A Land Dispossession History 1600s-1990s

Control: 1910 - 1948

Intervention from Above: The 1913 Native Land Act

"Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth"

(Plaatjie, S.T. (1916). Native Life in South Africa, London: PS King, p.21.)

With the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the South Africa Party came to power. The key challenge for the new government was to define a single land and labour dispensation for South Africa. This challenge was resolved through the promulgation of the Land Acts (1913 & 1936).

The forerunner to the 1913 Land Act was the Glen Grey Act, introduced in 1894 to do away with communal land rights. By introducing limited individual tenure it was hoped that Africans could be forced to become less independent in relation to their participation in the colonial cash economy. The result was that thousands of poorer African peasants were forced off the land. In addition to pushing Africans off the land, much was done to undermine the chieftain system of traditional African society as these tribal authorities acted as an independent political pole, which resisted these changes.

The promulgation, in 1913, of the Native Land Act therefore must be viewed as the next step in a continuum of measures aimed at destroying independent African existence in the interest of White settlers. The Act set out to facilitate the formal establishment of African reserves. 7% of South Africa's land area was set aside for this purpose and it was from these reserves that the mines and urban employers were to draw migrant labour. In addition to addressing the labour needs of the mines, the Act also set out to eliminate independent rent-paying African tenants and cash croppers residing on White-owned land. This was done through restricting African residence on White land to labour tenancy or wage labour, and through prohibiting African land ownership outside of the reserves. It is through these tenancy regulations that the Act proposed to address the labour needs of White farmers.

Key provisions of the 1913 Native Land Act:
  • The creation of a number of African "reserves" for the settlement of Black South Africans, which would serve as pools of migrant labour for White-owned farms and urban based industry.
  • The elimination of independent tenancy in 'White' rural areas, with the abolition of sharecropping and rental tenancy arrangements.

However, given that the reserve areas identified in the Act were already overcrowded, the drafters of the Act put in place a holding clause on the enforcement of the tenancy provisions. Additional land to expand the designated reserve areas needed to be secured first, since, if the tenancy provisions were enforced with the situation as it stood, evicted African tenants would be captured by farmers (as opposed to moving to the reserves and providing migrant labour to the mines). The holding clause in the Act thus placed a moratorium on removals, and established the Beaumont Commission to identify additional land for the reserves.

There was a great deal of opposition from White farmers to the 1913 Land Act. Rather than having African tenants removed to the reserves, farmers wanted tenants evicted and redistributed as farm labour. Small-scale farmers also did not want sharecroppers and labour tenants removed, as these tenants still provided a critical source of income for those who were struggling to survive off the land. The result was that the state did not enforce the law. Many farmers took advantage of the provisions, however, and ignored the moratorium on evictions in an effort to gain control of African farm labour. The 1913 Land Act therefore did not in itself eliminate peasant production in South Africa. In the Transvaal in particular, this process extended well into the 1930's and in some peripheral areas, even later. Rather, the Act was an important point in a long historical process that had already weakened African peasants.

We are children of Africa

We cry for our land

Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho

Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho unite

We are mad over the Land Act

A terrible law that allows sojourners

To deny us our land

Crying that we the people

Should pay to get our land back

We cry for the children of our fathers

Who roam around the world without a home

Even in the land of their forefathers.

The impact of the 1913 Act was nonetheless devastating, particularly in the Free State. The cruelty and suffering imposed on African tenants is vividly described in Sol Plaaitje's book Native Life in South Africa:

"The baas has exacted from him the services of himself, his wife and his oxen, for wages of 30 shilling a month, whereas Kgobadi had been making over £100 a year, besides retaining the services of his wife and of his cattle for himself. When he refused the extortionate terms, the baas retaliated with a Dutch note, dated the 30th day of June 1913, which ordered him to 'betake himself from the farm' of the undersigned, by sunset of the same day, failing which his stock would be seized and impounded, and himself handed over to the authorities for trespassing on the farm."

(Plaatjie, S.T. (1916). Native Life in South Africa, London: PS King, p.87.)

The alliance between White rural and White working class interests

White rural interests opposed the extension of the reserves as proposed in the 1913 Land Act, and instead wanted African tenants tied to White farms to meet the growing labour shortages associated with a rapidly expanding agricultural sector. Rural interests also wanted a ban on the hiring of land by African tenant and peasant farmers in White areas, and instead wanted these tenants evicted and their land redistributed among White farmers.

These interests found a natural ally in the White working class who were increasingly becoming dissatisfied with their working conditions on the mines. Initially wage labour on the mines was predominantly undertaken by White workers 'imported' from Britain and Australia, and displaced Boers from the farms and the Anglo-Boer war. Another source of labour was indentured labour from India and China as well as migrants from the neighbouring countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The rest of the work force was drawn from the layers of indigenous people and free-slaves proletarianised earlier on in the colonial period. Attempts by mine owners to keep wages low by restructuring work so that they could employ more African labour (at much lower wages) led to a series of strikes by the highly paid skilled White workers. But it was the 1922 White workers strike that tilted the balance. By the end of this strike 153 White workers had been killed, and hundreds more had been wounded. White miners had lost the strike and with it their privileged position on the mines. The loss of the strike laid the basis for an alliance between the labour party whose main support base was the English speaking White miners and the Afrikaner National Party who relied on the support of Afrikaner workers and the rural lobby.

Politically, this alliance between disaffected White workers and farmers took the form of the PACT government. Under the PACT government the needs of White workers were satisfied through job reservation or the 'colour bar' as it was commonly known. The White working class had finally succeeded in defending their interests, not on the basis of their collective bargaining power but on the basis of the colour of their skin.

The needs of farmers were addressed through a range of coercive measures to enable greater control over African tenants on White owned farms. Farm labour contracts were brought under the 19th century Masters and Servants legislation, taxation policies for African tenants on White-owned land were tightened, and White farmers were increasingly able to use foreign labour, and apprenticed vagrant children. The 1927 Native Administration Act extended labour controls in rural areas, introducing 'pass' laws to control the movements of rural Africans. This act also provided for forced removals, providing the basis upon which the forced removals of the apartheid era were to take place. The Natives (Urban Areas) Amendment Act of 1930 restricted the movement of African farm workers into urban areas.

Thus, by the 1930s tenancy on White owned farms had effectively been controlled. The issue of independent tenants on absentee landowner land still however remained unresolved. The provisions of the 1913 Land Act for the acquisition of additional land for resettling evicted tenants was still on the books, effectively preventing their removal. These absentee landowner farms now remained the only refuge in White farming areas for evicted farm tenants and those moving from increasingly overcrowded reserve areas. These tenant farms were as a result also becoming increasingly congested. This situation was however to change dramatically in the 1930s as the reserve economies slid deeper into crisis, threatening the economic base upon which the migrant labour system depended. The African reserves began shedding their populations in growing numbers as Africans moved into towns and cities in search of livelihoods.

The 1936 Native Trust and Land Act finally provided the basis for formalising and extending the size of the African reserve areas as recommended by the Beaumont Commission. The Act also provided the basis for the eviction of African peasants farming on White-owned land. Labour tenancy was now enforced, effectively tying labour to farms. The Act also established an elaborate system for registering and controlling the distribution of labour tenants in rural areas. From now on, only Africans registered in terms of the Act could legally reside on White owned farms. Africans unlawfully resident on such farms - such as cash paying tenants - could now be evicted.

Key provisions of the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act:
  • The Act integrated land identified by the 1913 act into African reserves, and thereby formalised the separation of White and Black rural areas;
  • The Act established a South African Native Trust (SANT), which purchased all reserve land not yet owned by the state, and had responsibility for administering African reserve areas. The SANT imposed systems of control over livestock, introduced the division of arable and grazing land, and enforced residential planning and villagisation (called 'betterment') under the guise of modernising African agricultural systems;
  • An elaborate system for registering and controlling the distribution of labour tenants and squatters was introduced under the Act. With these provisions, any African unlawfully resident on White-owned land could be evicted; and
  • Areas in White South Africa where Black people owned land were declare "Black spots", enabling the state to implement measures to remove the owners of this land to the reserves.

Thus, by 1937 "the South African countryside as a whole, outside of the African reserves, became what it had long been in the Cape: a land, not of plantations, nor of smallholders, but of large owner-occupied farms worked by a harshly exploited Black labour force"

(Ross, R. (1993). Beyond the Pale: Essays on the History of Colonial South Africa, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, p.48.)

By the end of the 1930s, the agrarian question in South Africa had therefore clearly been resolved in favour of White capital, and in particular agricultural capital.

A dual system of farming: Two sides of the same coin

A feature of the imposition of capitalism in South Africa was the parallel existence of two agricultural systems in rural areas. In the reserves, production was based on the supposed conservation of pre-colonial forms, while outside of the reserves production was based on commercial farming and freehold title. But the system based on communal ways was a distorted form - it was specifically meant to perpetuate the myth of the continuity of rural life while in reality denying Africans the means to sustain themselves off the land. The hope was that African people would be able to produce enough food in the reserves to sustain the family, but not sufficient food to deter them from seeking employment. In this way, the cheap labour system was maintained on the backs of the women and children left behind in the reserves.

Thus, while White rural dwellers were encouraged to modernise agriculture through subsidies, grants, transport concessions, favourable credit facilities, tax relief, marketing boards and the ready availability of cheap labour; land access for Africans was limited to individual allotments that was administered and controlled by chiefs under the supervision of magistrates. The size of the allotments and the fact that African farmers could neither alienate nor extend them effectively prevented the commercialisation of African agriculture. It also prevented successful small-scale subsistence farming - the plots were simply too small.

In this way, colonial demand for land and labour thus annihilated agricultural production by Africans and eventually confined them to 13% of the agricultural land available. The prosperous African commercial agriculture of the early years was effectively and systematically destroyed or cast to the margins of the communal areas. Thus the dual system of farming was really an integrated system designed to smash competition from African producers and, by allowing limited but not sufficient land access and use, creating a pool of cheap labour for the benefit of White commercial farming. While African families eked out subsistence in the communal areas, state protectionist policies enabled White farmers to monopolise agricultural inputs further ensuring the growth and well-being of White agriculture.

Black South Africans fight back

The struggle to resist land dispossession and the systematic subjugation of indigenous people has been a long and bitter one. Africans fought fiercely to protect their land and defend their livelihoods and their way of life. Resistance took many forms, from outright war to events such as the cattle-killings. Stories of the heroic struggles of Makana, Sirhili, Mhlontlo, Sigcawu, Cetywayo and Bambata have been handed down from generation to generation. Many of these leaders were captured and imprisoned on Robben Island or in the dungeons of the Cape Town Castle, others died in battle.

As conditions changed so did the patterns of resistance. In the post Union period Africans became increasingly organised. Early political organisations like the SANNC made extensive use of petitions and deputations to register their resistance to what they felt were a betrayal of liberal British traditions. Worker organisation around wages and poor working conditions on the gold mines led to a series of strikes. In the rural areas the ICU organised sharecroppers and tenant farmers all over the countryside. The struggles of the Amafelandawaye or the die-hards, mostly women from the umanyano or women's fellowship of the Methodist church, used prayer meetings to discuss their conditions of poverty. It was from this religious platform that the schools boycott and the boycott of trading stores in the Herschel region of the Transkei (1922-1926) first gained momentum. Increased organisation led to linkages between local struggles and national campaigns were forged such as the early anti-pass campaign that brought thousands of women onto the streets in open resistance against attempt to extend pass laws to women. This trend was to intensify in the apartheid era with national struggles such as the anti-pass campaign of the 1950s, the struggles around the rejection of the homeland system and the boycotts of Bantu education.

After the demise of the ICU in the late 1920's, however, resistance in the rural areas became more localised and focused on local problems. Harsh conditions of repression combined with extreme poverty, rural isolation, underdevelopment and low levels of literacy made linkages difficult. While the continuous flow from rural to urban areas (through migrant labour and urban drift) ensured that rural struggles continued to feed into national campaigns of the 1950s and 60s, they did not lead to broad-based organisation of the rural poor.