1913 Land Act Essay Outline

Summary and Keywords

Since 1913, the “land question” in South Africa has revolved around the major inequalities in access to and rights over land between the black majority and the white minority of the population, and how these disparities should best be understood and overcome. The roots of this inequality are commonly traced back to the promulgation of the Natives Land Act in June 1913, which provided the legal framework for the subsequent division of the country into a relatively prosperous white heartland and a cluster of increasingly impoverished black reserves on the periphery. Historians have cautioned against according this legislation undue weight within the much longer history of colonization, capitalist penetration, and agrarian change that has shaped modern South Africa. The spatial divide of white core and black periphery has, however, been central to the political economy of 20th-century South Africa. Beginning in the 1950s, the apartheid government attempted to maintain white hegemony, drive an urban–industrial economy, and deflect political resistance by turning these reserves into the ethnic “homelands” of African people. This involved increasingly repressive policies of urban influx control, population relocation, and the tribalization of local administration in the reserves.

Since the transition to democracy in 1994, the post-apartheid state has struggled to develop an effective land reform program that can address the crosscutting demands for land redistribution, local development, and representative government that this history has bequeathed. For many analysts, these ongoing challenges mean that “the land question” remains unresolved; for others it means that the question is itself in need of reformulation. In order to review these developments, a three-part periodization is used to organize the discussion: (1) the segregation era (1910–1948), (2) the apartheid era (1948–1990), and (3) the transition to democracy and the post-apartheid era that began in 1990.

Keywords: South Africa, land question, Natives Land Act, land reform, homeland policy, agrarian change

Introduction

The “land question” in South Africa since 1913 is a politically saturated construct that has generated a range of preferred answers in both scholarly and more popular accounts. It is intimately tied up with, but not reducible to, the history of 20th-century agrarian change, itself the subject of theoretical and policy debates. There is, however, general agreement that at its heart lies the persistent inequality in the distribution and security of land rights between the minority of South Africans classified as “white,” and the great majority who, despite ethnic differences, can be categorized broadly as “black.”1 These inequalities are commonly traced back to the Natives Land Act of 1913, a foundational piece of segregationist legislation on the part of the first all-white Parliament of the still very new Union of South Africa. The status of this act as a major historical reference point in the post-apartheid era was confirmed during the constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s, when it was agreed that racially motivated land dispossessions before June 19, 1913, the date the act was promulgated, would be excluded from the ambit of the post-apartheid land restitution program.2

In the commemorations marking the centenary of the Land Act in 2013, many political commentators referred to this legislation as the key moment when black South Africans were stripped of their land rights in a common South Africa and confined to impoverished reserves—a decisive episode in “the master narrative of loss and restoration” that has shaped the country’s commitment to land reform in the post-apartheid era.3 Thus, a posting on the official Website of the South African government stated that the 1913 Act “opened the door for white ownership of 87 percent of land, leaving black people to scramble for what was left.” The anonymous author continued:

Once the law was passed, the apartheid government began the mass relocation of black people to poor homelands and to poorly planned and serviced townships … This marked the beginning of socio-economic challenges the country is facing today such as landlessness, poverty and inequality.4

Historians have cautioned against this interpretation, pointing to the prior history of colonial dispossession as far more significant in determining the nature and extent of black land tenure in the early 20th century, along with the very uneven reach of the 1913 Land Act in the decades following its promulgation.5 Nevertheless, the legislation became the cornerstone around which the division of the country into a relatively well-resourced white heartland and an increasingly embattled black periphery was built over the course of the 20th century.

The act set aside just over 7 percent of South Africa as “native reserves,” with provision for the addition of more land over time. Subsequently, the Native Trust and Land Act of 1936 increased the amount of land reserved for “natives” to approximately 13 percent of the country, and it was on this foundation that the bantustan or “homeland” policy of the apartheid era was built, from the early 1950s. In this way, some two-thirds of the country—in the region of 82 million hectares—was reserved for the near-exclusive ownership of white farmers and agricultural companies, while African South Africans were progressively stripped of rights to land, residence, and citizenship outside their putative homelands.6 During this time, a historically distinct and politically less prominent process also led to the designation of 23 “coloured reserves” in then Cape Province; these reserves, established around several 19th-century mission stations, covered approximately 1 percent of the country, mostly in the semiarid Northern Cape.7

Given this history, the land question in 1994 was widely understood to revolve around ways to restore black South Africans’ rights over land—both in real terms, at household and community level, and, more metaphorically, over the country as a whole. But the transition to formal democracy and a constitutionally mandated land reform program has failed to dissolve the spatial legacy of a bifurcated countryside, or to assuage collective memories of dispossession. For many politicians and commentators, this shortfall means that the land question is far from resolved. For some it means that the question itself needs reformulating.

Land, it is routinely said, is both a material and a symbolic resource, but tracking how these dimensions have interacted and played out over the course of the 20th century, as well as what this history means for contemporary land policy, is a complex undertaking. Post-apartheid South Africa is not the agrarian country it was in 1913, when some 80 percent of a population of approximately 6 million was regarded as rural.8 Nevertheless, by 2015, a third of the country’s population (totaling an estimated 55 million)9 was still based in the countryside, concentrated in the former bantustans, and land for livestock and cultivation remains a concern in the livelihood calculations of thousands of households. At the national level, the persistent disparity in aggregated white and black land ownership continues to function as a potent indicator of white privilege and black social and economic marginalization. To this extent, the land question still demands resolution, if not simple answers.

What follows is an overview of this dense history across two distinct but intersecting domains. Its primary focus is the history of land access and ownership since 1913, and the associated contestations over its distribution, its use, its value, and its political control over time. Intertwined with this is the representation of this history in historical writings on “the land question,” and the relationship between scholarly and more directly political debates on land reform in the present. The first three sections review developments between 1913 and mid-2016, this three-part periodization working with significant political events to punctuate an unfolding narrative across a century of agrarian change as follows:

The fourth section briefly recapitulates key themes in the historiography of “the land question,” with a focus on debates since the 1970s.

Land in the Segregation Era, 1910 to 1948

The Land Dispensation on the Eve of the Natives Land Act

In assessing the importance of the 1913 Natives Land Act for South Africa’s land dispensation in the 20th century, historians have emphasized the need to understand what Jacob Dlamini calls the “pre-history” of this act.10 This means engaging with the complexities of the history of colonial conquest south of the Limpopo River in the 250 years preceding the act, beginning in 1652. While often depicted as a relatively simple morality tale—heroic resistance on the part of the colonized versus savage dispossession on the part of the colonizers—more ambiguous themes of accommodation, assimilation, stratification, and innovation thread themselves through this extended encounter as well.

By 1910, after the defeat of the two Boer republics in the South African War, the entire future South Africa had been brought under the suzerainty of the British crown, and white hegemony over the proto-nation’s governance institutions and natural resource base declared. Importantly, however, there were significant differences on the ground, reflecting not only variation in localized histories of colonization but also the influence of different ecologies and local economies. In a 2015 essay Colin Bundy has noted that “[a]s important as land lost was land retained, and the terms of its retention. Conquered kingdoms and chiefdoms were not displaced and dispersed … They remained largely intact, although subject to colonial or republican rule.”11 In addition, at the start of the 20th century, much land that was formally in white ownership was occupied by rural African communities with some degree of economic autonomy, while a small but politically important class of black landowners had emerged in parts of the Cape Province and Natal (where no formal legal barriers prevented this). In 1905, rights to own land were extended to “exempted” African men in the Transvaal as a result of a successful court application brought by the Reverend Tsewu, a man described by Dlamini as “a typical member of the mission-educated, Christianised elite that made up South Africa’s early generation of modern activists.” This was an elite “that swore allegiance to the British Crown” and was still hopeful of full political citizenship, for its members at least, in the impending Union.12

As Tsewu’s story attests, by this time new ideas about land and its products were in circulation, interacting with and impacting older communal values and the agrarian societies that nurtured them. Southern Africa’s incorporation into a global capitalist order, following the mineral discoveries of the latter half of the 19th century, involved not only a voracious demand for cheap black labor on the part of colonial mining bosses and industrialists, but also the opening up of new economic opportunities and social possibilities for some of the colonized. In 1972, Bundy published a seminal article on “The Emergence and Decline of a South African Peasantry,” which drew attention to the “substantially more positive response by African agriculturalists to market opportunities than has usually been indicated.”13 This response varied from “an adapted form” of traditional subsistence farming on the part of “hundreds of thousands” of African households, to the embrace of market-oriented production by a smaller group of households who “competed most effectively with white farmers.” This latter group, Bundy argued, constituted a new class of peasants—rural cultivators using family labor to satisfy household consumption needs and “meet the demands rising from … involvement in a wider economic system.”14 (The patriarchal relationships embedded in this division of labor were at this stage largely naturalized in analyses of agrarian change; it was only in the 1980s that feminist theory began to subvert gender-blind accounts of the past.)15

These developments did not mean that older affective relationships to land were abruptly replaced by more narrowly instrumentalist considerations. They did, however, signal the emergence of more individualized and exclusive notions of land ownership in sectors of African society. Along with this went new configurations of social status and new calculations about land itself as a commodity. At the same time, many white farming households were struggling to adapt to a more commercially oriented agricultural regime. The “scorched earth” tactics that the British deployed in the Boer republics during the South African War exacerbated the challenges they faced.16

The Natives Land Act of 1913

Bundy’s thesis, subsequently elaborated in his 1979 book, The Rise and Fall of a South African Peasantry, has been hugely influential in much academic work on the history of land and agrarian change.17 Anti-apartheid organizations have turned it into a potent narrative of a large and prosperous black peasant class abruptly snuffed out by the Land Act. In recent years, the idea of a vanquished peasantry has been modernized and metamorphosed within the African National Congress (ANC) government into a “class of black commercial farmers” that the Land Act destroyed and land reform must “rekindle.”18 This popularized account, however, overstates both the relative strength of the black peasantry and the importance of the Natives Land Act in the demise of African agriculture after 1913.

The passage into law of the Land Act on June 19, 1913, was certainly a politically significant assertion of white power in the new Union, but it was not a decisive moment in the history of black dispossession. That had already occurred. According to William Beinart and Peter Delius, “land alienation was neither the major intention nor the outcome of the Act”; rather, it was “an interim measure … to change the terms on which Africans could occupy white-owned land and to extend the areas reserved for Africans.”19 What the act did was demarcate some 9 million hectares20 (approximately 7.3 percent of the total area of the country) as “scheduled native areas,” and prohibit “a native person” from buying or renting land outside these areas, except with the permission of the governor general (representing the British monarch as head of state).21 A “native person” was defined in section 10 of the act as “any person, male or female, who is a member of an aboriginal race or tribe of Africa.” The act also prohibited non-natives from acquiring land in the scheduled areas, thereby, arguably, securing these lands against further alienation. The areas that were scheduled excluded more than 1.3 million hectares of African- and mission-owned land,22 as well as large areas under African settlement that were formally owned by the state or white landowners. In recognition that the initial allocation was inadequate, the act made provision for a Natives Land Commission to investigate additional land to add to the 1913 schedule.

In the 1970s and 1980s, social historians and radical economists differed on whose interests the 1913 Land Act was designed to serve—those of white farmers wishing to reduce black competition around land, labor, and markets or those of white mining bosses wanting to preserve the African reserves as labor reservoirs for the migrant labor system. The evidence favors the former position, though ultimately both groups benefited.23 Support for the act came from a coalescence of interest groups anxious to defend white hegemony in the countryside, justified by the principle if not the practice of territorial segregation.

The promulgation of the act had devastating consequences for some African sharecropper households, particularly in parts of the Free State. This was the locus of Sol Plaatje’s classic text, Native Life in South Africa, which documents the misery inflicted on tenant households evicted by their white landlords in its wake.24 However, this response was not generalized across the South African countryside. The act was not applicable in the Cape Province because it conflicted with the terms under which that province had entered the union.25 Furthermore, for a couple of decades, not insignificant numbers of Africans actively exploited the legal loophole that authorized the governor general to permit land purchases outside the scheduled areas; according to Harvey Feinberg, between 1913 and 1935 some 3,295 purchases of farms and lots were approved across all four provinces in this way.26 In addition, as Michelle Hay has shown for the Northern Transvaal, many African households continued renting from white landowners; “the extent of evictions was still limited, compared to what was to come in the 1940s,” while the control of tribal chiefs over communities living outside the reserves was often weak to nonexistent.27 Even in the Free State, African peasant households were producing maize on white-owned land into the 1920s.28

Nevertheless, the 1913 Land Act did send a clear message that the union’s all-white government was committed to a vision of South Africa as preeminently a “white man’s country.”29 The preceding debate among white politicians was one of the major provocations leading to the establishment of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC, as the ANC was originally called) in January 1912.30 Subsequently, the SANNC sent a delegation (which included Sol Plaatje) to London to petition the British crown against the legislation. Couched in the language of loyal British subjects, the petition was unequivocal in condemning the act as “subversive of all that is right”—“laden with dynamite tendencies, which mean agitations, scheming, upheavals, and conflicts in this land we love so much.” The petitioners did not, however, condemn segregationist thinking as such, nor did they begrudge “members of the white race … getting a share of the land.”31 Rather, they called for a land dispensation in which “natives should be put into possession of land in proportion to their numbers, and on the same terms and conditions as the white race.”32

At the inception of modern South Africa, then, the “land question” was central to the emergence of African nationalism as a new political force that transcended older ethnic divisions. However, at this stage, nationalists sought coexistence, not overt confrontation, with white society.

The Native Land and Trust Act of 1936

The Natives Land Commission established through the 1913 Land Act soon ran into fierce opposition on the part of white landowners who were unwilling to sacrifice their own farms to advance the general principle of segregation that they endorsed—a response which was to dog state land acquisition plans for the reserves throughout the 20th century. When it finally reported in 1916, the commission recommended adding a little over 7 million hectares to the scheduled areas across the four provinces.33 William Beaumont, the commission chairman, also commented on the obstacles to identifying land that would consolidate the reserves. Apart from the objections of affected famers, “reserves, mission lands, Native farms and other lands solely occupied by Natives are, with the exception of the Transkeian Territories, scattered in all directions and hopelessly intermixed with the lands owned and occupied by Europeans.”34

Conceding to the opposition to the commission’s work, the government appointed five local committees to review the proposals. They pared down the commission’s recommendation to below 6.5 million hectares.35 While the ruling South African Party accepted these revisions, it was unable to mobilize sufficient support to proceed in a fractious political climate. It was thus only two decades later, in 1936, when a white coalition government under Afrikaner nationalist General Hertzog was in office, that the Native Trust and Land Act (Act 18) was passed. This approved the addition of 6.2 million hectares to the areas scheduled in 1913—a total that was substantially below the Beaumont Commission’s original recommendations and would, once met, bring the area allocated to the African reserves to just over 13 percent of the country (see Figure 1). Some African-owned or settled land overlooked in 1913 now fell within the reserves but much did not, including 332 freehold farms that in the apartheid era became increasingly vulnerable to removal as “black spots” on a white map.36 The 1936 Act also established the South African Native Trust (later the South African Development Trust [SADT]) to acquire and administer the new “released” land, and tightened controls over tenant households on white farms.

Critically, the 1936 Land Act was made possible through a political trade-off within the white ruling elite. More land for the reserves came at the cost of the non-racial franchise in the Cape. The Native Trust and Land Act was passed in tandem with the Representation of Natives Act (Act 12), which abolished the nonracial franchise in the Cape and imposed a common legal framework for “native policy” over the entire country.37 This deal thus represented the triumph of white segregationist ideals and ensured that land and political rights could not be disentangled in mounting popular resistance to white minority rule from the 1940s forward.

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Figure 1. African Reserves in South Africa, September 1969. Showing “scheduled” (1913) and “released” (1936) areas. From Muriel Horrell, The African Homelands of South Africa (Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 1969).

Agrarian Change

The first half of the 20th century was a period of significant change in the political economy of South Africa. In 1911, mining at 27 percent and agriculture at 22 percent of national income dominated the economy.38 By 1950, agriculture was still a significant sector, accounting for some 16 percent of the “gross value” of economic activity, but the manufacturing and service sectors (at 23 percent and 48 percent, respectively) had overtaken both it and mining (at 11 percent).39

This period saw capitalist relations of production taking hold more firmly in agriculture. Although still hungry for cheap (black) labor, commercial farming was beginning to mechanize—the national tractor fleet, for instance, increased from just 6,000 in 1937 to over 20,000 in 1946.40 In this time, the state also initiated racially targeted support programs aimed at keeping marginal white farmers on the land and boosting farm revenues. These included special credit facilities, the establishment of Marketing Boards in the 1930s, and conservation measures aimed at reversing widespread land degradation.41 Racially skewed support systems saw productivity in “white” agriculture outstrip that in African areas, where evidence of social and economic distress was mounting.42 Yet a 1980 study by Charles Simkins found that agricultural production in the reserves had by no means collapsed. While per capita output was declining, total output “remained substantially constant between 1918 and 1955, declining rapidly only after that date.”43

During this period, the rate of black and white urbanization also diverged. Impoverished Afrikaner households moved off the land in significant numbers—between 1890 and 1936 the percentage of urbanized Afrikaners mushroomed from under 3 percent to 50 percent.44 By 1946, almost three-quarters of the white population was urban, compared to under a quarter of the African population (and 36 percent of the population overall).45 Nevertheless, a black working class was consolidating its presence in urban centers at this time. This, coupled with the demands of the manufacturing sector for a more stable and skilled workforce, prompted a reconsideration of urban policy in the ruling United Party in the postwar period. In 1948, the Native Laws (Fagan) Commission proposed policy changes that favored a more accommodating approach to black urban dwellers—a policy option that, had it prevailed, would have set the country on a very different trajectory from what transpired after 1948.46

The Apartheid Era, 1948 to 1990

The National Party’s Apartheid Policy

The National Party (NP) won the 1948 all-white parliamentary elections on a radical ticket of Afrikaner nationalism and white supremacy. Its 1947 apartheid manifesto committed the party to “preserving and safeguarding the racial identity of the White population” and “the general principle of territorial segregation of the Bantu and the Whites.”47 The extent to which the NP had a clear policy blueprint when it came to power has been debated,48 but central elements of its future program were identified in its election manifesto. These included the designation of the reserves as “the national home of the Bantu” (the latter term now misappropriated from linguistics to designate African people), and an indication that these territories could develop into “self-governing national units” over time. The manifesto also declared that “more ground for the Bantu in terms of the Act of 1936” would only come “after judicious consideration.”49 Although some analysts have emphasized the ideological continuities between the segregation and apartheid eras,50 the material and political differences with regard to land policy were significant.

One of the NP’s first acts in government was to pass the Population Registration Act (Act 30) in 1950. This transformed the largely informal sanctions that had policed the racial order in the segregation era into a “rigid system of race classification” that divided South Africans by law into “white,” “coloured,” “native” (and, later, “Indian”) groups, “based on appearance and general acceptance and repute.”51 Henceforth, people were locked into bureaucratically defined racial identities that dictated with whom they could be intimate, where they could live, what work they could do, what education they could aspire to, and how freely they could move about. That same year the Group Areas Act (Act 41) was passed, introducing a policy of enforced residential segregation in urban areas based on the racial zoning of areas for different “groups.” In the following decades, bulldozers flattened black and mixed neighborhoods in cities and towns across the country, forcing their residents into racial ghettoes on the urban periphery. Strong mobilization against the Group Areas Act in metropolitan suburbs such as District Six in Cape Town and Cato Manor in Durban placed the issue of urban land rights firmly on the national political agenda.52

The NP also turned its back on the Fagan Commission’s cautious recognition of African urbanization. In 1952, the pass laws system was overhauled and expanded to encompass all Africans, including women who until then had been largely exempt.53 Over the next few decades, the thrust of urban policy was to ensure that as far as possible, African people would enter the urban areas only if they had gainful employment—in the words of the Secretary for Bantu Administration in 1972, “because the whites need their labour”54—and then, as far as possible, on a temporary basis. Along with this went the establishment of a network of labor bureaus designed to control the migrant labor system more tightly and defend the conceit of territorial segregation that legitimized it.

The Bantustan Project from 1951

In the NP’s pursuit of the elusive goal of white domination with economic growth and political stability, the manipulation of space played a pivotal role. Central to the entire apartheid project was the political repositioning of the native reserves of 1913 and 1936 as not only the authentic but also the only homelands of the African majority. The first step was taken in 1951, with the Bantu Authorities Act (Act 68). This established a system of tribal, regional, and territorial authorities for the former reserves (briefly recast as “bantustans” before the more euphemistic “bantu homelands” was adopted).55 In this way, traditional leaders such as chiefs and headmen were co-opted as lowly functionaries of the apartheid state, accountable not to the people falling under them but to the “Bantu Commissioners” they served—a move that Mahmood Mamdani described in 1996 as a variant of the classic colonial strategy of indirect rule, in which the expedient of “tribe” supplanted that of “race.”56 Remarkably, this formalization of traditional institutions as local agents of the central state has been carried through into the post-apartheid period.

In 1959, the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act (Act 46) took the bantustan project a step further by dividing Africans into eight “national units” (North-Sotho, South-Sotho, Tsonga, Tswana, Swazi, Xhosa, Venda, and Zulu), each with its own “national” territory in which to develop under the tutelage of the apartheid state. The designation of the Ciskei as a separate homeland in 1961 and then of Kwandebele in 1979 brought the final number of apartheid-era bantustans to ten (see Figure 2). The 1959 legislation was followed in 1963 with the establishment of the Transkei as a prototype “self-governing territory,” with its own chief minister and a Legislative Assembly in which a majority of members—64 out of 109—were chiefs.57 The enabling legislation made clear the apartheid state’s long-term intention of using the bantustans to strip Africans of their broader South African citizenship, by defining Transkeian citizens as not only “all Africans … born in the Transkei or … legally domiciled there” but also all “those outside the area who derive from or are members of tribes resident in the Transkei.”58

In 1971, the Bantu Homelands Constitution Act (Act 21) extended the principle of bantustan-style self-government to the other homelands. In 1976, the Transkei was granted nominal independence, followed by Bophuthatswana in 1977, Venda in 1979, and Ciskei in 1981. In this way, several million African South Africans were legally stripped of their citizenship. In 1993, the estimated population of the “TBVC” states (as the “independent” bantustans came to be known) was just under 7 million, almost a quarter of the African population of some 30 million (out of a total of 39.5 million for the country as a whole).59

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Figure 2. South Africa’s Bantustans. Bantustan boundary data from the Directorate: Public State Land Support via Africa Open Data.

Courtesy of Htonl and Wikimedia Commons.

Forced Removals

The unfolding logic of this balkanization strategy produced a series of bantustan consolidation plans in the 1970s, intended to impose greater geographical coherence on these fragmented lands.60 While ultimately falling short of what was proposed on paper, these plans involved the relocation of hundreds of small “black spot” communities, along with some “badly situated” reserves, onto land that the SADT was acquiring to meet the 1936 Land Act’s quota of land to be added to the reserves. In the complex of issues shaping decisions around which areas to prioritize for relocation, the level of local resistance became an increasingly important factor dating from the late 1970s. Macroeconomic and strategic considerations also entered the mix. The industrial port of Richards Bay on the Natal north coast, for instance, was built on Reserve 6, one of the original “Zululand” reserves that had been “scheduled” in 1913. Its deproclamation as African land to make way for this major infrastructural development led to the relocation of some 10,000 people in 1976.61

As the Richards Bay case illustrates, the NP’s apartheid project was an exercise in spatial engineering on a grand scale. In the mid-1980s, the Surplus People Project (SPP) estimated that some 3.5 million individual “removals” took place between 1960 and 1983 in furtherance of apartheid’s grand plan; another 1.9 million people were under threat of relocation at the time62 (see Table 1). These figures excluded the many millions affected by the “pass” laws underpinning urban influx control and by the coerced villagization schemes being rolled out in the bantustans under the rubric of “betterment planning.”

Table 1. Forced Population Removals under Apartheid, 1960–1983

CATEGORY OF RELOCATION

NUMBER

Rural

Eviction of farm workers and labor tenants from white commercial farms

1,129,000

Removal of landowners and tenants from expropriated African- or mission-owned farms (“black spots”) and the relocation of “badly situated” “native reserves” to consolidate the bantustans

614,000

Relocations for strategic and infrastructural projects, e.g., for military purposes or forestry and conservation projects

103,500

Urban

Removals in terms of the Group Areas Act

860,400

Relocation of African townships from “white” areas into the bantustans

730,000

Eradication of informal settlements in urban centers (incomplete data)

112,000

Total

3,548,900

(*) The SPP report notes that its figure of 3.5 million refers to individual acts of removal, not to individual people as such, with some people experiencing more than one forced removal in this period.

Source: Surplus People Project (SPP), Forced Removals in South Africa: The SPP Reports, vols. 1–5 (Cape Town: The Surplus People; Pietermaritzburg: AFRA, 1983).

The brutality and scale of the relocation projects enforcing the apartheid agenda left a bitter legacy of dispossession and social dislocation that the post-apartheid land restitution program has struggled to overcome. In 1970, a book by Cosmas Desmond—The Discarded People—described the human cost of these removals in terms that evoked Sol Plaatje’s trip through the Free State in the wake of the 1913 Land Act some 55 years earlier.63 The scale of the apartheid-era removals was, however, far greater and the cumulative impact on socioeconomic conditions more damaging than anything envisaged by the advocates of segregation in the early 1910s.

A Divided Countryside

The apartheid era cemented the stark division of the South African countryside between white core and black periphery that the 1913 Natives Land Act had prefigured but failed to enforce. These years also shaped the relationship between town and country in enduring ways: ensuring that African households would retain ties to rural homes in the bantustans, despite their increasingly adverse conditions, and slowing down—but, significantly, not stopping—the rate of African urbanization outside the reserves. A 1981 analysis by Charles Simkins showed that the proportion of Africans in “white” metropolitan and rural areas dropped significantly between 1960 and 1980 but rose in the bantustans, where the population more than doubled from 4.7 to 11.3 million in this period.64 In 1988, Colin Murray described the apartheid state’s bantustan strategy as one of “displaced urbanisation” that was producing “huge rural slums” in the bantustans: settlements “which are ‘urban’ in respect of their population densities but ‘rural’ in respect of the absence of proper infrastructure and services.”65

Related to this was a precipitous decline in black agricultural production from the 1950s, which various coercive “land rehabilitation” projects by the state failed to stem. The core problem, that the available land was insufficient to sustain the numbers of people expected to live off it was one that the apartheid state refused to accept. In 1955, the NP’s Tomlinson Commission argued for a modernizing strategy to make the bantustans economically more viable. It proposed dividing the bantustan population between “a class of contented full-time Bantu farmers with holdings of sufficient size to enable them to farm profitably,” and a rural proletariat, to be employed via a state-driven industrial decentralization program.66 The NP rejected the commission’s recommendations, committing itself instead to a policy of “betterment planning” to rationalize land use still further. This villagization program built on conservation initiatives in the reserves dating from the late 1930s.67 It involved the relocation of many thousands of rural households into planned “closer settlements,” the redemarcation of family fields (in the course of which customary land rights were often extinguished), and enforced cattle culling to reduce stocking rates on communal grazing land. Simmering discontent around these measures flared up in major rural protests in Sekhukhuneland, Pondoland, and Natal in the late 1950s and early 1960s.68

In marked contrast, in the first few decades of apartheid rule white commercial agriculture enjoyed significant state support. The second half of the 20th century saw a consolidation of farming units, from more than 90,000 in 1971 to less than 60,000 in 1993, and a corresponding increase in average farm size and gross income.69 In 1964, the 1936 Land Act was amended to provide for the phased abolition of labor tenancy as an outmoded labor system (provoking unhappiness among farmers in agriculturally marginal areas, who objected to a fully waged system). As farming became more capital intensive, the total number of farm workers on white commercial farms declined from a peak in 1971 of a little over 1.5 million (permanent and temporary) to just over 1 million by 1993.70 Further increasing competitive pressure on commercial farmers, agricultural policy shifted toward greater deregulation and market liberalization from the mid-1980s, in part a response to the escalating economic and political crisis facing the apartheid state by this time.71

The Land Question and Popular Resistance

The assault on black and especially African rights after 1948 galvanized the ANC and its Congress Alliance allies into a phase of more radical resistance in the 1950s. In 1955, the Congress Alliance adopted the Freedom Charter in a national campaign to mobilize its supporters and define the broad objectives of its anti-apartheid movement. This charter has remained an important political reference point for ANC policymakers in the post-apartheid era, in part because its poetic language makes it amenable to both nationalist and socialist interpretations. This is apparent in its provisions around land. The charter opens with a ringing endorsement of the principle of nonracialism: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” Its land section continues with the radical declaration that “The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It!” but elaborates upon this in language that is open to different interpretation: “Restrictions 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.” The charter also calls for state support for “peasants” and freedom of movement “to all who work the land.”72

The rural protests of the late 1950s and early 1960s led ANC leader Govan Mbeki to reflect on the significance of “peasant” resistance for “the struggle for national liberation.”73 Overall, however, the political attention of the ANC in the long years in exile and underground after 196074 was on the urban centers and the industrial working class. Yet the centrality of the bantustans to the apartheid project ensured that the land question could not be put aside, even if land and agrarian reform were not prioritized in ANC thinking beyond a general rhetoric around “socialization, nationalization and redistribution.”75 In the 1980s, a national network of land-rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) emerged within South Africa, allied to the United Democratic Front (UDF), which actively championed both individual community struggles against forced removals and the demand for land reform in a future democratic dispensation.76

The Post-apartheid Era since 1990

The Transitional Period, 1990 to 1994

The inauguration in 1994 of a painfully wrought constitutional democracy under President Nelson Mandela was a watershed in the history of South Africa. Eight-three years after the boundaries of the modern country were set, a Government of National Unity under the ANC was voted into office, and black South Africans finally attained their legal majority. Core features of the post-apartheid land reform program were, however, laid down in the volatile constitutional negotiations that followed the NP’s momentous decision to unban political parties in February 1990 and repeal the Land Acts, the Group Areas Act, and the Population Registration Act—the central pillars of grand apartheid—in 1991.

In an attempt to stave off a more radical land dispensation, the NP government moved quickly to initiate a modest state-land disposal program in 1991, whereby communities could institute a claim for land dispossessed under apartheid, if that land was still in state ownership. This preemptive project exemplifies the unexpected continuities between pre- and post-1994 land policy that the negotiated transition to democracy produced. Its Commission on Allocation of Land (COLA) bequeathed both a backlog of unsettled claims and its senior bureaucracy to the post-apartheid Commission on Restitution of Land Rights (CRLR), thereby hobbling the CRLR’s institutional capacity in significant ways from the start.77 Arguably even more significant for future land policy was the enactment of the KwaZulu Ingonyama Trust Act by the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly, just days before the democratic elections of April 1994. This vested some 2.8 million hectares of KwaZulu land in the Zulu king, as sole trustee: a harbinger of the enhanced powers of traditional leaders over communal land that was to follow after 2000.78

Debates on the shape of the future land dispensation ebbed and flowed in the turbulent period leading to the adoption of the interim Constitution of South Africa Act (Act 200) in 1993.79 While securing white property rights was a key concern for the NP, the ANC entered the negotiations with a general presumption among its members that it would insist on a radical redistribution program. In the event, its leadership soon abandoned calls for the nationalization of land in favor of a more moderate set of minimum demands. The considerations behind this shift were aired as early as 1989 by Zola Skweyiya (who went on to chair the ANC’s Constitutional Committee) at a workshop on “a new agrarian democratic order” in the Netherlands. His paper highlighted the importance of commercial agriculture for national food security and acknowledged that “the balance of power … between the liberatory forces and the present ruling elite” would determine outcomes, thus implicitly recognizing that the ANC was not the all-powerful force its supporters wanted to believe it was.80 Land-sector NGOs and rural claimant groups were frustrated by this move to the center and demanded a Bill of Rights that would recognize the rights of people “who were forcibly removed from their land.”81

The Property Clause

The outcome of the constitutional negotiations was a property clause that is widely acknowledged as a compromise—a judicious compromise for some and a betrayal of the liberation struggle for others. The precise wording of the compromise was one of the last issues to be agreed upon in finalizing the interim constitution under which the elections of April 1994 were held. These provisional formulations were subsequently refined in section 25 of the final constitution (Act 106 of 1996), which, despite calls for its amendment, has remained intact since then. This section opens with a general provision that offers a significant guarantee to property owners: “No one may be deprived of property except in terms of law of general application, and no law may permit arbitrary deprivation of property.” Section 25(2) then shifts the focus to land reform by permitting state expropriation of property “for a public purpose or in the public interest,” with land reform specifically identified in s25(4) as in the public interest. This provision is qualified by the requirement that expropriation must be “in terms of a law of general application” and “subject to compensation.”

The issue of compensation is itself qualified by the requirement that it “must be just and equitable, reflecting an equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected”; the “circumstances” to be considered in determining this quantum include not only the market value of the property but also its current use and history.82 The remaining subsections return to land reform, directing the state to take steps “to redress the results of past racial discrimination” and identifying three specific obligations: (1) fostering equitable access to land, (2) promoting tenure security for those “whose tenure of land is legally insecure,” and (3) enacting legislation to provide for land restitution for those unjustly dispossessed of “property” after June 19, 1913.83 In this way, the parties to the constitutional negotiations acknowledged South Africa’s 20th-century history of land dispossession and endeavored to strike a balance between restitutive and redistributive justice, on the one hand, and reconciliation rather than retribution for the beneficiaries of that history, on the other.84

Of note is that the constitution did not mandate the market-led land reform policy subsequently adopted by the ANC in government, in which the “willing buyer/willing seller” principle took precedence over the option of expropriation with compensation. According to Edward Lahiff, this principle “entered the discourse on land reform gradually during the period 1993–96” and was “in line with the wider neoliberal … macroeconomic strategy adopted by the ANC in 1996.”85 In its 1997 White Paper on Land Reform Policy, the Department of Land Affairs (DLA) justified this policy choice in terms of concerns that a more radical expropriation program would impact negatively on “the land market and investment in South Africa.”86

Post-apartheid Land Reform to 2009

The primary focus of land reform during Nelson Mandela’s presidential term was on establishing the institutions and developing an overarching policy framework in order to give content to the broad constitutional mandate laid down in 1993 and 1996. The DLA interpreted this to require establishing land redistribution, tenure reform, and land restitution as three separate programs, the first two under the DLA, the latter under a separate commission, the CRLR. Tellingly for the advocates of agrarian reform, land policy was developed largely in isolation from agricultural policy. The institutionalization of land restitution was further complicated by the fact that the CRLR was financially dependent on the DLA, exacerbating debilitating internal conflicts.87 Initially, all restitution settlements were subject to the judicial oversight of the Land Claims Court, making for a particularly cumbersome process.88 The unexpected flood of urban claims also caught officials oriented toward land reform as a rural issue off guard.89 This required engaging with urban local government and complex urban dynamics, creating additional challenges.90

Ambitious time frames were laid down in this period. In 1994 the ANC set itself a target (first proposed by the World Bank in 1993) of redistributing 30 percent of white-owned agricultural land (approximately 24.5 million hectares) to black smallholders within five years.91 With regard to land restitution, the DLA’s “Draft Land Policy Principles of 1995” proposed a period of three years to lodge all claims, five years for their adjudication, and ten years for all settlement orders to be implemented.92 Soon after it took office in 1995, the CRLR set the cutoff date for the lodgment of claims as mid-1998, later extended to the end of that year. Progress toward these goals was, however, frustratingly slow. By 1999, just 41 of the more than 60,000 claims then reported as lodged had been settled (although many more were under investigation);93

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