1913 Land Act: images of loss


Kasianyane Maine, ‘Ou Kas’ as he was affectionately and respectfully known, takes his cattle out to graze in the early morning at Ledig, near Sun City. 1980. (Image: David Goldblatt)

Lesego Makganye on part of the land used for crops, Braklaagte, North West. Braklaagte is a community near Zeerust that was resisting incorporation into the Bophuthatswana bantustan. 1986.
(Image: Gille de Vlieg)

Leigh Blanckenberg
Education Curator, Wits Art Museum
+27 11 717 1378

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In 1913 law-abiding people were dispossessed of their only means of earning a living: land. The Natives Land Act of 1913 forced millions of black South Africans from productive farms across the country, when their cattle, their homes, their crops and their possessions, were taken from them.

This year marks 100 years since the act was passed. The Wits Art Museum or WAM in Johannesburg, Gauteng, is holding a photographic exhibition entitled Umhlaba 1913-2003: commemorating the 1913 Land Act, on until 10 November. Umhlaba means “the land” in Zulu.

Photographers exhibiting include some of the country’s finest: David Goldblatt, Paul Weinberg, Santu Mofokeng, Peter Magubane, and Ernest Cole. Work by more than 30 photographers brings the struggles over land, child labour and forced removals poignantly alive in stark shades of black and white.

“The 100-year commemoration of the Land Act provides an unparalleled opportunity to experience the stories of land in South Africa in ways that have not been told before,” reads a press statement from WAM.

The mostly black and white photographs tell a graphic story – of people loading up their possessions on carts and wagons, harnessing their cattle, sheep and horses, and moving off land that several generations had farmed.

Around 7% of land was then relegated to black people, spread along the eastern coastal area, from East London in the Eastern Cape province, upwards, to the border with Mozambique, and spots of land in the Limpopo and North West provinces.

Prior to the act, most of these black farmers were tenants on white farms, ploughing a portion of land given to them, and giving up to 50% of the harvest to the landlord, to pay for their tenancy. Now the act prohibited them from hiring or buying land. The landlord-tenant relationship was deemed a criminal offence, for which farmers could be fined £100, a considerable sum in those days. The black tenants would be then given a stark option: become the farmer’s paid servants, or leave the farm.

Native Life in South Africa

Sol Plaatje, in his 1916 book, Native Life in South Africa, before and since the European War and the Boer Rebellion, describes the disruption to people’s lives after the act was passed. Plaatje, born in the Free State province in 1874, was a journalist and writer, and one of the co-founders of the African National Congress in 1912. He could speak six African languages, in addition to English, Dutch and German, and translated two of Shakespeare’s plays into Setswana. He wrote a novel, entitled Mhudi, and published books of Tswana folktales and proverbs.

Plaatje writes that the law “makes it illegal for natives to live on farms except as servants in the employ of Europeans”. It didn’t end there. Black people were also not allowed to live in a municipal area or own property in urban areas. “He can only live in town as a servant in the employ of a European.”

Europeans were considered to be any white person, originally settlers from Europe. The act in effect reduced blacks’ land ownership to just 7%, in an area they had settled some 1 500 years before. The pastoral Khoi and hunter/gatherer Bushmen, the first people of South Africa, dating back some 40 000 years, were the first to be squeezed off their land by the early colonists, becoming servants to them, or worse, being shot and killed like game. Europeans colonised the country from 1652, starting with the Hollander Jan van Riebeeck establishing a refreshment station for ships travelling to the east at Cape Town.

By the late 1700s the first trekboers, or Dutch farmers, started moving beyond the colony borders, into the Eastern Cape and the Free State. By the 1830s they had moved with their cattle into the Transvaal, now Gauteng province, and KwaZulu-Natal. By 1850 the Boers had demarcated the north-east of the country for themselves, forcing blacks into “native reserves”, smaller and smaller portions of the land. Others were allowed to keep smallholdings on a white farmer’s land, paying 50% of their crops over to the landlord.

Over the next 150 years blacks were forced, through poll and hut taxes, to leave the land and become servants and labourers. When gold was discovered in Johannesburg in 1886 thousands of labourers were required, and thousands of displaced blacks had no choice but to look to the mines for paying work, cementing the socially destructive migratory labour system.

Hearing and collecting stories

Plaatje spent several months travelling around on a bicycle, hearing and collecting stories from those newly evicted off the land after the act came into effect. He recounts a case where a young couple, with a sick baby, was forced off the land. They hitched up their wagon and after two nights on the road, their baby died. Having no land to bury the child, the only place where they were legitimate was the public road. They didn’t have a choice.

“This young wandering family decided to dig a grave under cover of the darkness of that night, when no one was looking, and in that crude manner the dead child was interred – and interred amid fear and trembling, as well as the throbs of a torturing anguish, in a stolen grave, lest the proprietor of the spot, or any of his servants, should surprise them in the act.”

Plaatje tells of a widow with her two teenage children and a toddler. When the law was passed, she was hopeful, being a widow, that she would be allowed to stay. She hoped that the “landlord would propose reasonable terms for her; but instead, his proposal was that she should dispose of her stock and indenture her children to him. This sinister proposal makes it evident that farmers not only expect natives to render them free labour, but they actually wish the natives to breed slaves for them.”

The widow, Maria, could not comply with these demands, so she was told to leave. Her thatched cottage was set alight, and with her clothes on her head, her three-year-old on her back, the family left the farm, driving their cows before them, the children weeping bitterly. Plaatje didn’t know what happened to them.

There were exceptions to the rule. Plaatje found on his travels that some white farmers were astonished at the cruelty of the new law. These farmers continued to accept blacks as tenants on their land, in defiance of the law.

“What has suddenly happened?” one of these landlords asked. ‘We were living so nicely with your people, and why should the law unsettle them in this manner?'”

But these farmers were under pressure from their racist neighbours, who would report them to the authorities, and they would then be forced to abide by the law. The hope of finding a place to stay on a sympathetic farmer’s land, even temporarily, was often squashed when the farmer was not permitted to take them in, for fear of being reported.

There was resistance to the new law. Women in the Orange Free State (now the Free State) marched on the mayor’s offices in the capital Bloemfontein, now Mangaung. Their pleas were rejected and they were thrown into prison, in deplorable conditions.

Plaatje went to England in 1913 to protest against the law. He went again in 1919, after World War 2, but he never succeeded in having it abolished or changed in any way.

Novelist Bessie Head wrote in 1982: “The 1913 Act created a floating landless proletariat whose labour could be manipulated at will, and ensured that ownership of the land had finally passed into the hands of the ruling white race. On it rest the pass laws, the migratory labour system, influx control and a thousand other evils that affect the lives of black people in South Africa today.”

Tenancy and sharecropping

Although the 1913 act outlawed tenancy and sharecropping, both continued on a smaller scale for several decades, and black farmers continued to produce surpluses for the market. But by the 1930s white farmers, with assistance from the government, started buying tractors. It was the final nail in the coffin for black farmers, who still relied on the ox-drawn plough. They headed for the towns and cities, to work for poverty wages.

In 1936 the Native Trust and Land Act extended the 7% black ownership to 13%, but this made no difference – the land set aside for blacks was simply not enough.

After 1948, when the National Party came into power, apartheid was formalised and more racist measures were introduced, measures that were used to further separate blacks from their land – separating them from amenities, in schools, universities, and residential areas; disallowing blacks from white areas; removing blacks from so-called “black spots” into the reserves; and most devastating, forcing all blacks to carry passes. Of course, passes were not new – blacks had been forced to carry permits of some form for decades.

The Surplus People Project reported in 1985 that between 1962 and 1980 around 3,5-million people had been uprooted and relocated. In the cities people were moved from inner city areas to townships on the edges.

Dispossession continued

The exhibition demonstrates that the dispossession continued for decades, right into the 1980s.

There’s the story of Ou Kas Maine, documented by Goldblatt. He was a sharecropper who managed to evade the act’s restrictions through arrangements with a number of white and black farm owners. He was born around 1894, and died in his 90s. He told Goldblatt in Afrikaans: “Die saad is myne, die skare is myne . . . die span is myne, alles is myne. Die grond is syne.” Translated this means: “The seed is mine, the plough-shares are mine . . . the span of oxen is mine, everything is mine. The land is his.”

Goldblatt photographed him in 1980 in a resettlement camp in North West province before he died in 1985.

Mofokeng says this as a preface to his photographs: “We carry around within us images of tenant families or yokels as we sometimes refer to them. We think we know their plight: low wages, long working hours and inadequate working conditions to mention a few of the less contentious laments. Their life of hardship passes heedlessly away from the glare of television and the print media.”

There is a small study in the exhibition on the “swervers” or trek folk, coloureds (people of mixed race) who still travel around the Karoo on donkey carts, all their possessions in the cart with them. They do odd shearing jobs, but live on the edge of society, sleeping in the veld, dispossessed of their land in the distant past.

Then there’s Fietas, an area just west of the Johannesburg city centre settled from the turn of the century by Malay and coloured people. It wasn’t long before Chinese, Africans and Indians settled in the vibrant suburb. Fourteenth Street became the shopping mecca of the town, with people coming from Pretoria to do their shopping there. But that was its downfall – Fietas was too successful and was rezoned, under the Group Areas Act, as a white area, and from 1964 to 1978 the people of Fietas were moved out. Homes and shops were demolished, but like a similar area in Cape Town, District Six, it has been a wasteland for decades, with only a few new homes going up.

At about the same time, the apartheid government sent in bulldozers to Sophiatown, some 10km north-west of the Joburg city centre. By 1963 all that remained of this vibrant but often violent suburb were a few churches, a school and a house. A new white suburb – Triomf, meaning “triumph” in Afrikaans – grew from the rubble. Eight years ago the suburb – home to poets, writers and singers such as Dolly Rathebe and Dorothy Masuka – was renamed Sophiatown.

Restitution of land rights

Blacks were forced to give up more than their land and possessions – they gave up their freedom, to be enslaved for the next 81 years until democracy dawned in 1994.

The 1994 Restitution of Land Rights Act was passed to allow those who had had their land taken away with the 1913 act to apply to get their land back. And so the long and difficult process of returning land to those South Africans who had been wronged, began, and continues today.

Bushmen and Khoi people, who were the original owners of South Africa, were excluded from the 1994 restitution because they were dispossessed of their land a century or two beforehand. The land issue will probably never be finally resolved.