The big land question: A century of stolen dreams

2013-06-23 14:00

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Reversing structural inequalities produced by the Land Act must involve far more than only land redistribution, writes Ruth Hall

The promulgation of the Natives Land Act of 1913 is an infamous moment in South Africa’s history, and its many unwanted legacies remain with us.

Of course, land dispossession far preceded the act, which was, in many respects, the culmination and confirmation of dispossession that had been under way in parts of the country, in the Cape Colony at least, for several centuries.

The act created native reserves on about 7% of the country’s land (extended to 13% in 1936). It laid the foundation for segregation and apartheid through most of the rest of the century.

Though the act (by then renamed the Black Land Act) was repealed in 1991, along with the Group Areas Act and other land laws, and the Bantustan governments were dismantled, the imprints of this profoundly unjust set of laws are still everywhere to be seen.

So what are the primary legacies of the act today? I argue that there are four:

»?First is the material legacy of rural poverty and inequality.

The act created two distinct countrysides: the deep poverty and underdevelopment in the ex-Bantustans, which represent about 13% of South Africa and are home to 16?million people – a third of South Africa’s population – and on the other, the development of successful capitalist farming in the former, white-dominated South Africa, made possible not only by dispossession but also by cheap farm labour and decades of politically motivated production and export subsidies, price controls, regulated marketing through state control boards and trade protection.

Maps showing “multiple indices of deprivation” based on 2007 census data show that regions of most extreme deprivation across these variables correlate almost perfectly with the former boundaries of the Bantustans.

So while the boundaries were dismantled with the repealing of the Land Act in 1991, the structure has not. Economically, the Bantustan system is intact.

»?Second is a displaced legacy of urban poverty and inequality. The legacy of this act is not purely rural. Over the years, many of the people themselves, their livelihoods, and a vast proportion of the wealth their dispossession enabled, have urbanised.

A child growing up in poverty in Khayelitsha may be a victim of the act as much as a child growing up in poverty in Lusikisiki or a child growing up in poverty on a white-owned farm in the Natal Midlands.

And the wealth of the cities, of the mining, industrial and technological hubs, is as much the product of the labour reserves and cheap migrant labour as the commercial farms. Now, much of the capital accumulated on farms, factories and mines is either sitting in the stock exchange or has left the country.

Yes, wealth is still evident in the rich countryside, but it is a mistake to consider the land itself, the symbol of dispossession and accumulation, as holding in totality the key to the reversal.

In thinking about the idea of “reversing” the legacies of the act, I think we should remain aware that this is not a simple matter either of restoring the land, or some kind of turning back of the clock. The legacy itself must be displaced.

»?Third is a social and spiritual legacy of division, alienation and invisibility. Forced removals involved not only the loss of land, homes and livestock, but the breaking of communities, the splitting up of families and the erasing of histories.

Anthropologists report on how claimants who got cash compensation talk of the pain of there being no recognition of what happened – including among farm owners, suburban dwellers and others who occupy land that was once theirs. They have not met.

There is no physical memorial of what was lost. There was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission on land. Although it aims to create “reconciled” communities, in the restitution process there are no perpetrators or beneficiaries, only victims.

What about those who benefited from dispossession – those white (and corporate) owners who obtained land cheaply from the previous government and may have developed it by using public subsidies and cheap labour? Do they not have any responsibility in the restitution process?

»?Fourth is a political legacy of dual systems of governance and authority. This is where points of friction have arisen between tradition, custom and constitutional rights.

Instead of dismantling the top-down Bantu authorities, rural governance in the ex-Bantustans is being retraditionalised.

The relatively recent Traditional Leadership Framework Governance Act created “traditional councils” with authority to appoint traditional leaders.

The Communal Land Rights Act (now struck down as unconstitutional) proposed to transfer private ownership of the land to traditional councils.

The Traditional Courts Bill now proposes that they acquire powers not only to make the law and implement it, but also to adjudicate it through traditional courts, which would have the power to remove people’s land rights as a form of punishment.

These provisions only apply to people living in the ex-Bantustans who, according to the state, should live by “custom”. So not only are the economic structures of the Bantustans intact, but forms of governance different from the civil rights that prevail in the rest of the country remain in place, within the borders of the former reserves.

Writing this, I am at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, waiting for the government-hosted gala dinner to begin to mark the centenary of the Natives Land Act, which came into force a century ago.

As Sol Plaatje said: “Awakening on Friday morning, June 20 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

There is still a long road to go to reverse the legacy the act created. Land reform is a central part of it, but it is not the only one.

All the signs are that the reversal, like the past century, will be one of struggle.

»?Ruth Hall is an associate professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.