Book 4: Industrialisation, Rural Change and Nationalism - Chapter 1 - Rural Change and the Future of South Africa by Rachidi R. Molapo

From the book: Book 4: Industrialisation, Rural Change and Nationalism commissioned by The Department of Education

Thedevelopment of an industrialised society in South Africa took place over a period of time. It was a process guided by the interests of the state and capital, which at times were in conflict. During World War 2 and after, industrial development was rapid and the state had to change some of its racial policies as a result of the pressure exerted by urbanisation.

Employment opportunities opened up in both the mining and manufacturing industries. Both African and Afrikaner nationalisms flourished during this decade of intensely fluid conditions. It is suggested in this chapter that a closer focus on the changes taking place in the countryside will be helpful in understanding the larger dynamics affecting South African society as a whole during this period.

What was the impact of the 1913 Natives Land Act?

Three years after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, a piece of legislation that was to have a devastating impact on South African society was passed by the whites-only Parliament ”” the 1913 Natives Land Act.

Prosperous white farmers had exerted pressure on the government to design a law that would prohibit competition with peasants and sharecropperswho were making profitable use of the land. Particularly in the Orange Free State, sharecropping was very well established.

The passing of the Land Act was resisted by a number of people and communities in different parts of the country. Many believed that it served the interests only of the farmers, mine owners and other wealthy landowners, and would be of absolutely no benefit to most of the people in the country (see box on page 7). Some scholars believe that one of the reasons that the government of the day was willing to pass this bill was that black tenant farmers could produce more cheaply than white farmers ”” due to the use of cheap family labour ”” and that as a result many white farmers were on
the edge of bankruptcy.

sharecropping”” a system where a certain amount of land is given to a tenant farmer to work, with the requirement that the tenant gives the owner of the land a portion of the crop as rent Western Transvaal sharecropper, Kas Maine, described it in this way:

“The seed is mine. The ploughshare is mine. The span of oxen is mine. Everything is mine. Only the land is theirs.”

Source: Charles van Onselen, The Seed is Mine ”” The Life of Kas Main, A South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985. Cape Town, David Philip, 1996, p.xvii.

A newspaper report about a speech made by Mr T. Zini of the Cape Peninsula Native Association (CPNA) noted that:

“It was simply and solely in the interests of the farmers and miners and of no other section of the community. He had been at some pains to make himself acquainted with the provisions of the Bill, and he could assure them that all he could find it to contain was indifference to the interests of the bulk of the community, and oppression of the Natives. It was a most iniquitous measure, and they should oppose it to the very last. If, unhappily, they were not successful in preventing its becoming law, they would at least have it on record that from first they had entered an emphatic protest against it. He was certain all Natives would combine in that. [Loud applause.] The whole measure was one gigantic invasion of their liberties. It would most adversely affect hundreds of thousands of Native families which had, up till then, lived on landed estates and farms, paid rents to the owners, and tilled the soil for a subsistence, happy and contented in their way of life.”

Source: Document 24, “The Squatters’ Bill” article in Imvo Zabantsundu, 19 March 1912, under the Land Question. In Thomas Karis and Gwendolen M. Carter, From Protest to Challenge – A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964, Volume 1. Stanford University, Hoover Institution, 1972, p.82.

The new legislation was like a pendulum that swung in favour of one race group and class against the other. The Natives Land Act of 1913 laid the foundation for segregation and apartheid. It had been influenced by fears ofthe rise of squatting and its central aim was to deal with the “native problem”. The Natives Land Act restricted African land ownership to“scheduled areas” ”” some 10.5 million morgen. This represented only about 7.3% of the total land area of South Africa, the bulk of which was the tribal reserves. Resistance to the Act even took members of the newlyformed South African Native National Congress to the United Kingdom to present their case to the Queen and the British public.

The 1913 Land Act was followed by the appointment of the Beaumont Commission to look into the question of land delimitation. The areas it suggested for African occupation only slightly expanded the small amount scheduled for African ownership by the Land Act. The land that was identified for African occupation was not ideal for either settlement or agricultural purposes.

As the Act became law, its effects were felt very harshly. The status of many African people started changing from that of independent producers to that of servants or labourers. Through this Act the state intervened in the creation of landlords and servants that knew racial and class interests.

morgen”” a South African measure of land equal to about 0.8 hectares or roughly two acres
delimit”” to determine the limits or boundaries of

Eventually, the white minority would occupy 87% of the land while the black majority would occupy 13%. No land was available for sale to individuals or groups of Africans who wished to buy outside of the reserves. No financial facilities were available to provide funding for Africans to develop their land.

The reserves became over-populated. This led to a situation in which scores of people left the rural areas to search for job opportunities in the cities. The supply of cheap labour became a key feature for the survival of many farms, industries and corporations in South Africa.

The immediate effect of the Act was the eviction of many, often resulting in death to both people and their livestock. The cutting of ties with a particular area became a traumatic experience.

What strategies emerged to challenge oppression in the countryside?

Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union

A trade union that had its origin among dock workers in the Cape came to reflect the anger of many farm workers in the late 1920s. It was the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). Originally, it's base of operation was the cities, particularly in the Western Cape. The union organised a few dock workers’ strikes and opposed the Colour Bar Act. After it began to recruit farm workers in 1926, however, ICU branches expanded rapidly in the countryside. Estimates of membership in the late 1920s vary from 86 000 to 250 000.

Many farm workers in the country were facing an insecure future. They faced the prospect of being deprived of access to land. Labour tenants had to work 180 days per year for the farm owners, but they were facing the threat of eviction by their landlords.

The union launched a land-buying scheme for the homeless. Many blacks who were working on farms became ICU members. However, a leadership crisis in the union and pressure by the state contributed to its decline, and by 1933 it was all but dead.Transformation of productive tools Changes on the land also covered the transformation of productive tools.

Farmers who accumulated financial resources outside of the farming sector”” such as transport, mining and industries ”” started mechanising. Some farmers improved their production levels by buying tractors, ploughs and irrigation schemes to replace the tools they had used before. The new approach was more productive and saved time. However, mechanisation needed considerable financial resources, and not all farmers could afford this process. It squeezed a number of them out of farming. They joined the ranks of the working class in the cities.

How were blacks affected by migration to the cities?

This movement of blacks and former white farmers and their relatives to the cities created competition for employment opportunities. The movement intensified because of the opening of opportunities as a result of World War 2. The growth of industrialisation and the manufacturing industries attracted people to the cities in large numbers. This movement placed pressure on land in the cities, as squatting on unoccupied land increased. The state was being challenged by people who wanted an alternative form of accommodation to the compounds and locations, with their oppressive conditions. These men, and later women, wanted to sink roots in the cities and not only be temporary sojourners ministering to the needs of white people.

In both the rural and urban areas, Africans were denied ownership of land. They were meant to be perpetual tenants, to be always dependent for existence and wages upon whites.

The migration to the cities was a serious challenge to the 1923 Urban Areas Act, which saw the presence of African labour in the cities as being to meet the needs of white interests. The state intensified its control measures through the use of the pass laws and other measures such as the labour bureau system.

The majority of people who went to the cities during this period were migrant workers, particularly during the 1930s to 1950s. Part of the wages accumulated by migrant workers were sent to the rural areas for the survival of their households.

In this temporary state of being, migrants lived in hostels and compounds and did not integrate into the township’s social and political life.

They were often despised by urbanised Africans. At the same time, they regarded the cities as makgoweng (the places of the white people). The migrants engaged in associations and burial societies to look after their own interests and rejected township lifestyles. However, as they became more settled ”” becoming urban immigrants instead of migrant workers ”” they sent less and less money to their families in the rural areas.

By the mid 1940s, every African residential area in cities around the country was bursting at the seams.

How were whites affected by migration to the cities?

The fluid urban conditions saw the state devise affirmative action to deal with the “poor white problem”. About a fifth of the Afrikaner population in the1930s could be loosely classified as poor whites. The Carnegie Commission of 1929-1932, which investigated this issue of poor whiteism, found that the shortage of land in the countryside, capitalisation of brick-making schemes and cab-driving in the cities contributed to this state of affairs. Other contributing factors included the depression of agriculture and the influenza epidemic.

The poor whitewas defined as a “person who has become dependent to such an extent, whether from mental, moral, economic or physical causes, that he is unfit, without help from others, to find proper means of livelihood for himselfor to procure it directly or indirectly for his children”.

Source: T.R.H. Davenport, South Africa: A Modern History. London, Macmillan, 1991, p.289.

Out of a total male African labour force of 88 000 in 1938, 21 000, or one-quarter, worked as domestic servants and lived in the back yards of their employers’ houses. A further 37 000 were housed in single-sex industrial or municipal compounds ”” leaving the rather meagre total of 25-30 000 African workers living in the municipal locations and the African freehold townships on a more settled basis.

Source: Philip Bonner. Inaugural address at the University of the Witwatersrand, 25 August 1993, p.5.

The Second Carnegie Commission on poverty, held in Cape Town in 1984, reported:

  • One-third of black children under 14 are stunted or underweight.
  • 93% of the poor are in the rural areas.
  • 1.43 million people living in the Homelands have no income.
  • Nearly 9 million people in the Homelands live below the breadline.
  • One-quarter of black women are separated from their husbands.

Source: Colin Legum, African Contemporary Record, 1983-4: Annual Survey and Documents, Volume 16. London, Africana, 1985, p.89.

What were some causes of rural poverty?

Rural poverty was caused by a number of factors. The 1913 Natives Land Act was central, and the fact that the economy of the reserves collapsed in the 1930s meant that many people in the rural areas found it hard to survive.
The migrant labour system contributed to the disintegration of families, although at the beginning migrancy was influenced by external as well as internal factors.

In the early stages, urbanisation was dominated by men who worked in mines, industry and the farming sector. This created a situation in which the roles that these men used to perform ”” such as ploughing, protection of households and other domestic chores ”” shifted to the women. However, by the 1930s and the 1940s, the process of urbanisation also involved women who wanted to establish their financial independence from their malerelatives. This move was resisted by some men in the countryside, who wanted the women to remain dependent on them.

The transformation that was taking place in the countryside was affecting both men and women. Some women left the countryside to follow their husbands who had become makgolwa, while others went to seek an independent life to support themselves and their families.

makgolwa”” totally urbanised, terminating ties with relatives in the rural areas


The struggle to create a black labouring class was a long process. Colonial conquest did not automatically bring about a class that would be willing to offer its labour freely. Although the state imposed taxes, it found it hard to compel many blacks to go and work in the mines, industries and farms because they had access to the land as independent producers. Following the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the colonial state came under pressure from some of its followers to strip the natives of their status as sharecroppers. In the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, blacks could buy or rent land. The passing of the 1913 Natives Land Act was part of the process of making Africans move from being peasants and tenants to becoming wage earners.

The Land Act was aimed at stifling the independent peasantry and shutting off alternatives such as those offered by sharecropping landlords. It prohibited Africans from owning or renting land except in the reserves. The reserve economies experienced major setbacks because of overcrowding, soil erosion and declining in production. The consequences were rural poverty and many Africans becoming proletarians who established themselves on the outskirts of South Africa’s major cities.

The transformation of the countryside was accompanied by state intervention in agriculture. Agriculture received state assistance as many farms were mechanised. However, despite this state help, the majority of farmers could not afford the capitalisation of agriculture. Sharecropping provided the basis of survival for many of them. Although the government
prohibited sharecropping and renting of land to Africans in 1913, the practice continued till the 1940s.

Afrikaners who could not eke out a living on the land because of the capital intensive direction farming was taking, went to the cities in large numbers. This created a situation of competition with unskilled and semiskilled blacks in the cities.

World War 2 opened job opportunities in the cities. Mining, industry and manufacturing absorbed a number of the migrants who flocked to the urban areas. The farming sector suffered a great deal, as wages in the cities were higher than those in the rural areas. The migration of thousands of peoplebrought with it social and political challenges to the state. A crisis of accommodation emerged, and the state intensified its control measures in the cities. Orderly urbanisation initiatives were short-lived because the state denied the majority of people the right to sink roots in the cities. Whites feared the urbanisation of blacks. The National Party, with its slogan of apartheid, was able to capitalise on their fears to win the 1948 election.

Changes in the countryside had long-term implications for the country. In the following decades, South Africa became engaged in a conflict to abolish apartheid.

Industrialisation, Rural Change and Nationalism