Is Minister Thoko Didiza responding effectively and doing Justice to Sol Plaatjie and Sefako Makgatho’s displeasure and anger on the Land Question? Asks Mphumzi Mdekazi


By: Mphumzi Mdekazi

One of the main problems that confronted the new government in 1994 was that Africans in three provinces were still engaging in semi feudal production activities. Consequently, not enough Africans were prepared to become wage labourers in the mines and on farms at the wages offered. History tells us that, Botha and Smut’s South African Party (SAP) and the unionists who represented financial and mining interests largely agreed on the issue of a “native policy”. As a result, in an effort to solve the labour problems of the gold mining industry and maize farmers, the Union parliament passed the Native Land Act in 1913. This Act was based on an “ideal formula” aimed at simultaneously satisfying the demands of both white famers and the mining industry. It stipulated that Africans could no longer own land outside the “native reserves”, which made up 8,3 per cent of South African territory. The purpose was to allay the fears of white farmers-especially in the Transvaal and Orange Freestate (OFS)-about the amount of land purchased by Africans, and to protect them against the competition of successful African peasants (see Bundy 1988:213-14). The Act also stipulated that white farmers could employ pass-carrying Africans outside the “native reserves”, while the Chamber of Mines (CM) was given the right to recruit migrant labourers in the reserves and in high commission areas. (i.e. the then Bechuanaland, Swaziland, and Basotholand).

The Land Act was extraordinarily successful in proletarianising the great majority of Africans and creating large reservoirs of cheap and docile African labour for white farmers and mining industry. It was truly the rock on which not only the political alliance between a section of Afrikaner farming elite and the British/English business elite was built, but also on which the ultra-exploitative system of racial capitalism was built and maintained until the 1970s. In 1905, after an exhaustive investigation, the South African Native Affairs Commission (SANAC) concluded that South Africa’s mines, farms and industries were short of about 300 000 workers.

To explain the lack of African labour the Commission gave specific attention to the anthropological and cultural peculiarities of Africans. It assumed that, because of their traditional attitudes, their supposed undisciplined nature and their attachment to extended families, Africans would always remain marginal participants in the economy. The Commission concluded that Africans would stay in white areas for short periods only and that their families would continue to be based in the “native reserves”. SANAC also concluded that higher wages for Africans would not end the labour shortages, because they would merely shorten African’s temporary sojourn in white areas. On the basis strength of these dubious assumptions and conclusions, SANAC recommended that African’s access to land in tribal and white areas should be drastically curtailed, thus inducing adequate numbers to become wage labourers (see Legassick, in Beinart and Dubow 1995: 48). The Land Act authorized the (CM) to recruit migrant labour in the “native areas” and also entrenched the principle of migrant labour based on subsistence in the rural areas.

The fact that the African “reserves” and foreign southern African countries originally bore part of the cost of gold production made it possible for the gold industry to create an extremely successful system of plundering, not only African men but also African land (Wolpe, in Beinart and Dubow 1995: ch 3; Cell 1982: ch 8). Under the Land Act, more than a million Africans were abruptly proletarianised. At that stage, the African population was about 5 million. The structural domination of whites over blacks created by the Land Act is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the real wages of African workers in mining and in agriculture did not increase between 1910 and 1972. The justification below average wage bare subsistence level was that whites were merely supplementing African’s basic economic life in the “native reserves”.

The Land Act also stipulated that Africans could not be involved in share-cropping, tenant farming and squatter farming in “white South Africa”. Although it took decades to fully implement this provision, it was an enormous setback for the economic independence of many Africans. When the Land Act was promulgated, share-cropping and “kaffir faming” were still the dominant relationships of production in many farms in the maize triangle. The Act also laid down that all African tenants (and not only contracted wage earners) in OFS, although not elsewhere, would be defined as servants under the Masters and Servants Act, and therefore guilty of a criminal offence if they broke their contracts. In the Transvaal, parts of OFS and Natal, African tenants continued to live on land owned by large companies. The Land Act enabled farmers on the Highveld to destroy share-cropping and to change rent tenants into labour tenants. But took the best part of 50 years before more or less all Africans on white farms were forced into the wage-earning proletariat (see Morris 1976:334-8).

In assessing the struggle between white landowners and the African tenantry in the 50 years after the promulgation of the Land Act, the support given by the Union government to maize farmers should not be underestimated. Apart from the “legal assault” on the independence of the tenantry, the government tried to strengthen the economic position of maize farmers by adopting a series of “farm” acts and large-scale subsidies, mainly financed with tax revenue from the gold mines.

According to Legassick, the Union parliament enacted 87 bills relating to land between 1910 and 1935. The railway system was also developed in a way that benefited agriculture at the expense of the rest of the economy.

The land bank was established in 1912 to provide white farmers with both short-term loans for crop harvesting and long term loans for capital improvements. This policy culminated in the Marketing Act of 1937, whereby the marketing of the bulk of South Africa’s farm produce were brought under the control of a series of producer-friendly control boards. By depriving African farmers much of their land and ending share cropping and tenant farming on white owned land (if not immediately, then in due course), an important agricultural and entrepreneurial tradition and store of indigenous farming knowledge were destroyed. It is difficult to determine the value of this tradition, but it was probably considerable, because it was well adapted to South Africa’s weather, land and labour peculiarities. If this African agricultural tradition had not been destroyed, but given more or less the same government support (both financially and technologically) given to white farmers, South Africa’s agricultural and economic history could have been radically different.

The South African Native National Congress (later the ANC) was founded in 1912 to protest against the disenfranchisement of Africans by the Act of Westminster. Soon after its foundation the ANC found that the passage of the Native Land Act necessitated a national protest campaign. Sol Plaatjie wrote that the Act made the South African black “not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth”. During World War 1, the ANC refrained from criticizing the act. In 1916, in testimony before Beaumont commission on the act, the leader of the Congress in the Transvaal, S M Makgatho described it as “fraught with the most momentous issues, as it infringes upon the common rights of the people (which were) recognized as resting upon the elementary principle of justice and humanity which are the heritage of a free people” (quoted in Rich 1996:18).

The question is: Does anyone know what is Minister Thoko Didiza doing in addressing both Sol Plaatjie and Sefako Makgatho’s displeasure and anger on the legacy of 1913 Land Act?

*Mphumzi Mdekazi (PhD Student at Stellenbosch University).