A Land Dispossession History 1600s-1990s

From Segregation to Apartheid

The gains achieved by the White minority in the first four decades of the 20th century were, by the 1940s, increasingly under threat however, as African resistance to the racially based system rapidly escalated. This crisis was brought to a head by the continuing decline of the reserve economies. Full proletarianisation in South Africa, would threaten the migrant labour system upon which White profitability depended. This crisis coincided with rapid secondary industrialisation and a substantial growth of urban African populations, as well as growing trade union activity and rising African working class militancy. These developments were threatening not only the conditions for accumulation but White political hegemony itself.

The nationalist regime that came into power in 1948 offered a hard solution to this crisis. Instead of pursuing what appeared to be the inevitable liberalisation and deracialisation of South African society, the nationalists proceeded to freeze the existing segregationist framework into the institution of apartheid. Thus, apartheid was very much about maintaining migrant labour, and extending the economic and political benefits of cheap and controlled workers not only for the mines and farms but also for the now rapidly growing manufacturing sector.

In addition, the process of modernisation in White agriculture that had started in the 1920s and 1930s continued after World War II and into the 1950s and 1960s. What was seen as backward and uneconomic methods of farming were increasingly being pushed aside by a more aggressive and profit-oriented approach. There were growing numbers of tractors, harvesters and combines on farms, and the area of land under cultivation was expanding. With this process of modernisation however, the labour requirements of farmers began to change. The labour shortages of the 1930's and 1940s were now turning into labour surpluses. The large numbers of Africans that had been successfully tied to rural areas were now becoming increasingly superfluous.

The nationalists, having come to power on a strong rural vote, embarked on a process of systematically eliminating the few African tenants that remained in White farming districts and of transforming labour tenancy into wage labour. Farmers, who in the 1930s and early 1940s were desperate for unlimited supplies of labour, now began to view labour tenancy itself as economically backward. The consensus was that if agriculture was to modernise, labour tenancy had to be abolished. These calls by White agriculture were not ignored. The 1964 Bantu Laws Amendment Act, which repealed the 1932 Native Service Contract Act, and amended the tenancy provisions in the 1936 Land Act dealt the final blow to labour tenancy. Over the decades that followed labour tenancy was progressively eliminated. Evictions were carried out by farmers themselves or by officials of the Bantu Administration.

"We then heard that the six-month system had been abolished and we had to wok for the farmer all year round in order to continue living on our land. We were quite agreeable to this but said that our children would starve if we had to live in the low wages that we were getting on the farm for the whole 12 months. If the farmer would pay us more, we would gladly stay on the farm where we were happy. The farmer refused. The Bantu Administration Department told us if we were unwilling to work for the whole 12 months we would have to go to the location." - Dombi Khumalo, labour tenant.

Once a blanket ban on labour tenancy had been achieved, the government targeted the remaining African tenants on absentee landowner farms. These pools of labour were no longer needed by the agricultural sector, and the 1964 legislation resulted in the growing removal of these tenants from White farming areas. It is estimated that between 1960 and 1983 approximately 1.1 million people were removed from White rural areas to the reserves that were then re-constituted as ethnic 'homelands' by the apartheid regime.

The process of re-engineering the role and function of the reserves and the traditional African leadership was a central feature of apartheid. The Bantu Authorities Act (1951) ushered in a system that formalised the territorial separation of the Black majority from Whites in the countryside. The creation of separate 'Homelands' or 'Bantustans' for different 'ethnic' groups to be administered by a system of traditional authority based on a formal hierarchy of chiefs and headmen, left a legacy that the country is still struggling to overcome today. The concept of political control, that was located in pre-colonial African society, was now finally transformed into a key pillar of the government's apartheid apparatus. Chiefs and headmen had finally become "salaried officers in a White state" (Ross, R. (1993). Beyond the Pale: Essays on the History of Colonial South Africa, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, p.228.)

The Bantustan Self-Government Act (1959) took the country further along the apartheid regime's Bantustan schema and introduced the first stages of self-rule. Local administrative authorities were elevated to the level of semi-autonomous governments. This Act also transferred the burden of certain social welfare costs and unemployment responsibilities, as well as the task of political administration, to the Bantustans.

In response to the 1954 Tomlinson Commission report, which highlighted the state of decay in the reserves where poverty and landlessness was rife and agriculture had all but collapsed, Betterment or Closer Settlement Schemes were introduced in an attempt to arrest the situation, which was beginning to threaten the very basis of the system of cheap labour. The intention was to increase crop production and introduce land-use planning and animal husbandry. The Betterment Schemes did not however improve the situation in the Bantustans; instead it caused untold suffering and misery. Under the guise of 'betterment' stock ownership rights and land sizes were further reduced and people were once again forcibly removed.

In addition, the National Party tried to promote the economic development of the Bantustans. Each 'homeland' would have to become self-sufficient and build its own economy - this, despite the fact that the reserves had no access to natural resources, industries or basic infrastructure. In this way, White South Africa pushed all responsibility for millions of its citizens into a system that had no means to build or sustain itself.

From the outset, the essence of political power in the Bantustans was in the words of Govan Mbeki (1964) "a toy-telephone system", advisory boards that were given to Africans and in return for their co-option, chiefs were placed on the pay-role of the apartheid regime. In so doing, the apartheid regime legitimised the complete disenfranchisement of all oppressed people.

Resistance Intensifies

The rise of aggressive Afrikaner nationalism and the attempts to reshape and re-engineer rural villages and to co-opt the traditional leaders were fiercely resisted. There were massive explosions of violence against chiefs who collaborated with the apartheid state, and spontaneous revolts against further intrusion into rural African life.

The period also saw a convergence of rural resistance and the rising tide of struggle in urban cities and towns. The role that migrant workers played in the rural areas is illustrated in a number of rural struggles. The Pondoland uprising was dominated by migrants retrenched from the sugar plantations in Natal (1959-1960), and the Tembuland resistance was led by migrants relocated from the Western Cape. Similarly, the Witzie and Sekhukuneland resistance highlighted the levels of co-ordination between the migrant associations in the compounds and structures in the reserves. Migrant workers collected funds, appointed lawyers and provided input into these struggles.

Despite this urban-rural connection, however, these struggles did not cross the boundaries of the localities in which they were waged. They remained isolated from each other and while they indicated the depth of reaction to the repressive conditions in the countryside and increased the general tide of militancy, they were ultimately unsustainable. National campaigns increasingly focused on urban issues and a co-ordinated national rural movement that could galvanise the struggles of rural people and place the issue of land and agrarian reform on the centre-stage of the liberation struggle did not emerge.