Whose land is it anyway?

by TAU Bulletin

On 19 June 1913, the Native Land Act of 1913 became law in the recently-created Union of South Africa. The legislation was the culmination of centuries of land occupations, divisions and invasions; of treaties, conventions and agreements signed, and sometimes ignored; of squatting, a population explosion on a finite land area, tribal alliances and tribal wars; of British imperialism, Boer endeavors at independence from Britain and the British repudiation thereof; of the influence of missionaries, of huge culture chasms; of Zulu hegemony and destruction (the Deficane); of the declaration and dissolution of Boer republics, British arbitrary annexations throughout the country, and the haphazard movement of people who never knew a border in contrast with those who saw borders as the very linchpin of their future in South Africa.

Common currency has it that whites “stole” land from indigenous blacks and that this theft was legally ratified by the 1913 and 1936 Land Acts which divided up the land and codified these divisions. Some international observers have defined this “theft” as akin to the German invasion of Paris, or the Russian annexation of its Soviet Republics. They have conveniently ignored the turbulent chronicle of a country unique in its history, in its human diversity and the real reasons for the unremitting conflict over land. Whites who came to South Africa in 1652 and thereafter found a land devoid of basic development and infrastructure, sparsely populated by meandering tribes who had no written word and whose way of life was the absolute antithesis of Western mores.

Who arrived where first has always been a bone of contention. It is now acknowledged that the Khoi-San groups, and their sub-groups, are the indigenous peoples of South Africa. The United Nations Economic and Social Council declared on 15 December 2005 this to be a fact. Whites and black African groups arrived in various parts of the country around the same time. They met at the Fish River in the Eastern Cape, and wars followed. These hugely disparate nations believed they had legitimate claims to land, based on contrasting ethnic assumptions.

Given that only 35 000 commercial farmers are currently the bedrock of 95% of food production for South Africa’s population, the history behind the 1913 and 1936 Land Acts should be academic. But land in South Africa is a political tool. It is wielded without thought for the morrow. It is proffered within the context of a cultural more that has no place in today’s practical world. The division of land under the 1913 Land Act is a blunt weapon used to garner votes by the present SA government to seduce naïve and mostly uneducated followers who cannot feed themselves but who are asked to look upon those who can feed them as ogres who stole their land.


*  No one less than the President of South Africa Jacob Zuma still punts the discredited tale that 87% of South Africa’s land belongs to Whites, with only 13% for blacks. This is simply not true. In a Research and Policy Brief on Land Ownership and Land Reform in South Africa (27.2.2012), the SA Institute of Race Relations declared that “as of March 2011, 25% of SA’s total surface area of 122 million hectares was in the hands of the State. The remaining 75% is privately owned. (In the great expanses of the Free State and the Northern Cape, private owners held 89% and 91% of the surface area respectively, while in the Western Cape and Gauteng, only 55% was held by the State.)  So State land can now be regarded as black owned, which means at least a quarter of the country’s surface is in black hands.

(In Gauteng, this 55% represents 910 000 hectares, which is slightly larger than Cyprus and nearly the size of Lebanon.  The problem is that national, provincial and local governments have little idea of what they own and how to make the best of it.) (Jack Bloom, MPL and DA leader in the Gauteng Provincial Legislature – The Citizen 27 May, 2013)

“Since 1995, 2.6 m hectares or the equivalent of 2,1% of all land has been handed to blacks via land restitution programs. This pushes the amount of land in black hands to 27,1%.  In addition more than R5 billion was paid out to restitution claimants who accepted cash instead of having land returned to them.  That money was sufficient to purchase an additional 2,6 million hectares which would have pushed the amount of land in black hands to just on 30%.

“The land redistribution program had by 2010 handed a further 3,1 million hectares, or 2,5% of the surface area, to black South Africans pushing up the share of black-owned land to at least 32,5%. This figure is more than double that of the 13% often cited by government officials (including the President).

“These calculations have not taken into account land traded between private owners. There is sufficient anecdotal evidence that such trading between white and new black owners has taken place. Whether the amounts traded are equivalent to 10% or 15% or 20% is unknown. Any of these figures would however push the figure for black land ownership to between 40% and 50% of South Africa’s surface area.”

*  The bulk of the land attributed to white ownership is in fact owned by little more than 35 000 commercial farmers. They produce 95% of South Africa’s food, this in a country recently described by the executive vice president of global chemical company DuPont as “largely unsuitable for crop growing, with only 12% of its land mass considered arable”, and only 3% “truly fertile”. Only 1.5% of SA farmland is irrigated.

*  In addition, commercial farmers are ever more vulnerable, both physically and economically.  As a group they are murdered at an inordinately high rate, and farm attacks have not abated since the ANC came into power. Input costs are high: fuel has increased 219% over the past six years and fertilizer has increased 145%. Municipal rates and taxes (for which the farmer receives little or no value) cost farmers $475 m per year. The country’s infrastructure doesn’t serve commercial farming well, in some cases not at all. Farmers must repair local roads, while the country’s telecommunication service neglects rural areas. Stolen infrastructure is not replaced. The list of weak support goes on – electricity load shedding, labor cost increases of 300% (which costs are not matched by concomitant productivity);  the high price of agri-chemicals and the reported annual loss of R2,1 billion of stock, crops and equipment theft, calculated in 2005.

*  The existence of hundreds of small towns throughout South Africa depends on the surrounding commercial farms. Hundreds of thousands of workers who would otherwise be unemployable are employed on farms.( In 2010 there were 886 417 agricultural workers, a decrease of 20,7% since 1993). Thousands of ancillary enterprises depend on the food production business including wholesale and retail industries, transport, refrigeration and agri-chemical concerns; veterinary practices and businesses, seed and equipment technology and irrigation supply groups, and many more. The total contribution towards GDP which includes industries dependent on agriculture is in the order of 23%.

*  Recent statistics published by the SA Institute of Race Relations state there were 1 337 400 units of food production in South Africa.  Of these, 1 256 000 are subsistence farmers; 35 000 communal area farmers have turnovers of less than R300 000 per year; 24 000 small commercial units have turnovers of less than R300 000 per year, and only 22 400 commercial units have turnovers of more than R300 000 per year. THIS MEANS THAT ONLY 6% OF FARMERS IN SOUTH AFRICA PRODUCE 95% OF THE FOOD FOR 53 MILLION PEOPLE.

*  The single biggest threat to SA agriculture is clean water. Productive agricultural land is being degraded by the mining industry. There is no control over the pollution of the country’s water resources.

These are the very basic facts of the situation in commercial agriculture today. Food production rests on a very tenuous foundation.


The self-sufficient production levels of South Africa’s current commercial farming sector did not simply emanate from thin air. There is every reason to believe that WITHOUT the Land Act of 1913, South Africa would not be in such a fortunate, if fragile, position with regard to food security.

Government (and many organizations with strange agendas) continues to harp on the perceived unfairness and injustice of the divisions of land set out in the 1913 Land Act without taking into account South Africa’s pre-1913 recorded history and, importantly, THE POPULATIONOF THE COUNTRY AT THE TIME. Political points are continually scored by creating antagonism towards the commercial farming sector, thus garnering support for even more punitive legislation aimed at, eventually, taking more and more land purportedly for the voters. Government is however disingenuous. In reality title is not being given to land recipients. The Democratic Alliance’s Jack Bloom tells of a 1998 farmer settlement scheme in Randfontein where in 2002 title still hadn’t been transferred to the recipients.(Citizen 27.5.13)  There are thousands of examples like this throughout the country.


*  Man in his primitive state did not know the concept of “land tenure”.  When hunter/gatherer groups formed, the first land tenure (if it can be called that) was by nature communal. Before the arrival of the European in South Africa with his tradition of individual land ownership, communal tenure in Africa was the norm. The territory inhabited and/or cultivated by a particular ethnic group was owned and/or utilized by the tribe in the name of their king or chief. Because there was no written word among these peoples, Christian missionaries took it upon themselves to learn and then write and codify the languages of the black people to whom they were ministering.  They then taught these people to read and write their own language.

*  It is known that a great migration of black people took place from the Great Lakes region southwards, eventually reaching Southern Africa. Numerous reports exist as to which tribe went where. But these reports are not the historical property of the black peoples. Thus their claims to land in South Africa have no empirical foundation. They are based on oral history and folklore, and what was observed by early European travellers and missionaries, by the British colonial presence in the country, by Boer trekkers and administrators.  If your history is written by others, with what can you contest this history? However, the early settled areas of the black people were later generally recognized as their core areas.

*  The agricultural potential of the southern African soil, as well as its attractiveness for permanent residence lies in its climate and nature.  This became obvious to the first Europeans who arrived at the Cape in 1652 to establish a settlement for the Dutch East India Company in order to provide fresh produce for passing ships.  In 1657 some of these officials were permitted to farm on their own. This resulted in individuals, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN WHAT IS NOW SOUTH AFRICA, “owning” land in the European sense of the word. This of course led to clashes between these Europeans and the indigenous peoples, the Khoi and the San. The Khoi/San did not “own” land in the European sense – it was not part of their communal culture of simply “occupying” land and they therefore didn’t recognize or respect this European custom.  However, they felt entitled to the land they traversed and on which they hunted.

*  With the raising of the British flag in 1806 in the Cape, the British assumed power in the newly acquired Colony of the Crown. British hegemony and the British imperialistic stance gave rise to the trekking north by the Boers who established Republics in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in 1844 and 1852. After the discovery of gold and diamonds in the late nineteenth century, the British simply annexed these republics for the British Crown! On 16 December 1880, the first struggle by the Boers in a war of independence from the British started.

*  From the very beginning of settlement, black and white were segregated. South African history is replete with clashes over land “ownership”. There were no title deeds, no courts to decide who owned what. Proclamations and annexations were followed by wars, clashes,  agreements and disagreements, theft of livestock, sloppy boundaries and arguments over the measurement and surveying of land; borders were drawn and re-drawn; people moved all over the place and a completely differing approach to farming by both groups existed.  In the black community, land was communal and the product of their agricultural activities was mainly for their own consumption. This was subsistence farming, and it persists in today’s South Africa. Segregation was such an integral part of South African life that it existed as well among the different tribes and within tribes.  For instance, the Xhosa nation was divided into at least seven tribes and the Sotho into three separate groups.

*  Smaller tribes appealed to both Boer and the British to save them from other marauding tribes. They moved onto farms to survive and were given work. The Zulu Deficane (the marauding slaughter) caused enormous disruption within the black tribes and caused thousands of blacks to flee to other areas of South Africa.

*  It was the Cape government, under British control, that kept the white farmers and the Xhosas of the Eastern Cape separate. There never was any true integration of the two vastly differing cultures, even to this day.

*  As whites moved further into the interior, land was exchanged by barter, sometimes by conquest, in other instances by agreement. (It is interesting that “occupation by war” was recognized throughout the world at that time. This principle was also recognized and applied in Africa where indigenous black nations fought against each other.)

*  Agreements about land entered into by black tribes and white farmers were fraught with ambiguity. Whites believed they now owned the land but the black tribal chief believed he had “lent” the land for a period and in some instances wanted it back. This reneging on agreements caused endless insecurity within the white farming community.

*  Soon after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, it was deemed imperative to settle the land question once and for all. The government (still under the British Crown) believed that if land could not be partitioned and allocated within the ambit of a Western title deed system, the very future of South Africa would be put at risk.

*  The most immediate problem was food production for a burgeoning population. (It was obvious to the British then that blacks could not produce food for surplus, and to this day this is still the case). The core reason for the 1913 Land Act’s passing was the security of the whites, and particularly the farmers, to give them the necessary security of tenure on their farms to produce the food for what was still a country under the British flag, controlled essentially from London. Gold and diamonds had been discovered, and Britain was not going to give up this new jewel in the Crown.

*  Antagonists of the 1913 Act and indeed the 1936 Act should look to Britain for redress. These pieces of legislation were not apartheid Acts – they were devised in South Africa under a government controlled by Britain.



The current population of South Africa according to Stats SA is 52,98 million. As quoted by the SA Institute of Race Relations’ Yearbook 2012, the population of the country in 1911 was blacks: 4,018 million, whites: 1,276 million; coloureds: 525,466 and Indians: 152,094. The percentages were white:  21% and black: 67%. One hundred years later, the percentage population increase of blacks was 920% while for whites it was only 259%. If life were fair, each population group should be responsible for providing food for its own people. But in present-day South Africa, a handful of white commercial farmers is responsible for 95% of the food supply for 53 million people.

*  According to a recent index compiled by Accenture, 12 sub-Saharan African countries are severely affected by food security problems. Only four countries in the region have high food security – one of these is South Africa. Yet sub-Saharan Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and it imports an average of $50 billion of food annually. Grain yields in this area are 40% lower than those in the rest of the developing world.

*  Other new world countries which were colonies of European powers also faced the same problems as South Africa. They met with primitive undeveloped indigenous people. In Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America, these sectors remained outside the Western economy, and are in many cases still marginalized. In South America, the Spanish decimated three civilizations – the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Incas. The remains of these civilizations never recovered and exist today on the margins of society. In South Africa, the black peoples grew out of all proportion to their contribution to the economy. Today they are consumers, not producers. (South Africa’s public sector wage bill ranks among the highest compared with countries at a similar level of development. There are about 1,3 million funded posts in the public sector and the rise in their wages over the past few years has not been matched by productivity increases.) (Business Day  28.5.13)


*  Virtually all the productive farms which were handed over to black beneficiaries under the government’s land restitution program have failed, mostly due to government’s lack of financial support, training and of course the lack of a will to farm by the beneficiaries. Some farms turned into squatter camps. This land has been lost to South Africa’s overall farm production. Despite this bleak record, farms are still being handed over. A once-thriving KwaZulu/Natal farm which produced more than 400 tons of bananas a year is in ruins. (Sunday Times 12.5.13). Although R3,2 million was paid for this farm, the government is planning to sink more money into it in the form of “recapitalization”.

*  The population of the Netherlands per square kilometre is 380. In Japan, it is 320, in Germany 230, Italy  is 180, the USA is around 35 and South Africa is approximately 45. There is no need for more land to be handed over to anyone if it interferes with food production. If the densely populated Netherlands and Japan can feed themselves with the land they have, why must South Africa’s land be given to people who cannot feed themselves and have already proved this?

*  Land is political for South Africa’s State President. He says it is a “sensitive issue” which people must “leave alone”.  But if his government cannot feed its people, this issue ceases to be sensitive and becomes a life and death matter. The State President is truly fortunate that South Africa’s commercial farming sector is arguably one of the best in the world.

*  If the South African government is seeking redress and, more importantly, blame for the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, it should seek reasons from the British government. The Cape was a British Colony from 1806, and the British slowly and inexorably annexed the rest of the country over the next century. How a government can complain about land divisions 100 years ago when its people’s population increased by 920% since then is strange. Clearly the political agenda is all that matters. Notwithstanding this, if they feel they have a case, they must put it to British government.





*  DISPUTED LAND by Louis Changuion and Bertus Steenkamp. (2012) (In Afrikaans OMSTREDE LAND). Available from www.kalahari.com . Arguably the most informative book written about the history of land in South Africa.)


*  ANDREW SMITH’S JOURNAL OF HIS EXPEDITION INTO THE INTERIOR OF SOUTH AFRICA – 1834/36 published by the South African Museum, 1975.

*  AN HISTORICAL SURVEY OF NATIVE LAND SETTLEMENT IN SOUTH AFRICA FROM 1902 TO THE PASSING OF THE NATIVES’ TRUST AND LAND ACT OF 1936 by Simon  McDover Mohau Lekhela, submitted in compliance for the requirements for an MA Degree to the Department of History, University of South Africa, 1955.

*  THE CONQUISTADORS by Hammond Innes. (1969)

*  DIE RUILKONTRAKTE IN 1833-34 AANGEGAAN TUSSEN MOSJESJ EN DIE WESLEYANE by I.S.J. Venter University of South Africa Communications, Pretoria. 1960.


*  ZULU THOUGHT PATTERNS AND SYMBOLISM by Axel-Ivar Berglund, Swedish Institute of Missionary Research, Uppsala, Sweden. 1976.

*  THE WHITE TRIBE OF AFRICA by David Harrison. 1981.

*  TOWNSMEN OR TRIBESMEN by Philip Mayer and Iona Mayer, Oxford University Press. 1961.