Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘South African history

Writing a biography of an uncharted people

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Two weeks ago, early on the Tuesday morning while still in bed, I opened my laptop to start the day. I was staying in a guest house in Guelph, Canada, where I was on a short visit before heading off to the Economic History Association meetings in San José at the end of that week. Scanning through my mails, my eyes came to rest on an address I had expected – an email from our Development and Alumni Relations officer. It read only: ‘Geluk Johan!’ – ‘Congratulations Johan!’ Our Mellon application was successful. The Biography of an Uncharted People project had begun.

The idea for the Mellon project had started roughly a year earlier. South Africa’s individual-level census data for much of the period before 1948 has not been preserved, and economic history is increasingly moving towards understanding ‘history from below’, using large datasets to investigate the social, demographic and economic aspects of human behaviour in the past. Fortunately, large numbers of other types of individual-level records have been preserved in South Africa’s archives, and are increasingly being digitised by institutions such as These records include things like marriage records, death notices, voters’ rolls, tax censuses and slave emancipation records. Using such source material, I believe, would have two main benefits: firstly, it would open many new avenues for historical inquiry and, secondly, it would help equip history students with the skills of the data revolution, something I’ve written about before.

Dyanti Ngcita

An example of a Cape province death certificate

But transcription is expensive. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, however, is a generous supporter of research in the humanities, and after a rigorous internal and external application process, with many excellent competing project bids, we received, on that wonderful Tuesday morning, the happy news of success – starting in January 2018, the project will be funded for five years.

This will not only be a South African project. We have brought together an impressive team of scholars, with a wide range of expertise. Now we are scouting for academically dedicated and enthusiastic students to join us in writing this new biography. We offer bursaries from postdoc to Honours level. More information is available on the project website.

I am excited about what the newly transcribed information, currently hidden away in millions of unused documents, can reveal. I am excited about building a team of dedicated and brilliant young scholars, a team that can continue long after the five years funding term. And I am also excited to join a new faculty and department, encouraging inter-disciplinary research that will, hopefully, provide new insights into the lives of South Africans, present and past.


I, Krotoa

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Last Friday at around noon, I ended a class on European settlement at the Cape and the demise of the Khoesan by lamenting the lack of public acknowledgement for some of the Cape’s most famous Khoe inhabitants. Autshumao was one of the first translators and interlopers between the trading Dutch and local Khoesan clans. Gonnema was a proud leader of the Cochoqua, who fought the Dutch in three Khoe-Dutch Wars. And then there was Krotoa, Autshumao’s niece, who was brought up by the Van Riebeecks. Here is her short Wikipedia bio:

On 3 May 1662 Krotoa was baptised by a visiting parson, minister Petrus Sibelius, in the church inside the Fort de Goede Hoop. The witnesses were Roelof de Man and Pieter van der Stael. On 26 April 1664 she married a Danish surgeon by the name of Peter Havgard, whom the Dutch called Pieter van Meerhof. She was thereafter known as Eva van Meerhof. She was the first Khoikoi to marry according to Christian customs. There was a little party in the house of Zacharias Wagenaer. In May 1665, they left the Cape and went to Robben Island, where van Meerhof was appointed superintendent. The family briefly returned to the mainland in 1666 after the birth of Krotoa’s third child, in order to baptize the baby. Van Meerhoff was murdered on Madagascar on 27 February 1668 on an expedition.

Krotoa returned to the mainland on 30 September 1668 with her children. Suffering from alcoholism, she left the Castle in the settlement to be with her family in the kraals. In February 1669 she was imprisoned at the Castle and then banished to Robben Island. She returned to the mainland on many occasions just to find herself once more banished to Robben Island. In May 1673 she was allowed to baptise a child on the mainland. Three of her children survived infancy. She died on 29 July 1674 in the Cape and was buried on 30 September 1674 in the church in the Fort,

Pieternella and Salamon, Krotoa’s two youngest children from her marriage to van Meerhof, were taken to Mauritius in 1677. Pieternella, who was known as Pieternella Meerhof or Pieternella van die Kaap, later married Daniel Zaaijman, a VOC vegetable farmer from Vlissingen. They had four sons and four daughters, one of whom was named Eva, and the family moved back to the Cape in 1706.

I ended my class by suggesting the students consider these local figures when they think about renaming campus buildings, as had happened last year during the #FeesMustFall movement. What I had not known, was that at that exact moment, Krotoa’s spirit was returned to the Castle of Good Hope where her remains had been removed from a century ago. Here’s the news report:

Gathered around a tree at the Groote Kerk, they [traditional and religious leaders] burned an incense plant and beckoned for her soul to rise from the unmarked grave where her bones had been held.

Her remains had been removed from the grounds of the Castle of Good Hope, nearly a century after she was buried there.

On Friday, some of her descendants returned with her spirit to the castle.

A few months ago, after uncovering an old computer file that contained my genealogy, I discovered that the wife of my paternal great-grandfather – Wynand Breytenbach Fourie – was one Johanna Beatrix Fourie. Her maiden name: Zaaiman.

Many other South Africans also descend from Krotoa. It is in the math – here’s Stephen Fry on the topic. Almost all white South Africans today must have some non-European heritage, given the women of Khoe or slave (especially) origin who married Dutch or German or French (or, in Krotoa’s case, Danish) men at an early stage in the country’s history.

Although several novels have appeared that feature her – most famously Dan Sleigh’s Eilande and Dalene Matthee’s Pieternella van die Kaap – Krotoa, and the tumultuous times she lived in, has been largely neglected from popular discourse. Fortunately, that is changing. In the ceremony on Friday, she was variously described as a child labourer, a feminist, and a language fighter who helped create Afrikaans, even a martyr. An Afrikaans/Nama movie that feature her life is now in post-production stage. Armand Aucamp plays Jan van Riebeeck and Crystal Donna Roberts an older Krotoa.

But more should certainly be done. Monuments and renamed buildings and public places can play a role, but because Krotoa’s story is claimed by so many (as Heritage Consulatant Tracy Randle explains in this interview), these memorials will remain contested. Some activitists protested outside the Castle on Friday, for example. Last year, a bench which had Krotoa’s face engraved in mosaic art, and which was located at Krotoa Place, the small square at the intersection of Castle Street and St George’s Mall, was destroyed.

Much like 350 years ago, Krotoa embodies the tragedy and disillusionment but also the hopes and aspirations of our fractured society. Unshackled to anyone or any group, hers is our story.

Or, as Lara Kirsten observes in her poem Vir Krotoa (For Krotoa):

in haar skyn die hoop
wat nog by ons mense spook

(in her shines the hope that still frightens our people)

Written by Johan Fourie

August 25, 2016 at 08:46

How Zuma’s words disempower black South Africans

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Who wears South Africa's diamonds? Source: BBC

Diamonds (and colonialism) are forever. Source: BBC

Black South Africans have suffered a lot over the last two centuries. I am an economic historian and, together with some of my students, have recently begun a project which hopes to quantify the material inequalities between black and white South Africans over the last 200 years. It is not easy, because the colonial records have often ignored the black experience. And yet, there are clues everywhere. From early nineteenth-century government payrolls (where black translators earned one-tenthousandth of what the white governor earned) to mid-twentieth century cadaver heights (where blacks are significantly shorter in height than their white compatriots).

All this evidence points to the incredible material injury of black South Africans. And this is to say nothing of the psychological scars and social strife that has accompanied this material hurt.

This suffering is much longer than the colonial experiences of many other Africans on the continent. Although Van Riebeeck already arrived in 1652 and first contact with the isiXhosa’s at the infamous Fish River was more than a century later, this was still much earlier than the colonial experiences of other African countries, which started around the end of the nineteenth century. True, many countries across Africa suffered the vulgarities of the slave trade, most pronounced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But South Africa’s colonisation, I would argue, was worse, with Europeans subjugating complex agricultural societies to material inferiority by taking their lands, stealing their cattle and, above all, exploiting the minerals that they had claim to. (Is it not ironic that the Queen of England still wears Africa’s most prized diamond?)

When and where black societies adjusted to the new reality of colonialism – proverbially pulling themselves up by their shoelaces – they were punished, either through higher head and hut taxes to ensure that they remain docile labourers, or through more sinister (but also more effective) policies, like building a railroad circumventing the black areas, excluding blacks from the vote despite their immense contribution (to both sides) during the Second South Africa War, or, most infamously, by providing rubbish education (with the 1953 Bantu Education Act). For two centuries, at least until 1994, whites did their best to discourage, disrupt and, when those two did not work, destroy, African innovation and entrepreneurship.

All this changed in the new South Africa, for although blacks were (and many remain) at a serious disadvantage, there was no one to now stand in their way. And so, we witness the rise of the black middle class and the black diamonds. Sandton today is perhaps the epitome of this black entrepreneurial class; confident, successful, prosperous. South Africa has moved from a nation of between-group inequality (i.e. white vs black inequality) to a nation of within-group inequality. As an example, if all of South Africa’s whites were to leave the country tomorrow, the Gini coefficient (the measure social scientists use to quantify the inequalities of a country) would remain exactly the same. Over the last two decades, millions of black South Africans have escaped poverty and moved into the middle class; some studies estimate that this group is now close to 5 million people, larger than the total white population. And yes, whites have prospered too, despite their complaining and moaning about everything from BEE to racial quotas in the Springbok team. None of this hurt them (on aggregate), and the only things that do hurt – violent crime, corruption, blackouts – hurt black South Africans even more.

But the post-1994 South Africa is not a narrative about a minority group that represents less than 10% of South Africans. Instead, it is a story of a people rising up from the depths of economic and social deprivation. It is a remarkable story of courage, determination, and perseverance and triumph-against-all-odds. Black South Africans have claimed their birth right and begun to overturn centuries of injustice. They have had to skill up, build up collateral, educate the next generation, all with relatively little support from a government that first had to steer a sinking ship through shallow waters. And more: they have had to reconcile with racists, so magnanimous a step that we forget it is called a miracle.

And yet, when Jacob Zuma blamed apartheid for Eskom’s blackouts and when he branded Jan van Riebeeck the scapegoat for the country’s high levels of inequality, he changed the narrative again. Suddenly, South Africa was not a country where black South Africans had the agency to affect their own destiny, but one where whites had (again) the starring role. This tiny minority, Zuma implied, was the lead actor in the South African story; his statements suggest that black South Africans are, at best, supporting characters, much like in the days before 1994. While whites are up in arms at being blamed for everything, they are happy to be part of the conversation again, happy to be listened to, happy to have their say. (For, really, why should South Africans otherwise care about the opinions of a former presidential secretary?)

Zuma does this, I would argue, because it gives him legitimacy (much like Bob Mugabe gets legitimacy by blaming the whites in Zimbabwe, now less than 1% of the population). But Zuma is wrong. While this may still be a country home to millions of whites, it is certainly not a country about them. By blaming whites, Zuma is denying black South Africans the right to take ownership of their own future.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 3, 2015 at 10:43

Robert Ross and the voyages of discovery

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I was fortunate to attend a workshop on African history in Leiden this week. The workshop, organised to coincide with Robert Ross’ valedictory lecture tonight, brought together his students and colleagues from all over the world: Austin (Texas), Livingstone, London, Melbourne and seemingly everywhere in-between. It was a testament to the immense impact Robert Ross, who has been at Leiden’s Center for African Studies for nearly 40 years, has had on the field. Although I know him as one of the most prominent historians of South Africa, the papers presented over the last two days reflected his wide-reaching interests: from the puzzle of the slave trade in Saudi Arabia, the lives of African interpreters in the Congo, the rise and fall of a pineapple canning factory in Zambia, to the conservation efforts of a mid-twentieth century chief in Northern Malawi.


Xhosa and Kat River Khoe warriers in the 8th Xhosa war, 1851 (Source:

To me, though, Robert Ross is South Africa’s foremost historian of the colonial period. His books have made telling contributions to our understanding of slavery (Cape of Torments: Slavery and Resistance in South Africa), race relations (Beyond the Pale: Essays on the History of Colonial South Africa), and, probably his most well-known, class and status (Status and respectability at the Cape of Good Hope: A Tragedy of Manners). He was senior editor of the Cambridge History of South Africa Volume 1 to appear in 2010, and has just published a book on a group of fascinating South Africans: Khoe farmers in the nineteenth century Kat River Valley of the Eastern Cape.

One of Ross’ most important contributions, I argued in my talk yesterday, is a manuscript he published with his student, Pieter van Duin, in 1987. The Economy of the Cape Colony in the 18th Century used statistics from the vast VOC records in Cape Town to show that the Cape economy was more dynamic than earlier historians had assumed. Here is the introduction to my paper, available online, that explains this important contribution:

For much of twentieth century scholarship, the capitalist, industrialising South African economy began with the 1860s discovery of diamonds in the interior. The Cape Colony of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries  was, to quote some prominent authors, a ‘social and economic backwater’, ‘more of a static than a progressing community’, a slave-based subsistence economy that ‘advanced with almost extreme slowness’. The traditional view was that although pockets of wealth emerged close to Cape Town during the eighteenth century, this relative affluence was overshadowed by the increasing poverty of the frontier farmers who, ‘living for the most part in isolated homesteads, gained a scanty subsistence by the pastoral industry and hunting’.

In the 1980s Robert Ross, economic and social historian of the Cape, subverted this view by extolling the virtue of numbers. He was the first to recognise the value of the mass of Cape production statistics assiduously collected by the Dutch East India Company.  Ross argued that the belief that early Cape farmers ‘overproduced’ during the first half of the eighteenth century – that the market was too small to absorb the rising production of wheat, wine and meat – was ‘not only empirically false, but also conceptually absurd’. He showed that consumption was rising too, driven not only by the demand from ships sailing between Europe and the East, but also by an expanding domestic market of Company officials and settler farmers.

Ross’s seminal arguments of the 1980s, and his hard work digitising the production records of the Colony, breathed new life into a neglected area of South African history. Yet more than two decades later his cliometric contribution often goes unnoticed. In  this paper I summarise a new body of work that uses econometric techniques and largely confirms Ross’s arguments. In the introduction to her recent history of mining in South Africa, Jade Davenport suggests that before mining began in the latter half of the nineteenth century, ‘South Africa was a sleepy colonial backwater whose unpromising landscape was seemingly devoid of any economic potential’. Robert Ross and his students would not agree.

Because Ross’s earlier work was central to my PhD research, I visited him several times in Leiden while writing my dissertation. During one of these visits, knowing my interest in historical data, he showed me a census of missionary stations that had been collected in 1849. As he browsed through the data, I realised that this was a wonderful source to test the then fashionable technique of age-heaping, a way to estimate numeracy by exploiting the statistical properties of a society’s age profile. We agreed to investigate this further, hoping that it might say something about the different strategies missionary societies used in their ‘civilizing’ efforts. And it did. Together with Russel Viljoen who collected the original data from the archives, we co-authored a paper on literacy at the Cape’s mission stations. I wrote about the paper in this 2012 blog post, and it has just appeared in the Journal of Southern African Studies.

Scholars such as Robert Ross leave a legacy much deeper than they might ever know. Often working on their own in archives or in one-on-one conversations with students, their legacies may not be as easily quantifiable as those of an entrepreneur or engineer. They often battle the publish-or-perish incentive system of universities focused on immediate outputs. And they often struggle with funding in disciplines that are not considered to have much economic value.

Yet their ideas have shaped – and continue to do so – how we understand ourselves. Their words and books uncover the unknown, hidden or forgotten; much like the European discoverers of the Middle Ages, they sail on fledgling ships to report of great riches and great knowledge. We sit at their feet. They are the interpreters from a distant land called The Past; they allow us to not only learn about it, but to learn from it. They inspire us to travel too, to take the leap. And so we find ourselves in dusty archives one fine Saturday morning. In search.

South Africa: A country of migrants

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The arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa (

The arrival of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa (

Continuous waves of people have flocked to this land. Inhabited for thousands of years by hunter-gatherer peoples, the first group of technologically advanced migrants arrived from across the Limpopo in what we today call the Bantu migration. Starting around 3000 BC around the modern-day border of Nigeria and Cameroon, a sedentary people with advanced technology – agriculture and bronze-working – began to move east and south, amalgamating with or simply displacing the hunter-gatherer peoples they found on their way south, eventually crossing the Limpopo somewhere around 300 AD. (We know this from using ethno-linguistic evidence: tracing the origins of the Bantu languages we find one common ancestor in in south east Nigeria.) The Bantu used two major routes to the south: starting in Nigeria, one traveled directly south, through the tropical rainforests of central Africa. The other traveled east first, around the forests, through the plains of modern-day Kenya and Tanzania and then south into South Africa. Arthur Blouin, a PhD candidate in Economics at Warwick University, use these two routes to test Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that climate influences technological adoption. He finds that these travel routes still matter today; the descendants of Bantu migrants that traveled through the rainforest (and thus lost their superior agricultural technologies) are less able to adopt new technologies today (yes, more than two millennia later) than those that traveled around the forests (and thus maintained their better technologies).

The Bantu migrants settled most of southern Africa, except for most of the desert-like region on South Africa’s north-western shore (which is why a few Kalahari San people still remain, pushed to survive in these extreme environments) and the plush south-western Cape, where the Mediterranean climate was unsuitable to the summer-rainfall crops of the Bantu. This meant that when Dutch settlers arrived in the mid-seventeenth century, the only peoples they encountered were the Khoe (descendants of Botswana San who had long before adopted cattle farming and migrated south) and the San (the original hunter-gatherer’s at the Cape). They became collectively known as the Khoesan (or Khoisan).


The Dutch arrived not to colonise but to control the route to the East Indies, where precious spices could secure huge profits for the shareholders of the East India Company. A small fort was constructed in Table Bay, but it was soon realised that the Khoesan could (or would) not provide enough cattle to supply the passing ships, and so a few company workers were released to become free farmers, the start of the process of colonial expansion. Not all of them were equally good farmers, though, and as Dieter von Fintel and I show, the Huguenots were more productive wine farmers than the rest. It was the Khoesan that suffered the most from the colonial expansion; by the end of the eighteenth century, descendants of European immigrants had settled most of their territory; those that did not perish from disease or skirmish could either flee (to the north, as many did) or accept their fate as labourers on the settler farms. They weren’t the only labourers on these farms, though. From early, Cape officials had begun importing slave labour, most of whom arrived from the Indian Ocean regions of Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and the East African coast. The image above, from my paper with Joerg Baten, shows the regions where the slaves came from (at least in our data set).

Not only were settlers moving east (augmented by about 5000 British settlers in 1820), but the Mfecane forced many groups to move west, away from the powerful and violent Zulu kingdom of Shaka on the coast and, in the interior, Mzilikazi’s Matabeles. Some estimates have it that up to 2 million people died in these tribal conflicts. This depopulation of large parts of South Africa made the journey of a few thousand settlers across the Orange River possible, a migration now known as the Great Trek. By 1840, very few South Africans (black and white) had been born in the same district (or country) they were then living.

The settlement of Afrikaners and subsequently British settlers in fertile Zululand meant that tropical crops like sugar could be produced. Yet sugar required large-scale labour, and even though Zulu labour could be found, the sudden discovery of diamonds in and around Kimberley meant that wages were at a premium. Instead, Indian indentured labourers were imported, and in vast numbers. More than 150 000 Indian labourers arrived by ship between 1867 and 1902 to work on the plantations. After the discovery of gold in the 1880s in the Witwatersrand, and the Second South African war which disrupted the labour flows of black workers to the mines, close to a 100 000 Chinese labourers also arrived at the start of the twentieth century, although most returned to China a few years later.

European and African migrants continued to move to South Africa throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in search of employment (on the mines) and a higher quality of life. And they still do: close to 5% of South Africa’s population today, according to official statistics, are immigrants. (This Nando’s ad sums it up pretty well.) Yet the benefits and costs of migration are fuzzy: Paul Collier writes in a contentious new book – Exodus – that migration is good (as most economists would agree), but that too much of it will be bad (both for the host country and country-of-origin). This is the best review I’ve read. His most important contribution, I think, is in rephrasing the question: instead of asking whether immigration is good or bad, we should rather be interested in how much more migration would be beneficial, and to whom?

Over the next two days, economic historians in South Africa will discuss these question at the 10th ERSA Economic History workshop (hosted by North West University, Potchefstroom campus). Immigration is likely to become an even more perplexing political topic in South Africa over the next decade. It’s best we understand its impact on our past.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 3, 2013 at 10:18

Global apartheid

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I have recurring nightmares of an incident that happened to me at a consulate a couple of years ago. (For my own safety, I won’t mention which country’s consulate.) This was my second visit to said country (the first one had been to a different part of it), and I was particularly excited to go, having only heard wonderful things and because I would meet new and old acquaintances at the meeting that was scheduled there. I had prepared all required documentation for my appointment at the consulate; I travel quite frequently and know the drill by now. I arrived. A very friendly looking lady welcomed me, and asked how she could help. I’m here for my visa application, I said. Great, show me your documents. I did. All was going swimmingly.

StampedThen she noted that the fees had increased. I don’t remember the exact amount – I’ve since tried to block it out – but it was somewhere around R900, plus R300 postage. I remarked on how expensive it is, simply to visit a country. She looked up blankly, her smile gone.

“You can be lucky we allow you at all.”

Those words still ring in my ears every time I have to apply for a visa, Schengen (to visit countries in the European Union) or otherwise. It is without exception a frightening experience (although, I must say, some consulates are better than others. Again, no names). Make no mistake, it is also expensive, not only in terms of money but also because many countries now require you to fly up to Pretoria once every five years to undertake a five-minute test (I live in Stellenbosch, which is close to Cape Town – about 1400 km from Pretoria). I’ve heard of a number of friends and colleagues that have decided to cancel their trips abroad when they realised the effort required to get what is essentially a sticker in a scrapbook. (It would be fascinating to get South Africa’s outgoing tourism numbers to see whether the imposition of these new rules have curtailed travel to those countries – dissertation topic anyone?)

Yet we – and the rest of the world – continue to find the system acceptable, even desirable. (Take for example our angst about Zimbabweans entering our country illegally, and the calls to better protect our borders.) We believe it is important to discriminate against people based on their nationality, on where they happened to have been born. Those fortunate to have been born in affluent countries have few restrictions on their movement; those born in the less well-off world are increasingly shackled to their roots.

This, to me at least, sounds a lot like a system we had in South Africa about a generation ago, a system which required certain groups in the country to carry a passbook (Wikipedia even calls it an ‘internal passport’). The passbook noted whether black South Africans requested permission to be in a certain area during a certain time, and whether that permission was granted or denied. It also explicitly asked for the reason of visit. To anyone who has ever filled in a Schengen visa application, this sounds eerily familiar.

You might say that there is a big difference between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on nationality. Surely countries must be able to fortify their borders, to keep out the unseemly, to protect their own economic interests against what would likely be a flood of economic migrants if immigration requirements were relaxed. Surely the survival of the self is salient – ‘our’ people, ‘our’ culture, ‘our’ language, ‘our’ religion. We see everywhere in Europe, even in mellow Denmark, Sweden and Norway (those bastions of equality), the rise of political movements that agitate for higher fences, stronger walls against the evil immigrants. And apartheid, the argument goes, was different: it was white South Africans that had taken the land of black South Africans and now required them to carry a pass to travel to what was essentially their own land.

I’m not sure it’s that different at all. The reasons the fathers of apartheid imposed these pass laws were also political: to protect the interests of their electorate, to protect ‘their’ culture, ‘their’ language, ‘their’ people against the encroachment of the ‘Black threat’ or ‘Commies’ or ‘liberals’, depending on the creativity of the leader. Make no mistake, black labour was important for the development of industrial South Africa, and white politicians were extremely aware of this. (So, too, in Europe.) But, these leaders argued, as long as these workers returned to ‘their’ people, ‘their’ areas after a few months of hard labour, then that would be the best for everyone involved. And, in any case, these areas were ‘their’ traditional areas. Here they were partly right, of course, but chose to ignore the fact that large parts of formerly black lands had been confiscated by whites two or three generations earlier. (Most of South Africa’s first land redistribution occurred in the nineteenth century. The new ownership was solidified by the 1913 Land Act.)

Yet, to return to the global comparison, the South African experience was not so unique: Texas belonged to Mexico until 1836, yet it is extremely difficult for Mexicans to enter the United States, legally or illegally. And then there are the many colonial experiences: the Scramble for Africa has turned into the Scorn of Africa. Ruled by Britain for 104 years, black South Africans now need to pay a tenth of their median annual income to just land at Heathrow airport (even if just for a connecting flight).

“You can be lucky we allow you at all.”

If apartheid was a crime against humanity – which I believe it was – then how do we justify global apartheid?

Written by Johan Fourie

August 22, 2013 at 09:10

The Land Act of 1913 and its alternatives

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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