely as 'tribal areas'. Hut and poll taxes were imposed in these areas as a means of coercing at least some Africans into wage labour but the weak administrative capacity of the colonial authorities rendered this almost useless. Consequently, more enterprising and resourced Africans living on the eastern frontier could continue to maintain an independent livelihood, either on their own land or as sharecroppers on White farms. In good years even small peasants living on small, marginal pieces of land could maintain an independent existence. In the words of the Civil Commissioner for Bedford:

"The scarcity of labour ... has been to a great extent caused by the last two fruitful seasons, the abundance of food in Kaffraria having induced most of the natives to leave this district ...The wants of the natives in this present state are so few, that they are easily supplied, and like most men, White or Black, they will not work when they have no want."
(Bundy, C. (1988). The Rise and Fall of South African Peasantry (2nd Ed), Cape Town: David Phillip, p.56.)

As was to happen later in the interior, the impact of the colonial economy soon gave rise to increasing social stratification amongst the Black peasantry as those who were able to take advantage of the new opportunities and technologies participated actively in the colonial cash economy. Evidence suggests that they were so successful that they outstripped the productive capacity of most of the Boer farmers. In the words of Mr Hemming:

"...It is an indisputable fact that comparing them with Europeans, taking man for man and acre for acre, the native produces from a smaller extent of ground, and with more primitive appliances, more than the Europeans."
(Bundy, C. (1988). The Rise and Fall of South African Peasantry (2nd Ed), Cape Town: David Phillip, p.65.)

The Cattle Killing

The impact of the settlers on the Eastern Cape Frontier is dramatically illustrated by the cattle-killing of 1856-57. The story of the young Xhosa prophetess, Nonquase, who convinced her people that the ancestors would help them put a stop to the suffering caused by the colonisers if they sacrificed their cattle, and burnt their crops, is well-known. Whether or not colonial officials instigated this event, the end result certainly served their purpose - the cattle-killing smashed the resistance of the amaXhosa on the Eastern Frontier, broke down the cohesion of the chiefs, and the resultant famine left thousands of the amaXhosa with no option but to seek work on the surrounding farms. It also left large tracts of land available for settler occupation.

Later the mines were to be called the 'White man's Nonquase', denoting the severe impact that these had on people's lives.

Expansion into the Interior

From the 1830s, settlers started to move out beyond the borders of the colony, across the Orange River into what is now the Free State and further north, across the Vaal River into the Transvaal region. In essence the frontier farmers believed that they would be better off in the interior, where the influence of British colonial rule could not reach them. This migration would eventually lead to the establishment of the independent Boer republics.

As had happened with the land invasions on the eastern frontier, this second phase of expansion was marked by violence and bloodshed as the indigenous people who inhabited these regions desperately fought to defend their territory. In the end however, the superior weapons and mobility of the settlers proved too much and they settled deep in the hinterland of South Africa dispossessing the original inhabitants of their land and livelihoods.

By the 1860s, European occupation of what is now the territory of South Africa today is therefore largely complete. But the balance of power did not immediately shift in favour of European settlers. African chiefdom's and polities such as the Zulu, Tswana and Pedi still exerted considerable control over land, labour and trade in the interior.

For a long time the economies of these regions were still largely subsistence oriented, with trade mainly focussed on natural resources such as ivory and hides. African peasants occupied much White-owned land in fact, since there was not much incentive for commercial production at the time. As with the Eastern Frontier, many of these Africans were rent-paying tenants or sharecroppers.

As polities, these interior regions were also extremely weak, with no real controls over land and labour. Although attempts were made at taxing Africans to coerce them into labour, these failed due largely to the lack of administrative capacity on the part of the Boer republics in particular. By the mid-1800s, the British had essentially given up control of the interior - there was no incentive, with little to gain from costly conquest and direct administration over extensive regions occupied by still conflicting parties. With the discovery of minerals this was to change, however.

The Mining Revolution

The discovery of diamonds (1867) and, especially, the rich gold deposits (1886) in the Transvaal region stopped British ambivalence towards the Cape colony. The potential value of mineral extraction now made direct colonial control over the interior an attractive option. At that time none of the existing polities (i.e. the Cape Colony and the Boer republics) had the will or ability to meet the demands of the mining industry, particularly in relation to transport, infrastructure and labour. Moreover, migrant labour from the northern African polities was being diverted or prevented from accessing the diamond fields in the Cape colony as well as the plantations in the Natal Colony by the Boer republics. Direct control over these Boer republics by the British was now a growing imperative, since direct control of the interior would enable control and regulation of labour.

By the early 1890's African independence had largely been destroyed, although the areas of African occupation had been retained as native reserves. New cash taxes were imposed and enforced in these areas and as a result of this, Tswana and Zulu migrants started appearing on the mines during the late 1880's. The excerpt from a report of a Committee of Mine Managers Association meeting reflects just how conscious this strategy was:

"It is suggested to raise the Hut Tax to such an amount that more natives will be induced to seek work, and especially by making this tax payable in coins only; each native who can clearly show that he has worked for six months in the year will be allowed a rebate equivalent to the increase that may be determined by the state."
(Report of the Mine Managers Association on the Native Labour Question- 1893, cited in Calinicos, L. A People's History of South Africa Volume One: Gold and Workers, p23. )

The pressure created by the new taxes were compounded by natural disasters like drought, and outbreaks of East Coast Fever and Rindepest in the following decades, which decimated livestock holdings and severely undermined peasant production, resulting in a continued flow of African labour from the land. Finally, after the South African War and conquest of the Boer republics in 1902, the process of British expansion was complete. This conquest paved the way for the creation of a unitary South African state in 1910 when the Union of South Africa was born.

The burgeoning mining industry was the catalyst for rapid industrialisation and required a new set of social relations. The issue of land and labour had to be resolved and the Anglo-Boer War was the means through which the British resolved the question. The defeat of the Boer republics and the formation of Union in 1910 marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of the country, for from this point onward Boer and British would begin to work together to complete the dispossession of the indigenous people and to 'free' them from their land so that they could work in the mines, industries and increasingly commercialised farms. The central issue at this point became how to control the labour (both Black and White) of those who no longer had land and how to force indigenous people who still had access to land into the ranks of the proletariat. It is against this context that the dramatic expansion of Britain into the entire sub-region during the late 1870's and 1880's must be viewed.

The Effects on Agriculture

The discovery and exploitation of mineral resources also had a dramatic impact on agriculture in the interior. The emergence of large cash markets, stimulated by mineral exploitation, now provided an incentive for commercial agricultural production. In order to exploit these new opportunities, however, social relations in the countryside began to change.

Initially sharecropping provided a means for White landowners to respond to the new opportunities posed by these rapidly developing internal markets. Through sharecropping these landowners could benefit from increased production without needing to make substantial investments themselves. For African producers, on the other hand, sharecropping enabled a degree of independent production, and a means to avoid the exploitation of wage labour. As on the eastern frontier, it was only the more resourceful and creative peasants and those with implements and family labour who were able to pursue this route. These tenants represented a Black yeomanry in the forefront of a short-lived peasant revolution.

However, the interests of African tenants and landowners only briefly intersected. Sharecropping allowed landowners to accumulate through the sale of surplus derived from tenants. This accumulation ultimately allowed landowners to dispense with independent tenants. White farmer success was to a considerable extent predicated upon Black peasant enterprise. The extent of this exploitation of sharecroppers is reflected in the words of a Black sharecropper, Kas Maine, as he recalled his experiences many years later:

"I was sick and tired of being allocated a field and then being evicted once it had been cultivated and the soil proved fertile. You were chased away as soon as they discovered that you could produce a good harvest from soil that had previously been considered useless. You tamed the land and they got rid of you."
(Van Onselen, C. (1996). The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, A South Africa Sharecropper 1894-1985, New York: Hill and Wang, p.409.)

<>As agricultural accumulation accelerated, interest groups began coalescing early in the 1900's - they required labour rather than tenant surplus. Since farmers were unable to compete with the mines for migrant labour from the native reserves and neighbouring territories such as Mozambique, attention turned to how to capture tenants resident on White owned land. As capitalisation increased, the demands for labour continued to grow.

Not all White farmers were able to turn subsistence agriculture into successful commercial ventures however. Many were severely affected by drought and disease and this, together with low agricultural prices and rising input costs took its toll. In addition, the mining boom led to huge increases in land prices and as land speculators moved in, new entrants into small-scale farming found it difficult to survive. It was not long before poorly resourced White farmers began sinking into debt and facing the bankruptcy courts. In the words of a White farmer at the time:

"Many a farmer is crippled at the very commencement of his activities . . . All his available capital, and perhaps all he could borrow, is locked up in land, so that fencing, dam-making, boring for water and improvement of stock becomes impossible. In a frantic endeavor to keep his head above water he allows his farm to become overstocked... and ends up frequently in the bankruptcy court."

The Anglo-Boer war led to the further impoverishment of White farmers, many of whom lost everything in the war. White farmers who were unable to continue farming had but two options -they could become sharecroppers themselves (bywoners) or they could find employment on the mines.

To a large extent therefore, the mining revolution had resolved the land question in favour of commercial agriculture. While smaller, less-resourced White landowners were sinking into debt, wealthier landowners were beginning to engage in large-scale, highly capitalized agriculture for the market created by the mines and the industries that sprung up around them. Black sharecroppers, many of whom had been the backbone of White agriculture, were being squeezed off the land by a combination of taxes and increasingly oppressive conditions on White farms, because it was now more profitable to employ them as wage labourers.

Two factors complicated this scenario however - the increasing impoverishment of small-scale White farmers (many of whom were now landless) alongside the rise of an independent Black peasantry, sharecroppers who were increasingly buying their own land, often using the missionaries as intermediaries and those farming on land owned by White absentee landowners; and the competition between the White farming community and the mining magnates for labour. These trends were to be resolved by successive Union governments in the next period.

Last updated : 24-Oct-2016

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