Growing Pains: Spare a thought for the black farmer of 1913

2014-07-14 15:00

Many years ago, a young farmer and his new wife had to move house quite suddenly.

Although they had no idea where they would go, they loaded up as many of their belongings as they could, along with some of their livestock.

They knew they would not get much for their cattle and goats in a rushed sale.

The trip was long and many of the animals did not make it. They were in such a hurry they left the dead animals on the road and kept on moving.

Winter was a bad time for their already sickly newborn baby to be travelling. With each passing night, the infant became more frail. The distraught couple couldn’t go to a doctor; it was too dangerous.

Days later, the baby went limp and cold. Her parents were inconsolable. As heartbroken and confused as any parent would be after losing a baby, they had an even worse dilemma: where would they bury their little one?

Under the cover of night, they crept up an embankment next to the road they were travelling on and dug a little grave. They hurriedly put the body in it, rushed a prayer and, crying silently, returned to their wagon.

If they had been caught, they too could have died. Since the day they left their farm, stepping on any land in their area could have landed them in jail.

That was June 30 1913, 10 days after the promulgation of the infamous Natives Land Act.

The farmer, a black sharecropper called Kgobadi, had been earning roughly £100 a year selling his surplus crop. This is the modern-day equivalent of about R10?000 a month, after everyone has eaten.

After the act took effect, the white baas who now owned the land offered him 30 shillings (roughly R1?500 a month) to work. Kgobadi refused and was run off the land he and his ancestors had lived and worked on for years.

This story, told by Sol Plaatje, was typical of the plight of black families at the time. The law managed to stop black people from being self-sufficient and even economically active.

The law also meant that white farmers and miners now had a pool of cheap black labour – the labour that subsequently built the South Africa we live in today.

The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill was signed into law late last month to undo some of the damage wrought by the Natives Land Act.

It pretty much fixes the first Restitution of Land Rights Act passed in 1994, attempting to deal with the huge backlog of land claims still outstanding.

It tries to go back further than 1913, deal with the huge cost of restitution as each piece of land claimed has to be bought by government and lets traditional leaders claim it back on behalf of their tribes or clans.

It is a step in the right direction.

But we should also ask why government should pay for this land; more importantly if the idea of private land ownership is something we want to cling to.

Private land ownership and secure tenure for land use remain conflated in South Africa to the benefit of the grandsons and daughters of the white people empowered by cruel and racist legislation.

The wonderful tale of the land beneath the mammoth Waterfall Office Park project in Midrand is telling. First given to a Joburg family by Paul Kruger and then put into trust for and on behalf of God, the land remains in God’s hands even as it attracts private investment.

Secure tenure and a nice location have ensured that almost all phases are sold out.

We must also ask that the other effects of the Natives Land Act – like the migrant labour system, indentured slavery and the lack of property rights for black people – are also dealt with legislatively.

We should not just spare a thought for Kgobadi the farmer, but for his daughter the commodities trader and his grandson the property developer who never were.

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