South Africa 100 years of landless blacks

The Land Act of 1913 is the root of all the poverty in South Africa. Starting from 1652 when Dutch settlers landed on the southern tip of Africa, followed by the French Huguenots, then Germans, and finally the British, the lives of indigenous Africans on their own land would not be the same. One hundred years on from the Act, the blacks, still without the land, have become even poorer. Pusch Commey reports

M.N.SPIES; 19. The affects of the 1913 Land Act
Once successful farmers, the black people of South Africa were gradually reduced to low-wage labourers over the centuries as the new settlers from Europe, basically the Dutch, the French Huguenots, the Germans, and the British dispossessed them of their land via the obnoxious Land Act of 1913. One hundred years later, another dramatic Land Act (of 19 June 2013) was promulgated by a black majority government to mark the centenary of the notorious 1913 Act.
The motivation would always be money. The more powerful British waged war on the other white factions in 1899 over land and resources, when the southern tip of Africa proved to be rich in diamonds and gold.
When the Anglo/Boer war came to an end in 1902, the victorious British made peace with their fellow Europeans, now culturally fused to become Afrikaners (Dutch, Germans and French Huguenots). The 1910 South African Act brought into being the Union of South Africa, and then followed the Land Act that eventually allocated 13% of the barren portion of African land to Africans. The Europeans took by force 87% of rich areas. The destruction of African capital formation, and the stunting of their development, has had a lingering inter-generational effect, made worse when oppression was couched in legality with the coming into power of Afrikaners in 1948, and the institution of apartheid. The land and its resources were subsequently used as capital to enrich and empower one group, as well as exploit and oppress another, all justified with false religious interpretations and philosophies. The question now is, what are Africans doing about it, after political liberation?
The gini co-efficient in South Africa is 0.70, making it the most unequal country in the world, mostly drawn along racial lines. Unofficial unemployment stands at about 40%, while 40% of the populace rely on government grants and handouts to survive.
A poverty culture, bred along the way, means a majority of the populace have psychologically settled for low life. Most are still unskilled low-wage labourers. Others have resorted to crime to make the break. Thus, African capital is scarce in a neo-liberal environment foisted on them after a negotiated settlement in 1994, and embodied in the country’s Constitution.
The Constitution
On the crucial land issue, the final Constitution of 1996 emanating from the relevant Section (28) in the interim Constitution reads as follows:
1. Every person shall have the right to acquire and hold rights in property and, to the extent that the nature of the rights permit, to dispose of such rights.
2. No deprivation of any rights in property shall be permitted otherwise than in accordance with law.
3. Where any rights in property are expropriated pursuant to a law referred to in subsection (2), such expropriation shall be permissible for public purposes only and shall be subject to the payment of agreed compensation or, failing agreement, to the payment of such compensation and within such period as may be determined by a court of law as just and equitable, taking into account all relevant factors, including, in the case of the determination of compensation, the use to which the property is being put, the history of its acquisition, its market value, the value of the investment in it by those affected and the interests of those affected.
It is widely accepted that Section 28 represented a compromise between the ANC and the now defunct National Party during the transition to democratic rule 20 years ago. Its interpretation has given rise to what is known as the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle.
In 1996, two years after the end of apartheid, some 60,000 white commercial farmers owned almost 70% of agricultural land and leased a further 19%. The ANC pledged to redistribute 30% of white-owned agricultural land to black farmers by 1999, and to restore property lost as a result of racist legislation.
BBC File image, protest by Landless People of Gauteng, an NGO fighting for a change
But by 2012, only 7.95 million hectares had been transferred, just about a third of the 24.6 million hectares originally targeted. An estimated US$3.2 billion was spent on the land reform programme between 1994 and 2013.
The blame has been pinned on the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle. Landowners have been reluctant to sell. Collusion and corruption between sellers, land valuers, and government officials have inflated market prices.
It is now generally acknowledged that the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy has failed. So the government has made an about-turn, pinning its hopes on expropriation with “just and equitable” compensation, as is sanctioned by the Constitution.
A new Expropriation Bill, the introduction of land ceilings and the creation of a Valuer General, is expected to speed up land transfers and prevent the inflation of land prices. But under a neo-liberal rule of law, expect lengthy, frustrating legal challenges, as was the case in Zimbabwe.
Rural issues
A good article on rural issues in opines: “Successive administrations in Pretoria have equated national food security with large-scale commercial farming – a sector dominated by white South Africans. The potential for millions of black smallholders to increase production, raise incomes and create much needed jobs has been overlooked.
“This was the bedrock of agricultural transformation which fuelled the rapid economic growth of most Southeast Asian economies. In South Africa, the government has prioritised grafting [and] redistributed land onto existing commercial units. Much of this land has been deemed ‘no longer productive’.”
Who owns what?
Between 2006 and 2012, the number of South Africans employed in agriculture fell from 1.09 million to 661,000. Rural unemployment stands at 52%, twice the national average. Acute poverty is rife in rural areas.
During a recent budget debate in the South African parliament, an outgoing Freedom Front Plus MP, Pieter Groenewald, warned the government that “whipping up emotions” about land reform threatens to create a “Zimbabwe situation”. Gugile Nkwinti, Minister in the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (RDLR), responded disarmingly by calling the comparison with Robert Mugabe an “honour”.
Up until the 100th anniversary of the Land Act of 1913, the government was not even sure of who owned what. It was often heard from the white sector that the government owned most of the land and should redistribute that land instead of expropriation. So the government decided to do some stocktaking by conducting a land audit. It was the first. The results have been revealing.
The land mass of South Africa is 122 million hectares. Of this the State owns 17 million hectares or 14%. It includes the sites on which 192,000 low-cost houses for the poor have been built, as the government is still the registered owner of these properties.
There was a physical inspection of 1.15 million pieces of land throughout the country between October 2011 and March 2013. A good 79% of the land is in the hands of private individuals and organisations, while the audit was unable to establish who owned 8.3% of the land. The 79% is overwhelmingly owned by 9% whites.
A large part of black ownership is in the Kwazulu-Natal Province, where Ingonyama Trust, which made the Zulu King the trustee of vast tracts of communal land, was orchestrated by the apartheid government to placate the restive Zulus. Even then, the apartheid government cherry-picked rich areas from it for whites: mineral resources, coastal resorts and holiday beaches, as well as marine resources and many more.
Political urgency
Civil societies that have risen up on the back of the land question, like the Landless Peoples Movement of the last decade, have fallen by the roadside. Deep-rooted African political parties with illustrious histories like the Pan African Congress (PAC) and AZAPO have followed suit, due mainly to a lack of funds. Or alternatively the parties are co-opted and picked apart by the resource-rich.
Maureen Mnisi (centre) of the Landless People’s Movement in her shack in Soweto.
A good example of this is the previously staunch PAC stalwart, Patricia De Lille, who formed her own political party and was subsequently picked up by the white-dominated Democratic Alliance. She now sits comfortably as the mayor of Cape Town, with the land issue the least of her priorities.
Now, with the jolt of the centenary of the 1913 Land Act, and with the deadline of 30% transfer of agricultural land by 2014 coming up fast, there seems to be some political urgency. More so when the election day of reckoning cometh, with new political formations seeking to exploit the issue. New legislation – the Expropriation Bill, Restitution Amendment Bill and Valuation Bill – now seems to be the game-changer. The stakes have risen with a volatile economic environment peppered with industrial unrest “not seen since the days of apartheid”.
At the end of May 2013, the World Bank slashed South Africa’s growth forecast for the current year from 3.2% to 2.5%. A Business Day editorial had the headline: “South Africa approaches tipping point”.
The ANC has undertaken to create a million agriculture-related jobs by 2030, suggesting that it is beginning to recognise a real opportunity in agriculture as a means of employment and poverty alleviation. The success of the Zimbabwean land reform project is a precedent.
Will the blacks mess it up?
There is a psychological fear among blacks that somehow they will starve if change comes. And that somehow they are incapable of making use of the resources that come with land. The threat has always been the capital flight of black resources, now owned by whites, that were forcibly taken away from them, and their powerlessness to prevent it. And of course, they are afraid of the punishment that will be inflicted by the white kith and kin in faraway Europe that shares in these blood proceeds. There is a palpable fear of a collapse of the economy and the international media trumpeting, “Will it go the way of Zimbabwe?” But there is always a price to pay for long-lasting changes, and the question is should an African child succeed his parents as a labourer on his own land till kingdom come.
Zimbabwean couple couple amongst their maize crops
The decision has to be made when they are going to pay the price for change. As President Barack Obama once pointed out, power does not give without a fight. And as political freedom in South Africa would never have happened without a fight, so will economic freedom. And as it happens, any change is a threat to others. Some in the white world are genuine Africans at heart, keen on inclusivity and redress. After all, successful countries are inclusive.
Many whites have successfully gone out into the continent. Others see change as a zero sum game, with delusions of white superiority and the myth of being the only ones who can make things happen.
The salutary success of the Zimbabwean land reform project, and the contestation of great African entrepreneurs, however, exposes the myth. When the richest black man and African in the world, worth over $12 billion (an indigenous Nigerian whose wealth emanated from his home country) is not a white African or African-American, then it is time to think again.
And when the richest man who ever lived, Emperor Mansa Musa of Mali in the 14th century, was African, then it is time to think again. It is time to rethink the question of land, resources, governance, education, skills, knowledge, innovation, the formation of real African capital, African empowerment, and its rigorous defence.
By Advocate James Pusch Commey


  1. South Africa was never free,a sham government was setup with the release of Nelson Mandela. The past crimes of the whites was forgiven by the so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission,the whites kept the gold and land that they stole. There has been no reparation and the people continue to live in poverty. Until there is a new Azania and the land and the wealth is in the hands of the indigenous people, there will be no freedom. Send the French,the British,the Dutch,the Germans and any other European invaders back to European…. or bury them in the land they stole.

  2. Thanks a great Article. It is not only in South Africa and in Africa such laws were passed. In most of the land in British-Indian Colonies were alienated from the natives and given to Indians at that time. Examples are Fiji, Mauritius, Burma, Ceylon, Guyana in fact all British Dominions in the Tropics. Now those who went to those countries are filthy rich. Look an Indians in Africa; did the bring a penny?

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