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.
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.
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
outright cash tenants (often referred to in the early 20th Century
peasants who farmed as share-croppers, paying their landlords in
kind, with a share of what they produced.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
wars, conditions in the Reserves deteriorated. Population pressure
increased, the land became eroded and subsistence agriculture became
more difficult to sustain.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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...
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