Op-ed: Land reform must take note of changes in SA the past 100 years – Prof Cherryl Walker

The bitter legacy of the 1913 Natives Land Act continues to reverberate to this day, but if the state is to use the centenary as an opportunity for policy review and not just political hype, it needs to give considered attention to the differences between 1913 and 2013, Stellenbosch University’s Prof Cherryl Walker writes in an opinion piece published in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 30 March 2013.

“For a start, the oft-repeated claim that in 1994, as a result of the workings of the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, 87% of South Africa’s land belonged to whites and just 13% to blacks is deeply misleading. It misrepresents the full complexity of land access and use over the past hundred years and obscures important economic, demographic and environmental realities.”

Walker, who is attached to the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at SU, was one of the main organisers of the ‘Land Divided’ conference, which was co-hosted by the universities if the Western Cape, Cape Town and Stellenbosch from 24 to 27 March 2013.

Read the complete text of her article, as submitted, below. For more information about the conference visit www.landdivided2013.org.za.

 

A century of change since the 1913 Natives Land Act

By Cherryl Walker

The passage of the 1913 Natives Land Act was a significant event in the history of modern South Africa. Its bitter legacy warrants commemoration in its centenary year.

Even though its initial impact was uneven (contrary to popular wisdom, it did not put an immediate end to black land purchases outside the reserves), the Act signalled the end of the road for an independent African peasantry.

Furthermore, although the 1913 legislation did not itself envisage the grand-apartheid strategy of ten quasi-independent black homelands that the National Party tried to enforce after 1948, its passage through an all-white Parliament was an emphatic confirmation of the disenfranchisement of the black majority of the population that the new Union of South Africa had proclaimed in 1910.

The 1913 Land Act laid the foundations on which the radical spatial blueprint and mass population removals of the apartheid era would be built. The process of land demarcation that it initiated, which culminated in 1936 with a projected allocation of just 13% of the area of South Africa for ‘natives’ in terms of the Native Trust and Land Act, lies at the heart of the massive inequalities in white and black land ownership that plague the post-apartheid era.

The reverberations of this history continue to rattle the lives and consciousness of ordinary South Africans, pulsing with uneven intensity through debates on land redistribution, the constitutional protection of property rights and agrarian policy.

The recent conference on ‘Land Divided: Land and South African society in 2013’ offered a forum for reflection on these and related issues, in the light of current scholarship on land as not only an economic but also a social and environmental resource. However, if the state is to use the centenary as an opportunity for policy review, not just political hype around a past that often seems easier to relive than to lay to rest, then it needs to give considered attention to the differences between 1913 and 2013.

Certainly more considered than that currently evident on the website of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. Here an official presentation on ‘Reversing the legacy of the 1913 Natives Land Act’ offers a popular but romanticised account of the pre-colonial past as an era of timeless tradition, social harmony and collective well-being across a land that miraculously mimics the boundaries of the twentieth-century nation-state.

On the website, this lost Eden, when ‘men and women moved skilfully and purposefully over the terrain, plucking from the earth its bounty’, was followed by the colonial era which saw ‘the imposition of new methods of farming not appropriate to the African way of life’, and thereafter the apartheid era, in which the country was divided into three distinct domains: major urban centres, fertile commercial farming regions, and barren homelands reserved for the black majority.

The narrative of unmitigated loss swoops across three and a half centuries, unencumbered by considerations of historical and geographic specificity, of human agency, of ambiguity and contradiction and contingency, and the workings of social change.

It is a politically potent narrative which cannot be countered simply by academic appeals to a more complex historical record. Its potency lies largely in the way in which it resonates with both popular memories of dispossession in the not so distant past and disillusionment with present conditions. Nevertheless, it is seriously flawed as the basis for effective land and agrarian policies for the future.

For a start, the oft-repeated claim that in 1994, as a result of the workings of the Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, 87% of South Africa’s land belonged to whites and just 13% to blacks is deeply misleading. It misrepresents the full complexity of land access and use over the past hundred years and obscures important economic, demographic and environmental realities.

The hundred years since the passage of the Natives Land Act constitute a century of profound social change as South Africa shifted from what was a predominantly agrarian society in 1913 to the predominantly urban and industrialised one we take for granted today. In this time South Africa’s population grew tenfold, from under 6 million in 1911 to over 50 million in 2012.

Today over 60% of the population is located in the urban areas of the country. Even more telling, well over half of them (37% of the total population) live in the eight metropolitan areas of the country, on just 2% of the country’s land.

White farmers currently represent only a tiny fraction of the white population; as an economic category they are far from being its wealthiest segment, despite the extensive areas of land they still own.

As historically significant as the 87/13% figures undoubtedly are, they derive from a legislative target that was set in 1936, a target that had not yet been fully met by 1994. These national percentages gloss significant regional differences in the extent of rural land that was demarcated for black occupation in 1936.

In 1994, according to the state’s own records, the percentage of communal (former reserve) land in each province was: Eastern Cape: 28,4%; Free State: 1,7%; Gauteng: 2,1%; KwaZulu-Natal: 36,4%; Limpopo: 27,4%; Mpumalanga: 9,6%; Northern Cape: 0,04%; North West: 27,5%, and Western Cape: 0%.

These differences are the result of regionally specific histories of resistance, accommodation and dispossession. They also reflect significant ecological differences that need proper acknowledgement in contemporary policy development. Ecologically sensitive policy development means engaging with the challenges of land and agrarian reform in an unevenly water-poor country as well as with new challenges to agriculture, whether small-scale or large, in the form of climate change.

Over a third of commercial (‘white-owned’) farm land nationally is located in the arid Northern Cape, where just over 2% of the population resides, most in the small urban centres of the province. This sparsely populated land – so politically outrageous when thought about only in the abstract, as a percentage of South Africa’s total area – cannot resolve the land problems of the eastern and northern parts of the country.

And the current concentration of the rural population along the eastern seaboard and north-eastern interior of the country is not simply the product of the iniquitous reserve policies of the past. It also reflects the influence of climate and associated agricultural and pastoral potential on settlement patterns historically.

If the reduction of rural poverty and inequality are the primary objectives of land and agrarian reform in 2013, then the distinctions between the symbolic, political and material dimensions of land must be drawn.

Policies that focus on the political dimensions of ‘the land question’ of an earlier era, while overlooking profound changes in its material base, will not work. What is needed in this centenary year is openness to new questions and the possibility of new answers.

  • Walker is Professor of Sociology at Stellenbosch University. The ‘Land Divided’ conference was co-hosted by the universities if the Western Cape, Cape Town and Stellenbosch from 24 to 27 March 2013. A longer version of this article will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal Social Dynamics. For more information about the conference visit www.landdivided2013.org.za.