FW de Klerk Foundation on anniversary of 1913 Land Act

On this day we should remember the suffering that land dispossession has caused generations of black South Africans (June 18)


19 June 2013 will rightly be commemorated as a key point in the dismal story of the dispossession of the land of the black population of South Africa.

The process began in 1652 with the first settlement of the Cape by the Dutch East India Company. Despite Jan van Riebeeck's instructions to live in amity with the Khoi Khoi population of the Cape, the rapid expansion of the settlement soon led to conflict over land.

When the Dutch asked the Khoi Khoi to relocate because their proximity to the colony disturbed the Dutch settlers, their leader, Autshumato, told Van Riebeeck that "this is our land - not yours. We will place our huts wherever we choose, and if you are not disposed to permit us to do so, we will attack and kill you with the aid of many people from the interior." He later asked Van Riebeeck, "If the country is too small, who has the greater right, the true owner or the foreign intruder?"  

During the 19th century British domination was extended throughout the region: in 1871 Britain annexed the diamond fields of the northern Cape; by 1887 it had incorporated Zululand; by 1894 it had completed the annexation of the Transkei. Finally, in 1900 during the Anglo-Boer War, the two Boer Republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were annexed.

So, at the beginning of the 20th century, the British found themselves in possession of a ragbag of territories in Southern Africa - most of which were troublesome - and few of which were profitable. What to do with them? The solution was to set up a union or federation - as they had successfully done with their colonies in Canada and Australia. In 1908 they convened a National Convention and in 1910 the Union of South Africa was born. Whether or not it was conceived in sin the new country signalled the birth of South Africa as we know it today.

One of the most notable facets of the new Union's constitution was its failure to protect the rights of black, coloured and Indian South Africans. As Keir Hardie, the Scottish Socialist leader, observed during the debate in Britain on the South Africa Act, the purpose of the Act was "to unify the white races, to disenfranchise the coloured races and not to promote union between the races of South Africa". His observation was accurate: everything in the new dispensation was geared to accommodating, and reconciling, the interests of the white groups - and to the protection of white economic interests. 

This included land.

In 1913 the Union Parliament adopted the Native Land Act, the centenary of which we commemorate on 19 June 2013. It had three main consequences:

  • It prohibited blacks and whites from purchasing, renting or otherwise acquiring any land outside their respective scheduled areas;
  • it excluded the Cape Colony from the provisions of the Act; and 
  • it restricted share-cropping practiced by black farmers - particularly in the Orange Free State.

The latter provision caused particular hardship and suffering. It moved the black intellectual leader, Solomon Plaatje to comment bitterly: "You see your countrymen and countrywomen driven from home, their homes broken up with no hope of redress - you would, I think, likewise find it difficult to maintain a level head or wield a temperate pen."

The 1913 Native Land Act was the culmination of more than a century of dispossession. It left black South Africans with little more than eight percent of the surface of the country and with little apparent hope of improving their situation. In 1936 additional land was allocated to black South Africans - but it still comprised only 13.7% of the total.

Little wonder, therefore, that the 1913 Act remains such an emotional issue for so many black South Africans. Their indignation was expressed in the introduction to the 2011 Green Paper on Land Reform. It provided a historic analysis of colonialists who turned blacks into "vassals and slaves"; of the "brutalisation" of African people by colonialism and apartheid; and of "the systematic denudation and impoverishment of African people..."

It was in recognition of these past injustices that all the parties that negotiated our new Constitution accepted the need for genuine redress on the land question. In particular, they agreed that there should be a process of restitution. According to section 25(7) "A person or a community dispossessed of property after 19 June 1913 as a result of past racially discriminatory laws or practices is entitled, to the extent provided by an Act of Parliament, either to restitution of that property or to equitable redress." 

Secondly, there would be a process of land reform. It was agreed that land could be expropriated in the public interest - and that the public interest included "the nation's commitment to land reform..." The Constitution also requires that expropriation must be "just and equitable, reflecting an equitable balance between the public interest and the interest of those affected..."

For whatever reason, progress with land reform has been disappointing. The challenge for all South Africans on the centenary of the 1913 Native Land Act is to work together for a land reform process that takes into account the bitter history of dispossession but that is fair and equitable to all those affected. In so doing we should bear the following factors in mind:

  • Questions of land dispossession create complex challenges throughout the world (especially in North and South America and Australasia);
  • there are often widely differing perceptions of land rights between populations with different traditions and systems of law. Land was often acquired in treaty or purchase transactions that were valid in terms of European law - but which often had little or no meaning in terms of indigenous customs;
  • after the passage of time, and sometimes of centuries, descendants of settlers often established bona fide rights to land which they had developed. Their descendants also feel strong emotional ties to their land; 
  • five percent of agricultural land comes onto the market every year - so there should be more than enough land available for land reform purposes;
  • a substantial proportion of the total land in South Africa has changed hands since 1994 within the non-racial framework of our new society;
  • organised agriculture is willing and able to work with government to achieve a successful land reform process; 
  • it is essential that land that is transferred within the framework of land reform should remain in production; and that
  • land reform must take place in accordance with the Constitution. 

On this day we should remember the suffering that land dispossession has caused generations of black South Africans - and we should all commit ourselves to work for land reform that is based on equity and justice for all.

Statement issued by the FW de Klerk Foundation, June 19 2013

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