Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

Posts Tagged ‘Land Act

Remembering history

with 2 comments

Last 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, Lindiwe Mazibuko, leader of the opposition in the South African parliament, responded on Friday afternoon with the following tweet: “Do not send me offensive, ahistorical ‘the blacks should be grateful’ drivel masquerading as analysis. I am not that person.”

I guess that warrants a response, although to be honest, I’m still a bit flabbergasted by Ms Mazibuko’s knee-jerk reaction. Like most authors who receive critical referee reports, I gave it some time. I reread the post. I got second opinions. I reread the post again. And in the end I decided not to respond directly to her. Perhaps I should’ve been clear that I don’t make any policy recommendations. Perhaps I should’ve emphasised that this is a thought experiment: that I don’t wish to make judgments on what should have been, but rather, what might have been. So let me be absolutely clear: I don’t believe ‘blacks should be grateful’ and I do not advocate such a view in my post.

In preparation for my first graduate Economic History class this morning, though, I was forced to think about who writes economic history in South Africa, and why we do so. Reading Barry Eichengreen’s excellent contribution on how our understanding of the causes and consequences of the Great Depression influenced US policy-making during the recent Great Recession, I wonder whether we will learn similar lessons from our own history. South Africa has a disfigured history, and the period of oppression of the majority by the minority is still fresh in our collective memory. Which means we tend to not want to talk about it. Or, worse, we tend to cluster everything before 1994 in the ‘evil box’, with the insinuation that nothing that happened in South Africa before the democratic elections can be useful for understanding and improving our country today.

We  need leaders that can engage critically with our past, and more so if our past is one of suffering, discrimination and inequality. As Eichengreen notes, knowledge of the past is especially helpful in times of crisis. Ben Bernanke’s research on the Great Depression allowed the Federal Reserve to react quickly to the recent financial crisis. John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer for a popular history of the Senate and could fall back on his knowledge of the events of Pearl Harbor when faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis. But more broadly, a remembered history – even if it is tainted (whose history isn’t?) – also reinforces the principles of democracy that many had fought for. As Ms Mazibuko would acknowledge herself, past practices are increasingly popular with the current generation of politicians and bureaucrats. If we ignore the past how will we recognize déjà vu?

Let’s debate the past, even if we don’t agree with what happened, how it happened and why it happened. Let’s tolerate alternative opinions because we might be wrong. The most discouraging aspect of this exchange with Ms Mazibuko is her rejection of this basic liberal tenet.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 7, 2013 at 13:31

The Land Act of 1913 and its alternatives

with 12 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