Apartheid's roots: The Natives Land Act

Apartheid white area sign The 1913 Natives Land Act helped to lay the groundwork for the apartheid policy of racial segregation in South Africa, introduced in 1948

A law passed 100 years ago severely restricting ownership of land for South Africa's majority black population continues to have a huge impact today, two decades after the end of apartheid.

Start Quote

If we have no land to live on, we can be no people”

End Quote John Dube First ANC President

At a stroke, the passing of the Natives Land Act on 19 June 1913 saw the majority of South African land reserved for whites, or Europeans. Just 7% of agricultural land was set aside on reserves for blacks, or Africans, though they comprised 67% of the population.

These reserves were, too, to form a key part of the apartheid system. They became the 'homelands' in which different tribal groups were forcibly settled; segregated, cheap labour pools.

Importantly, Africans were forbidden from buying or leasing land outside those reserves except from other Africans. Europeans, likewise, were unable to buy or lease land from Africans.

But according to William Beinart, Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at the University of Oxford, and Professor Peter Delius of the University of the Witwatersrand, land alienation was neither the primary intention nor the major outcome of the legislation.

South Africa's Colonial History

Battle of Blood River
  • 1652 - Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck founds the Cape Colony at Table Bay.
  • 1795 - British forces seize Cape Colony from the Netherlands.
  • 1816-1826 - Shaka Zulu founds and expands the Zulu empire, creating a formidable fighting force.
  • 1835-1840 - 'Boers' (nomadic farmers mostly of Dutch ancestry) disagree with the British equalisation of black and white at the Cape and move inland.
  • 1852 - 1854 - The Boer Republics are recognised by Great Britain.
  • 1879 - British defeat the Zulus in Natal after an ultimatum to Zulu King Cetshwayo to stand down his army is rejected.
  • 1877 - 1910 - Following two Anglo-Boer Wars, the Boer Republics are made self-governing colonies before the Union of South Africa in 1910.
  • 1912 - South African Native National Congress is created (later renamed African National Congress).
  • 1913 - Natives Land Act is passed.

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"By and large, dispossession had already taken place, following the colonial wars of the nineteenth century. The Land Act came at the end of this process," they said, speaking at the Land Divided Conference at the University of Cape Town in March 2013.

"The 1913 Act was, however, also designed to control the forms of tenancy allowed in the white-owned areas. An increasing proportion of white landowners wanted fuller control over their land."

African sharecroppers, who cultivated white-owned land and, in return, shared a portion of the harvest with the landowner, lost out significantly.

"The Act did not aim to move black people off the commercial farms but to keep them there as workers rather than tenants," Beinart and Delius explained.

'Pariahs in the land of their birth'

John Dube, the first president of the ANC (then called the South African Native National Congress or SANNC), had told an African audience in 1912 that "if we have no land to live on, we can be no people".

Unsurprisingly, opposition to the Act amongst the African population, when it came to pass, was marked.

In his 1916 book Native Life in South Africa, Sol Plaatje, a prominent activist and co-founder of the ANC, commented that "awaking on Friday morning, June 20th, 1913, the South African Native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth".

His book bewails the plight of black South Africans in the aftermath of the Act.

"Even criminals dropping straight from the gallows have an undisputed claim to six feet of ground on which to rest their criminal remains," he wrote, "but under the cruel operation of the Natives Land Act little children, whose only crime is that God did not make them white, are sometimes denied that right in their ancestral home."

From Apartheid to Democracy

Apartheid police beat black women protesters
  • 1948 - Apartheid policy formally adopted when the National Party (NP) takes power.
  • 1950 - The Group Areas Act is passed to segregate blacks and whites. The ANC responds with a civil disobedience campaign led by Nelson Mandela.
  • 1960 - Seventy black demonstrators are killed in the Sharpeville massacre. The ANC is banned.
  • 1964 - ANC leader Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life imprisonment.
  • 1966 - Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of the apartheid system, is assassinated.
  • 1970s - More than 3 million people forcibly resettled in black 'homelands'.
  • 1976 - More than 600 people are killed in clashes between black protesters and security forces during an uprising which starts in Soweto.
  • 1989 - FW de Klerk replaces PW Botha as president and meets Mandela. Public facilities are desegregated and many ANC activists are freed.
  • 1990 - The ANC is unbanned and Mandela is released after 27 years in prison.
  • 1991 - Multi-party talks start and De Klerk repeals the remaining apartheid laws. International sanctions are lifted.
  • 1994 - The ANC wins the first non-racial elections in South Africa and Mandela becomes president.

Watch how apartheid affected every part of life

Watch as FW de Klerk announced the scrapping of apartheid laws

Find out more about Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid

The Act remained a focal point of opposition for years to come.

In 1994 the ANC, now the majority party in South Africa's first democratically elected government, pledged to redistribute 30% of white-owned agricultural land to black farmers. By 2012 just a third of that figure had been met.

In May 2013 Gugile Nkwinti, South Africa's Minister for Rural Development and Land Reform, announced plans to mark the centenary of the Natives Land Act with a call for the country to make a "determined national effort to put that act and its implications behind the nation".

However, land remains an emotive issue in South Africa. The influence of the Natives Land Act still colours the political and social dialogue.

Comments made by the deputy minister of agriculture stirred controversy in 2012. "There is sufficient proof that there were no Bantu-speaking people in the Western Cape and North-western Cape," said Pieter Mulder, also leader of the conservative Freedom Front Plus party. He added that, as a result, black South Africans had no historical claim to "40% of South Africa's land surface".

A year earlier, the former President of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema said: "The land question must be resolved, if needs be the hard way." He was quoting the 1985 speech of Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress (ANC) at that time.

Such is the importance of land reform to the South African political landscape that the government is constitutionally bound to address it.

Article 25 of the South African constitution, passed into law on 10 December 1996, enshrines the responsibility of the state "to foster conditions which enable citizens to gain access to land on an equitable basis".

That such a redress is necessary owes much not only to the years of apartheid, but to the 1913 Natives Land Act and colonial history which made it possible.

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