The history of white colonial land dispossession began at the Cape with the expansion of the Dutch colonial settlement established by Jan van Riebeeck on behalf of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Initially, he was authorised to set up a refreshment station for the company’s ships, but with the need for a more sustainable source of meat and vegetable supply more land was required.
The land was seized from the Khoikhoi, and later the San, to increase Dutch grazing pastures, expand their farming activities and to establish settlements. Over time, the reduction of grazing pastures traditionally used by the Khoikhoi, as the Dutch setup farms, resulted in conflict between the two groups. Over time, the Dutch defeated the Khoikhoi and expropriated more of their land. Deprived of their livelihood, they were forced to seek employment on the farmlands of white colonial settlers.
After the British took over the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806, colonial expansion and dispossession were expanded even further into the interior. Tensions between Dutch and British forced the Voortrekkers to begin migrating from the Cape Colony in 1834 into the interior to escape British rule. Along the way they fought, seized and occupied land while dispossessing Khoikhoi, San and African communities in the process. The British in this period annexed land too, particularly in Natal (with its accessibility to the east coast port) at times claiming conquered land from the Voortrekkers. This opened up the interior of South Africa to further colonial conquest.
Conquest and land seizure were achieved through warfare complemented by dubious “treaties”, which colonists claimed were signed by chiefs or leaders of communities. African communities fought to defend and regain their lost land, but the superior weaponry and collaboration by other local communities enabled the colonists to prevail. “Native” reserves were established from as early as 1848 in Natal by Theophilus Shepstone and these became a feature of British colonization across the continent.
The explosion of the mineral revolution with the discovery of diamonds and gold gave more impetus to the colonial government to consolidate and entrench its rule. The British and Afrikaner landowners and industrialists set in motion a process that would consolidate their wealth, while excluding black people through legislative means.
Thus, resolutions, proclamations and ordinances played a key role in legitimizing systematic land dispossession and segregating South Africa. After the end of the South African War, the British and Afrikaners began working on establishing the Union of South Africa, which was accomplished in May 1910. However, black people were excluded from meaningful political participation in its formation and future of the Union.
By the formation of the Union, land dispossession had largely been accomplished and segregation was beginning to take root. The white minority state consolidated its grip passing more laws to dislodge African people, who had survived land dispossession through entering into sharecropping and tenancy in white-owned farms. The Natives Land Act passed in 1913 denied Africans access to land – which before they had either owned or leased from white farmers – confining them to reserves.
These reserves were expanded over time to become the Bantustans or Homelands under the Apartheid government. It is important to note that by the time the Land Act was enacted, South Africa was already moving in the direction of spatial segregation.
Other legislation targeting Black African and Indian people were also passed, such as the Native Trust and Land Act, Natives (Urban Areas) Act, Trading and Occupation of Land Restriction Act and the Pegging Act to name just a few. The ascendancy to power of the Apartheid government in 1948 under the National Party (NP) took land dispossession and segregation even further. The passing of the Group Areas Act, the Native Resettlement Act and the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act among other laws sparked forced removals of African, Indian and Coloured people from their areas of residence.
Historian W. J. du Plessis notes that “By the time of the advent of the new South Africa, about 17 000 statutory measures had been issued to segregate and control land division, with 14 different land control systems in South Africa.”(WJ du Plessis, African Indigenous Land Rights in a Private Ownership Paradigm, PER, 2011, Volume 14, No: 7, pp.46). This demonstrates the importance of land dispossession in creating a racially and spatially divided South Africa.
After the collapse and dismantling of Apartheid, legislation revoking laws that dispossessed people were passed and new ones were enacted. The newly elected government set in motion a process that allowed people who lost their land after 1913 to lodge claims for restitution. This was revised in January 2013 when the ANC pledged to permit land claims to the period predating 1913. Despite efforts to address the land issue, the legacy of land dispossession remains visible on the South African socio-political landscape.