The Freedom Charter: Land Redistribution and Social Conflict by Franco Frescura


The expansion of white settlement and the development of white economic interests in southern Africa during the past two hundred years have depended largely upon an availability of cheap land, the presence of a large rural labour pool and the creation of a captive consumer market. The present growth of a local industrialised economy must therefore be seen to be the result of a historical and long-term partnership between white capital and black labour. However over the years the major share of the rewards of such a partnership have gone to strengthen the political power and living standards of the one group at the expense of the other. This has led many observers to question whether the establishment of a democratic society in South Africa should not also involve a major redistribution of these rewards; some have gone so far as to suggest that a redistribution of wealth is a precondition to the establishment of a new social order.

This paper accepts the underlying morality of these proposals but argues that the nationalisation of the economy and the redistribution of rural land are two separate issues, which need to be dealt with in the context of differing political realities. Ultimately it is possible that the first may be resolved pragmatically and in deference to this country's international economic links whilst the second, with its deep emotive and cultural implications, will inevitably require more radical domestic solutions.


Statements regarding a redistribution of wealth and the nationalisation of resources in a future South Africa are contained in two separate sections of the Freedom Charter. The first states that:


The national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people; The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole"

and may be seen as the response of an economically and politically disenfranchised urban group to an imbalance it perceived to exist in the present system of distributing rewards arising from modern industrial activities. Whilst most democratic groups do not doubt the historical and moral right to such action, the mechanics of this process are open to some question. This has allowed the opponents of a nationalisation policy to point out a number of potential flaws in its make-up.

Firstly, they claim, the South African government is already a major generator of economic activity and it is difficult to perceive how this country's economic system could benefit from further monopolistic and parastatal interference, whatever the political ideology of its motivators.

Secondly, the people who stand most to gain directly by such a move are urban dwellers who, at best, constitute only 50% of our population. Whilst it is true that increased urban wealth would ultimately percolate through to the rural areas, such benefits are secondary and may serve to create a rift between industrial and land-based proletariats. The political implications of this are obvious.

Thirdly, the concept of nationalising resources is not new and, judging by the experience of other African states, may prove to be counter-productive in terms of this country's international economic links.

Finally, "the national wealth of our country" may also be described as some kind of "national bread basket". The size of this bread-basket will remain more or less constant, regardless of who controls it. What is at issue therefore is not so much its ownership as the method of distributing its rewards and their proportion. A government may achieve this merely by adjusting its taxation levels and setting minimum salary scales without necessarily having to expand its bureaucratic infrastructure. Thus while the material rewards remain potentially the same, the political risks of failure to a controlling government are immeasurably decreased.

A policy of nationalisation should also differentiate between the ownership of resources and the control of the means of production. This country's "mineral wealth beneath the soil" is already either in State hands or easily accessible to it through present legislation and it would be a simple matter affecting relatively few people to consolidate this portfolio. The means of production, together with the marketing infrastructure, on the other hand is largely in public ownership and its very diversity must act as a major deterrent factor against its nationalisation.

The second section of the Freedom Charter, which also makes provision for the redistribution of natural resources, states that:


Restriction of land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it, to banish famine and land hunger ... All shall have the right to occupy land wherever they choose"

Unlike the previous clause, which sets out to establish guidelines for economic redistribution on a broad national level, this attempts to redress the historical grievances of a rural proletariat. Its rural intent is further reinforced by a subsequent statement in the same section which proclaims that "People shall not be robbed of their cattle".

Thus although both these clauses of the Freedom Charter seek to redress historical imbalances in the country's economic system, each in its turn addresses a separate constituency having a separate problem and ultimately must find separate resolution. Whilst a linking of the two for reasons of political expediency may find a measure of support, it would be wrong if the merits (or demerits) of the one also dictate a solution for the other.

For the purposes of this argument therefore, it is proposed to separate the two and discuss the question and strategies of rural land redistribution in isolation of economic adjustments at a broad national level.


The legal concept of what represents land ownership and control must be considered to be crucial, in the long term, to the resolution of the land question in this country. Many of the clashes which have taken place over the past 300-odd years between the White immigrants to the sub-continent and its indigenous inhabitants, have revolved about each side's respective interpretation of this issue. The two represent diametrically opposing philosophical conceptualisations of land holding and usufruct and it is not difficult to see how this issue was never resolved satisfactorily in the past and lives on to plague relations between the two groups today.

Since Roman times western society has evolved numerous systems whereby its members could gain control of areas of land for the purposes of settlement and usufruct. Most are based upon the concept of ownership or tenure whereby individuals are able to acquire and use land and dispose of it or hand it down, at their whim and desire, to other individuals. The stress here is upon land control by a single person or corporate body. The community, via the state or central government, is given certain rights over the property, but should they wish to dispossess the owners for the common good they must recompense them for their loss of usufruct.

In contrast, indigenous southern African society views land as being owned in common by the group but held in trust for them by leaders, or chiefs, who are able to dispose of it at their own discretion to sections of the community for their own usufruct and according to their needs. Land may not be acquired or disposed of unless done through the chief and should the usufruct of it cease through the resident group or family vacating it, then it reverts back to a common ownership for the chief to dispose of again at a later date.

Attempts to integrate the two systems in the past have exposed a wide range of problems and, to date, little work has been done to find common ground between them. At best they may be said to co-exist alongside each other, thanks to the creation of a regional system of so-called "homeland" administration. However where urbanisation has taken place in such areas, both sets of codes have been shown to have serious shortcomings.

An early example of such legal difficulties was described in about 1881 by Charles Brownlee who, as Resident Commissioner in the Transkei, had been called upon to adjudicate in a legal dispute. A man had built himself a substantial brick cottage in the European style but wishing to move to a new location, had agreed to sell it to his local chief. The latter was agreeable to this arrangement but the tribal council then stepped in and blocked the transaction on the grounds that once the man vacated his land, the cottage would revert back to the chief anyhow. Brownlee found that traditional law applied to land only and that the owner of any improvements upon it could either relocate them or, as in this particular case, sell them to the local governmental authority.


This inconsistency has not been easy to resolve and other disputes of a similar nature have also been recorded over the years in other parts of southern Africa. The situation was aggravated during the 1950s when increasing numbers of rural dwellers began to abandon their overcrowded and poverty- ridden lands in an effort to find a living in the towns and cities. These people needed shelter and, as housing in "official" townships was in short supply, began to build dwellings for themselves in the most direct and functional way possible. In the process they became "squatters", people residing illegally on land which did not belong to them. Their settlements and life-style therefore constituted a direct attack upon the White concept of land control, although in their own rural terms, they were merely occupying land according to their traditional rights.

Although the housing efforts of the late 1950s and early 1960s largely alleviated the urban housing shortage, they failed to address the basic issue of traditional land rights and subsequent government plans at providing urban residents with a limited measure of tenure were not met with any great measure of approval by the people concerned.

In these terms it will be seen that whilst the conflict existing between the traditional and European concepts of land control may be circumvented to a degree in a rural environment, the infrastructural and health requirements of urban settlement make it difficult for the two systems to co-exist side by side. The capital and labour intensive nature of urban development demands that security of tenure and individual accountability for, and hence individual control of, land be retained as a prerequisite for such investment. Thus it becomes obvious that the traditional concepts of rural land ownership will need to be revised and their appropriateness seriously questioned if we are to apply them to a modern urban context.

The need to re-evaluate current definitions of land ownership and tenure is likely to become one of increasing importance to a South African government committed at some future date to a redistribution of land to its people. The problems of urban homelessness being experienced currently in this country are by no means unique and are shared in other areas of the African continent. However such activity is presently regulated locally by a government which has placed on its statute books a wide range of laws, almost all of them racist and discriminatory in intent. It should be assumed that such measures will be inconsistent with the running of a popular Southern African democracy and therefore any future proposals aimed at squatter control will also have to include a parallel programme of rural development.

It is highly probable that a future South African democracy will find itself under pressure almost from the outset to meet the demands and expectations of an urban constituency and the question of housing will undoubtedly loom large on its agenda.


Despite the claims of white propagandists, it may be shown that the arrival of European settlers to southern Africa did not bring about a Pax abaLunga over the region. On the contrary it is recorded that since 1811 we have seen 24 major conflicts and over two score smaller localized conflagrations. This means that on average one major rebellion, war or uprising has taken place in this country every third year for the past 176 years. These are but a few of such conflicts:

  • The so-called "Border Wars" which took place in the Eastern Province region in 1811-12, 1818, 1819, 1834-5 and 1846-8.
  • The Mfecane was a period of turmoil, war and famine which affected the entire highveld region between 1822 and 1837.
  • Basutoland successfully resisted the advance of both British and Boer in successive wars of 1852, 1858, 1865 and 1869.
  • Wars took place in Zululand in 1838, 1856, 1879 and 1906.
  • The Transkei/Ciskei area was in further turmoil as the result of wars in 1850-3, 1858, the Galeka War of 1877-8 and the Thembu war of 1879.
  • The Pedi brought the Transvaal Republic to its knees in the war of 1876-7 and were only defeated by superior British forces in 1879.
  • The Khoi/Herero rebellion of 1865 in Namibia had a sequel in 1904 when the German colonial government was faced with a general uprising which cost the lives of 179 German officers and 2169 enlisted men. The Herero are reported to have lost an estimated 77,000 persons, which included men, women and children.
  • The Venda overran Louis Trichardt in the 1850s; both the Griqua and the Tswana revolted in the 1870s; the Matabele kingdom was crushed in 1893 and that of the Mashona only three years' later; the South Ndebele had to be dynamited into acquiescence in 1882 after a war involving over 2000 Boer commandos over a period of nine months.
  • Major Whites-only affairs took place in 1879 and 1899-1901.
  • Closer to our times we have had major conflicts in the (White) strike of 1913, the Afrikaner rebellion of 1914, the (White) strike of 1916, the (Black) miners' strike of 1921, the (White) revolt of 1922, the (Black) miners' strike of 1946, the violence of the Ossewabrandwag of the 1940s, the passive resistance and civil disobedience movements of the 1950s, risings in Cato Manor in 1959 and 1960, the slaughter of Sharpeville in 1960, the Poqo rebellion in Pondoland in the early 1960s, the PAC attempt to attack the White inhabitants of Paarl in 1963, the Durban and Pietermaritzburg labour strikes of 1973, the 1976 Soweto student uprising, and finally, the latest countrywide conflagration, beginning in 1984 and continuing to the present day.


It is interesting to note that only two of these conflicts were the result of internal Black-on-Black schisms although seven others were affairs to which only Whites were invited.

The chronology of such conflicts during the nineteenth century also makes for interesting reading. In almost every case they coincide with the spread of White settlement throughout the region, beginning in the eastern Cape, fanning out onto the highveld and eventually engulfing the entire coastal belt.

The reasons recorded for these conflicts are many and varied. The majority however may be seen to have been the result of competition for land between White and Black groups. When we consider the additional factors that up to 1925, 75% of produce consumed in this country was grown by black peasant farmers, the promulgation of land acts in 1926 and 1933 which limited black access to farm land, the development of a service infrastructure limited to White rural areas, the subsequent impoverishment and overgrazing of Black land and the cosmological attitude of Blacks to land, then it will be seen that the South African rural community has been subjected to a deliberate and sustained campaign aimed at destroying its economic system and forcing its people off their own land. The single most important source of friction between White and Black in our country therefore must lie in each group's control, or lack of, agricultural land.

It is obvious that where an indigenous population holds their land under one system of ownership and an immigrant group gains control of it under another, somewhere along the path of history, a process of land alienation and dispossession must have taken place.

This process did not cease at the end of the colonial era, but has continued to this very day under the guise of informal settlement removals and "homeland consolidation". Thus when the Freedom Charter proclaims that "the land shall be shared among those who work it", this is not the statement of an Utopian political ideal but the vocalising of a grievance which has been with theBlack community for the past two hundred years, most particularly since the 1840s.


In order to understand the issue of Black land ownership, one must also consider the traditional cosmology of the rural community, most particularly its religious beliefs. Land is not merely a means to a livelihood necessary to the growing of crops and, hence, to the survival of the rural family unit; land is also necessary in order to support cattle, the family's source of wealth. Cattle are needed not as food, for they are rarely slaughtered for meat and are not bred for their milk-giving capacity, but as the basic currency in the acquisition of wives who then produce children. Contrary to most White misconceptions, lobola is not a bride-price, it is a child-price. A man who dies without children, most specifically male children, will not be remembered and hence will not be allowed to join the larger ranks of ancestors. Thus, in a rural context, at least, it becomes possible to create an equation where land equals immortality. Thus it is common to find that many rural communities still make frequent references to their land of old and how this was taken away from them by the White man, often within the living memory of their elders, sometimes within the last generation or two. It is not unusual to meet, particularly in the Transvaal and Natal, urban residents of three or four generation's standing who still refer to their rural roots as "home, where the old men are". It is not known to what extent traditional land values still permeate the thinking of urban families. However the statement that "the land belongs to the people" is made so frequently as to make the connection between the two communities inescapable.

The social and economic links known to exist between South Africa's rural and urban communities are important for they run contrary to many White preconceptions and prejudices. They demonstrate that urban Blacks are not some kind of strange hybrid to be appeased by the White government of the day in a separate political deal aimed at creating further labels and schisms among our citizens. They also show that the concept of tribalism is a myth of white manufacture and that although there are indeed a number of regional cultures in this country, they are all variants of a common heritage which encompasses Nguni, Sotho and Tswana language-speaking communities alike.

The idea that rural and urban communities are linked by a common social and political system is further strengthened when we consider the economic ties existing between the two. Speaking before the Carnegie report-back on poverty in South Africa in 1985, Charles Simkins indicated that despite a perceptible decrease in development and job creation in rural areas, the per capita income of rural inhabitants had increased over the past decade. Although some of this could be ascribed to a rising cash flow in the migrant labour system, much of this rise remained unexplained. These findings are supported by recent architectural research, which although not fully quantified to date, shows a perceptible shift in rural areas from traditional building technologies to cost-intensive housing materials such as timber doors, steel windows, cement mortar and corrugated iron roofing. Such incomes can only be explained in terms of an interacting economic system which allows surplus funds to flow from urban families to their rural kinfolk as part of a larger social pattern of mutual assistance.

This is an important idea, for it begins to explain how, during 1976, urban economic hardship was partially relieved by the rural areas who absorbed and fed many urban children; how during 1979 to 1982, a growing urban economy was alleviating the tightening grip of a countrywide rural drought; and how in 1983-4 a combination of urban and rural poverty resulted in widespread uprisings which involved both communities equally. In these terms it will be seen that the decrease in civil violence experienced since 1987 has not been due so much to an imposition of a State of Emergency two years earlier but rather to growth of the urban economy and a concurrent break in the rural drought. Thus it may be argued that the Pretoria government will only be able to maintain the current status quo only as long as it is able to juggle the national economy and the weather can be persuaded not to join the international sanctions campaign.


The concept of a redistribution of wealth as a prerequisite towards social democracy in South Africa is firmly based in the common perception that White privileges and economic power have been achieved at the expense of Black living standards. It is true that our current economic standing is the result of a partnership between White capital and technological know-how and Black labour and land resources. However the latter's status as a landless and economically underprivileged proletariat stands witness to the unequal distribution of the rewards from such a partnership.

At a time when the prospect of a democratic South Africa looms ever closer, many White leaders of commerce and industry are beginning to take cognisance of the toll that such a society would demand of their enterprise. As a result many arguments, some of them valid, are being advanced for the creation of a future economy based on a free enterprise system. The compromises being proposed as a result are essentially aimed at urban dwellers and appear to ignore the twin questions of land ownership and rural poverty. It should be stressed that, as far as rural dwellers are concerned, no such compromise is possible and that any attempts to link a rural solution to what can best be termed "the urban soft option" must be resisted at all costs. The nature of land dispossession and the social, political and legal processes under which it took place have left a bitter legacy which cannot be appeased by pragmatic measures. It must be faced that the cost of a democracy in South Africa will, at minimum, be a radical redistribution of rural land currently in White hands.

It is true that the parceling out of productive farming land to inexperienced Black farmers previously used to subsistence methods will have some serious repercussions upon our national levels of food production. It is also probable that, for a while, at least, South Africa may have to become a food importer. However unpalatable that option may be, the alternative of an angry rural constituency, comprising 50% of the national electorate, may prove too daunting for a future democratic government to face.

Strangely enough the recent drought and border infiltrations have done much to reduce White rural population densities in some areas, and many farms are now held by absentee landlords. It is also known that many bankrupt farm estates are being bought up by unspecified large concerns. Although to date no research has been conducted in this area, it may be hypothesized that only two groups have the resources currently to make such large scale investments in land: the State and the mining houses. It is not impossible therefore that the significance of land control as a bargaining pawn in a future settlement between white and black has already been recognised. Such developments may well be paving the way for a time when white business interests will offer to cede their rural land holdings "in the interests of social justice" in exchange for governamental guarantees that their larger industrial activicties will not be affected by a programme of nationalisation. On the other hand, it is equally conceivable that a conservative white government could be attempting its own programme of land redistribution under the guise of "homeland development" in order to ease rural land hunger and purchase more time for the implementation of its own social reforms.


This paper was originally delivered to the IDASA Freedom Charter Regional Consultative Conference, held in Port Elizabeth on 13-14 May 1988, under the title of Land Redistribution and Social Conflict. It was published without consultation or permission in “The Freedom Charter and the Future”, for which I am, nonetheless, grateful. (FRESCURA, Franco. 1988. The Freedom Charter: Land Redistribution and Social Conflict. “The Freedom Charter and the Future”, Editor James A Polley. Cape Town: IDASA, 1988. 124-33)

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