Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

The Land Act of 1913 and its alternatives

with 13 comments

This year is the centennial commemoration of what many now believe was the one Act that irrevocably put South Africa on the road to Apartheid. Few have been more outspoken about its impact than South Africa’s leader of the opposition, Helen Zille:

 The 1913 Land Act was apartheid’s ‘original sin’ because it reserved 87% of South Africa’s land exclusively for white ownership, as the basis of the ‘Bantustan’ policy. It not only dispossessed many black South Africans of the land they owned, but also sought to prohibit black people from ever acquiring land in so-called ‘white’ South Africa.

Unfortunately, history is never that simple. There is no doubt that most white South Africans, English and Afrikaners, at the start of the twentieth century believed that the majority of South Africa’s land – and perhaps even the lands of neighbouring countries – should be proclaimed as ‘white man’s land’. The demand for produce in the rapidly-expanding urban areas combined with low input costs, notably the low cost of black wages, made large-scale agriculture a lucrative enterprise. White farmers were also keen to expand and thus enter the traditional black areas with its highly fertile land. This steady expansion had only one consequence: that, eventually, all black land would have been claimed by white farmers. This didn’t happen though. Instead, a group of white officials in the Department of Native Affairs after unification noted the rapid decline in black land and realised that without statutory intervention blacks may soon own no land at all. The result: the Land Act of 1913. Here’s Hermann Giliomee in The Afrikaners (p. 326):

 They saw merit in the idea that a settlement, even if not equitable to blacks, would at least prevent further white encroachment in the reserves. In 1915 the Secretary for Native Affairs referred to a district where fewer than half of the farms formerly owned by ‘natives’ were still in their possession. As the liberal historian W.M. Macmillan pointed out at the time: ‘[Open] competition in land is fatal to the weaker race … Given free right of entry of white into native lands, the natives will presently be landless indeed.

Looking back from our current vintage point, it is easy to assume that the counterfactual to the Land Act of 1913 was a larger share of land for black South Africans; i.e. that instead of the 13%, black South Africans should have received 30%, or 50% or 80%. But what Giliomee suggests here is that that would be a wrong conclusion: instead, in the absence of the Land Act, the land that black South Africans were living on would have been systematically claimed by white settlers, leaving blacks destitute with few alternatives other than to provide their labour to the mines and as farmhands. The Land Act thus protected instead of pilfered land belonging to blacks.

SANNC delegation that went to England to convey African people's objections to the 1913 Land Act, 1914. L-R: Rev W. Rubusana, T. Mapike, Rev J. Dube, S. Plaatjie and S. Msane. Courtesy of South Africa History Online.

SANNC delegation that went to England to convey African people’s objections to the 1913 Land Act, 1914. L-R: Rev W. Rubusana, T. Mapike, Rev J. Dube, S. Plaatjie and S. Msane. Courtesy of South Africa History Online.

(So here’s a thought experiment: there was no Land Act in 1713 for the Khoi of the southwestern Cape. What if the Dutch East India Company had proclaimed 13% of the Western Cape as Khoi-land. Would Khoi-descendants living in these hypothetical areas today celebrate or abhor the 1713 Land Act? That is an open question. Instead, what happened in the absence of a Land Act was that many Khoi died in the smallpox epidemic of 1713 and those that remained had little choice but to work on settler farms, where many of their descendants still work today.)

The late Lawrence Schlemmer once said that he knows of no former colony – other than South Africa –  where the indigenous population continued to live on 30% of the region’s most fertile land after colonisation (I thank Hermann Giliomee for this reference). This is not to suggest that colonisation – or the Land Act – was morally just or defensible, or that it did not contribute to a highly unequal South African society. But before we denigrate the Land Act, we should think about the alternatives. Maybe missionary societies would have acquired some land for black farmers to till. Perhaps white farmers would not have infiltrated black areas to any great extent. But probably not. In all likelihood, black South Africans would have owned considerably less land than what the Land Act of 1913 sanctioned.


Written by Johan Fourie

January 30, 2013 at 09:31

13 Responses

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  1. Johan, if there was ever a time for us to delve into this subject, it would be now. There is very little info or discussion available, whether from a legal, philosophical or moral basis.


    February 28, 2018 at 12:57

  2. […] consolidated this expropriation, and even may have prevented further expropriation (see my earlier post on […]

  3. While it is prima facie correct that the Natives Land Act inserted government into intergroup transfers to stop further territorial grabs (as did the Native Location Commissions and various piecemeal regulations in the Colonies and Republics before that), two things must qualify that understanding. First of all, the conditions created in the country that required such “protections” had a far older legal basis. Trekboers after all could not simply impose themselves anywhere in the Western Cape before 1713 either. Second, the Land Act was only a stopgap; it included provision for a commission (the Beaumont Commission, ultimately) to arrange for the “release” of further areas as soon as possible. Unfortunately the Union government would not act on its recommendations and instead deferred it for twenty years until the Natives Trust and Land Act (1936).

    Between those two dates the ownership situation was so troubled that the government officials in charge of policing the Act approved a tremendous number of requests for purchase in trust–many more than we usually realise–because they knew that 8% of the land was far too little, even if it was historically very good land. That land, and the further releases, rapidly exhausted because no credit or inputs were available to black farmers, and in later years they did not enjoy the same subsidy system that aided other agricultural interests. But the approvals, together with the non-operation of the Act in the Cape Province (it affected the property qualification for the franchise) actually increased the amount of black-owned land, mostly but not entirely in recognition of existing patterns of occupation and communities’ need for further ground even at the inflated prices they paid.

    Although you are also correct that the scale of reservation has little parallel in other settler colonies save possibly Kenya, the demographics in SA are also completely different, and the basis of inequality is what required such preservationist measures lest (as Pieter Muller points out) total dispossession create an uprising. Indeed that is precisely what the architects of the Land Act–British, SA English,and Afrikaner alike–feared throughout the 1902-1914 era. Of course there were also voices predicting an apocalypse of African farm buying and the expulsion of white ownership (!!) if a Land Act was not passed too, so it was an immensely charged issue with a long history and few solutions. Some of the strongest enemies of the Act actually were poor white landowners, whose most productive tenants were forced to leave the land, and they actually catcalled Louis Botha about this at meetings in 1913 and 1914. So the process of segregated land ownership had a lot of weird wrinkles and folds and built on a much longer history of colonization and dispossession that shaped them; the comparison “Colin” makes is perhaps crude but suggests the essential point.

    Nevertheless it is always good to bear in mind that few of those measures we see now as solely malicious were meant to be so, or had quite the effect in practice that they envisaged in law. Historians recognize the more benign intents of the Land Act, just as we recognize the complex forces that produced apartheid. That said, there is historical impoverishment that such laws abetted, and which must now be addressed in some way lest the demagogues gain a bigger foothold and lead us down a “Fast Track.”

    One final note: I think you followed the SANNC photo caption from, which identifies the sitters in the wrong order. Thomas Mapike is at the far left (front row), then Dr Walter Rubusana (back), Rev John L Dube (front middle), then Saul Msane (back right), and finally Solomon T Plaatje at front right.


    September 3, 2013 at 20:22

    • Mapikela, not Mapike. Such are the dangers of typing too fast.


      September 3, 2013 at 20:35

    • Thank you for an insightful and valuable comment – and I hope you continue to contribute in future.

      Johan Fourie

      September 4, 2013 at 11:14

  4. Thanks for a challenging piece.

    Leon du Toit

    February 7, 2013 at 15:58

  5. Johan, you have a typo in “(So here’s a though experiment”. You’re more that welcome to remove this comment after you’ve fixed it.


    February 7, 2013 at 15:50

  6. My first thought upon reading your article was that, without the Land Act officially setting out areas for natives, apartheid might not have lasted as long as it had – if white settlers did indeed encroach and eventually engulf all native land, I suspect a violent uprising might have been the result, way before 1994. This is not to say that one is better than the other.


    February 7, 2013 at 15:49

  7. […] week I wrote about the 1913 Land Act and its counterfactual, and sent the post to several opinion-makers. While the first few days were relatively quiet, […]

  8. I saw you spat with the DA and in partocualar Lindiwe. Johan please contact me about joining the PAC. I can see that your intentions are honourable in your analysis. You can make a big impression on the Africanist movement. In the PAC I can promise you a place where you will never have to apologise about your race. In the words of our founder Robert Mangaliso Subukwe “There is only one race – the human race”.

    Philip Copeman

    February 4, 2013 at 10:17

  9. I confess I fail to see how this article contributes to moving our country forward. Your basic argument is the “blacks” should be grateful that it wasn’t worse! It’s like bank robbers stopping before they’ve taken all a banks money and then arguing that the bank should be grateful they didn’t steal everything!


    February 1, 2013 at 15:01

  10. Hmm I can sort of see what your point is here but a part me can’t help but feel the argument is a little flawed? Even slave owners needed to provide slaves with a place to live and procreate. Not necessarily because they wanted to but because they had to in order to get what they needed… (bleh, not the best way to explain but I’m hoping you get the general drift). Plus if you have demarcated areas you know where to go to find your labour and also- you know where to dump them. Out of sight. Anyhoo- my two cents. But I enjoyed this piece. Very different way to look at but intriguing.


    February 1, 2013 at 14:26

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