Why consider the history of a hundred-year old law? Surely the Marikana massacre and farm-workers' strikes are more urgent? In fact, there are direct links between the Natives' Land Act of 1913 and current struggles. The Land Act and its consequences still shape rural South Africa and complicate contemporary programmes of restitution and land reform.

The Land Act was not a sudden departure, nor did it transform the countryside. It followed a long history of colonial conquest and dispossession; it codified and ratified various discriminatory practices established in colonies and Boer republics. In order to understand the Act's core features, we need to recall how land alienation took place in British colonies and Boer republics before Union.

The frontier wars of the 19th Century stripped African pastoralist farmers of some of their land: but not all of it. As important as land that was lost was land that was retained – and the terms of its retention. Conquered kingdoms and chiefdoms were not displaced and dispersed (as, by comparison, were Native American peoples). They remained largely intact, although subject to colonial or republican rule. Their territories were recognised as the 'home' of conquered peoples, administered separately, and styled 'reserves' or 'locations'. The old Zulu, Xhosa, Mthembu and Mpondo kingdoms in Natal and the Cape were reduced, but retained, as areas reserved for Africans. In the Boer Republics of the OFS and Transvaal, Sotho, Venda, Tswana, Pedi and Tsonga polities were shoe-horned into smaller reserves.

Crucially, large numbers of Africans lived outside the Reserves. Families (and sometimes whole communities) lived on land settled by their ancestors, even though such land was now owned by white farmers or land companies. And on these lands they ran livestock and raised grain as their parents had before them.

In return for access to land, peasant families and communities paid rent in three main forms.

  • There were outright cash tenants (often referred to in the early 20th Century as squatters).
  • There were peasants who farmed as share-croppers, paying their landlords in kind, with a share of what they produced.
  • Others – labour tenants – farmed their portion of a white-owned farm and paid rent in the form of a specified amount of labour, typically 60 or 90 days of the year, enabling the landlord to bring in his harvest.

In addition, a much smaller number of Africans living outside the Reserves were those who had bought land. In some cases, land was bought by modernising peasant families, wealthy enough to seek individual tenure. More frequently – especially in Transvaal districts of Rustenburg, Pilansberg and Pretoria – large tracts of land were acquired by African chiefs and the communities they headed.

The 1913 Act intervened in these relationships, in the interests of white farmers in the ex-Boer republics. How did it do so?

  • White farmers, firstly, wanted to abolish 'squatter locations' – to put an end to Africans occupying whole farms as cash tenants. Farmers and legislators blamed the shortage of labour on 'squatter locations': and indeed, there was little incentive for such tenants to sell family labour to farmers.
  • Secondly, particularly in the Orange Free State, white proprietors sought to outlaw share-cropping. Many Afrikaners in that province had been impoverished by the South African War, and resented the relative wealth of share-cropping families who returned from Lesotho with their flocks and herds at the end of war.
  •  Thirdly, white farmers had no wish to compete in the land market with Africans who could afford to buy farms. Accordingly, the Act said that no 'native' could 'purchase, hire or in any other manner whatever acquire any land' outside the scheduled Reserves.

The Act impacted differently on the four provinces. Share-cropping was allowed to continue in Natal and the Transvaal but was proscribed with immediate effect in the Orange Free State. This clause precipitated the eviction of hundreds of black families from farms, wrenched from relative security as share-croppers to become fugitives, desperately searching for alternatives as they traipsed dusty roads on wagons or on foot. The Cape Province was exempt from the Act, as the ban on land purchase conflicted with the right of Africans in that province to qualify for the vote by owning property.

The Land Act also provided for a commission to recommend to Parliament exactly which areas should be scheduled as Reserves and which as 'areas within which natives shall not be permitted to acquire or hire land'. This process led ultimately to the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act, which increased the area scheduled as Reserves – and in return stripped Cape Africans of the franchise. The area scheduled as Reserves comprised 13% of the total area of the country, or about half of the land with enough rainfall to be regarded as arable.

The Reserves benefited the white ruling class in different ways. They created a physical and social space in which to contain large numbers of black people at minimal cost. No-one expressed this purpose more succinctly than Godfrey Lagden, Milner's Commissioner of Native Affairs in the Transvaal. Should the Transvaal (he was asked) eject Africans from the Reserves and thrust them onto the labour market? No, he replied: 'A man cannot go with his wife and children and his goods and chattels on to the labour market. He must have a dumping ground. Every rabbit has a warren where he can live and burrow and breed, and every native must have a warren too.' Secondly, as migrant labour (especially to the mines) became entrenched, the Reserves became the main supplier of migrant workers – who were cheaper to employ than men with their families living in urban areas.

Between the wars, conditions in the Reserves deteriorated. Population pressure increased, the land became eroded and subsistence agriculture became more difficult to sustain.

Outside the Reserves, the 1913 Act did little to alter social relations in the countryside. For the next 40 years, the number of Africans on white-owned rural land actually grew. The 1936 census revealed that 37% of the African population lived on farms (with 45% in Reserves and 17% in towns). Overwhelmingly, families living on white-owned land were tenants rather than wage labourers. Pockets of share-cropping persisted on the Highveld until the 1940s, even in the Orange Free State. However, in that province, and also in Natal and the Transvaal, labour tenancy became the dominant form of tenure during the interwar years.

A minority of white farmers – perhaps one in ten in the interwar period – were capitalising and modernising. They wanted to replace tenancy by wage labour, reducing the number of people living on their farms. Most white farmers, however, continued to depend on non-capitalist forms of labour, particularly labour tenants. Wherever labour tenancy existed, so did struggles between landlords and tenants over its terms. The farmers wanted more family members to work for more days each year; they wanted a bigger share of the surplus raised by the tenant peasantry; and they tried to cut back the amount of land available to tenants for grazing and cropping.

The real assault on labour tenants came in the 1950s and 1960s when the last vestiges of an independent African peasantry were swept away. State support for white farmers increased – and the key outcome was the mechanisation of production. The tractor proved to be the key weapon in class struggle in the countryside: white farmers no longer relied on part-time work rendered by labour tenants; tenant families were no longer able to produce a surplus and cling to their way of life. Between 1947 and 1961, the number of tractors in use rose from 22,000 to 122,000 – and by 1980 to 300,000. Hundreds of thousands of labour tenants were evicted and those Africans left on the farms were poorly paid farm labourers.

And so, between 1960 and 1980 the proportion of the African population living in Reserves increased from 39% to 53% and those living on white-owned farms fell from 32% to 21%. Forced removals and rigid influx controls saw the black urban population fall from 29% to 26%. Water can indeed be made to flow uphill if the social engineers are sufficiently determined and ruthless.

Yet, even after these massive population shifts, 21% – one in five Africans – still lived on white owned land. But since 1994, there has been a tragic rerun of earlier struggles over access to land. A dramatic demographic trend since 1994 has been the large-scale movement of Africans off farms owned by others (mainly whites). Some 2.4 million people were displaced from farms between 1994 and 2004 – just under half of them actually evicted, the rest because conditions on the farms deteriorated so much.

Reserves became Bantustans and then homelands and 'self-governing states'. Whatever they were called, the social reality of these teeming rural slums was bleak. For a century, they have served as launch platforms for migrancy and as dumping grounds. It is difficult to find an adequate vocabulary for their decay and poverty: one suggestion is that the combination of over-population and failing subsistence agriculture was a process of 'de-agrarianisation'. Whatever one calls it, it condemned millions of South Africans to a grinding rural poverty.

Even though the Land Act was repealed in 1991, it still casts a shadow over post-apartheid South Africa. It created the fundamental legal distinction between Reserves and white-owned rural land. In condemning the Reserves to stagnation, the Act bequeathed the poverty of contemporary Limpopo, Mpumalanga, rural KZN and the Eastern Cape. It ensured that migrant labour from the Reserves to the mines would become a permanent feature of South African life. Think Marikana...

The Act loaded the scales, historically, in favour of capitalist agriculture. Once labour tenancy lost its rationale in the face of the combine harvester and tractor, those left behind on the farms were poorly paid wage-earners. As farmers modernised and increased production, the long-term trend has been to fewer, larger farm units using more machines and shedding labour. Think de Doorns...

The Land Act and its legacy leave the government – and its critics – with real dilemmas. How is land reform conducted without affecting food supplies? And how is land reform affected by the existing primacy of price determination and threatening trade agreements? Should policy promote individual or communal tenure? Does support for black emergent farmers lead to restructured property relations? And – for the rural poor – does land substitute for jobs on any significant scale?

Colin Bundy is a historian and author of 'The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry', the most influential account of South African rural history.