Tracing footprints of land dispossession in SA


THE history of land dispossession in South Africa and the manner in which European colonial settlers accumulated capital and land for their own well-being at the expense of the indigenous people laid the foundations of  indigenous land reclamation.

Following the colonial conquest of SA, the dispossession of land, the deliberate process of coercing Africans into the economy and the subsequent creation of the Bantustans onto which the majority of indigenous people were forced to live, left an indelible mark on the lives of the population of that country that still endures today.

The ravages of the migrant labour system and the pass laws; the overcrowding and underdevelopment and poor soil quality in the marginalised lands in these Bantustans, compounded by lack of resources, landlessness and land hunger, were some of the problems that confronted SA at independence. 

As in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in colonial Africa, the racially skewed land distribution in SA, for most of the 20th Century, actively sustained the development of the white settlers’ commercial agriculture and capitalist profiteering through measures such as eliminating independent African production and restricting access to land in small communal reserves — designated solely for African occupation, mainly as reservoirs of cheap and largely male labour as well as dumping grounds for women, children and the elderly deemed surplus to their economic labour needs. 

The most momentous instrument used by the apartheid settler-regime to establish and enforce its policy of racial segregation was legislative intervention to limit the indigenous majority’s ownership of land, especially agricultural land, through the limitation of land ownership, whereby the then government confined the majority of the population to a few homelands in which ownership was only permitted. 

The then National Party Government’s strategy, of territorial segregation, population resettlement and political exclusion was founded on a history of conquest and dispossession, enforced through oppressive South African land laws that were employed to entrench the political ideology of racial segregation by means of spatial separation of race groups, thereby creating a controversial body of statutory apartheid laws.

The first of these racially-based segregation laws was the Natives Land Act 27 of 1913 that established the foundation for apartheid and territorial segregation and, for the first time, formalised limitations on black land ownership and introduced ethnic differences based on the misguided belief that differentiation between dissimilar races was fundamentally desirable. 

According to Section 1(1) of the Act: “A native shall not enter into any agreement or transaction for the purchase, hire, or other acquisition from a person other than a native, of any such land or of any right thereto, interest therein, or servitude thereover; and a person other than a native shall not enter into any agreement or transaction for the purchase, hire, or other acquisition from a native of any such land or of any right thereto, interest therein, or servitude thereover, except with the approval of the Governor-General.”

The aim of the Act was further strengthened by Section 1(2) of the Act, which stated: “From and after the commencement of this Act, no person other than a native shall purchase, hire or in any other manner whatever acquire any land in a scheduled native area or enter into any agreement or transaction for the purchase, hire or other acquisition, direct or indirect, of any such land or of any right thereto or interest therein or servitude thereover… except with the approval of the Governor-General.” 

This legislation, based on racial segregation, was singled out in the redistribution programme as the effective starting point for apartheid. Under the Act, an estimated eight percent of South African land was reserved exclusively for indigenous South African people.

Furthermore, the Act prohibited sharecropping contracts between white landowners and indigenous farmers, resulting in many of them losing a substantial portion of their income, which in turn resulted in further economic hardship. 

Natives Land Act 27 of 1913 represented the first step in achieving racially-based segregation; a system furthered through the Native Trust and Land Act 18 of 1936 which made provision for the establishment of the South African Native Trust; a state agency to administer trust land “…to be administered for the settlement, support, benefit, and material welfare of the natives of the Union.”

The Act stripped indigenous South Africans of their right to own land or even to live outside demarcated areas without proper authorisation by the relevant authorities. 

The Native Trust and Land Act was an important instrument used by the then government to facilitate its policy of racial segregation that furthered the objective of racial segregation, and which eventually necessitated the need for land reform.

This Act was followed by The Group Areas Act of 1950. It created ‘reserves’ for indigenous people, described as the ‘second wave’ of evictions used to forcibly remove indigenous (Bantu), coloured and Indian people from designated ‘white only areas’.  

The Group Areas Act of 1966, which complemented the Group Areas Act of 1950, aimed to consolidate the law relating to the establishment of group areas and to regulate the control of the acquisition of immovable property and the occupation of land and premises. 

Comparable to the Group Areas Act of 1950, it established three groups for the purposes of the Act — white, Bantu and coloured groups. Based on the creation of these groups, the Act made provision for the establishment of group areas designated for the exclusive use and ownership of members of a particular group.

Certain areas of land, including land identified in the Natives Land Act, were transferred to, and administered by, the South African Native Trust Fund empowered to acquire land for native settlement. This, however, increased the eight percent of land reserved by the Natives Land Act to 13percent, where 80 percent of the indigenous population was confined.

Estimates show that between 1960 and 1983, as a result of the various legislative Acts, approximately 3,5 million people were forcibly removed from their land of origin.  

This resulted in extremely skewed land ownership and land use patterns, where the majority of disadvantaged indigenous South Africans could not own any of the productive agricultural land. 

The need for a comprehensive land reform programme was inevitable.

After independence in 1995, one of the earliest challenges faced by Nelson Mandela’s first democratically-elected Government, was to address the unequal land distribution in the country. 

His government initiated a comprehensive land reform programme, with a solid constitutional basis, consisting of three pillars, namely restitution, land redistribution and security of tenure, through the adoption of a new South African Constitution in order to: “…Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights….”

Section 25(5) of the Constitution, the second pillar of land reform, is commonly referred to as the land redistribution programme, whereby the state is under the constitutional duty to take: “… reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis.”

Section 25(6) of the Constitution addresses security of tenure and states that: “A person or community whose tenure of land is legally insecure as a result of past racially discriminatory laws or practices is entitled, to the extent provided by an Act of Parliament, either to tenure which is legally secure or to comparable redress.”

Section 25(7) of the Constitution is the basis for the land restitution programme, which states: “A person or 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.” 

As a result of these constitutional obligations, the South African Government embarked on an ambitious land reform programme aimed at redistributing 30 percent of white-owned commercial agricultural land by 2014 to indigenous South Africans and settling all claims for redistribution; which by 2005, amounted to almost 80 000 claims. 

To date, land claims have still not been settled; the state has redistributed less than 10 percent of its initial target. While the slow pace of the land reform programme is currently being criticised and lamented, it is reported that more than 

90 percent of the agricultural land already transferred in terms of the land reform programme is not being productively utilised, contributing to increasing levels of poverty and unemployment among those beneficiaries of land reform and threatening the country’s food security. 

Further compounding the crisis are recent calls by some politicians inciting indigenous landless South Africans to occupy (some say illegally) land belonging to white farmers, creating a potentially explosive situation.

Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail:


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