‘AWAKING on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.’ This is Sol Plaatjie’s memorable verdict on the Natives Land Act (NLA) recorded in his book Native Life in South Africa, first published in 1916. Some of the most poignant words written by a South African, they speak to the very heart of the country’s twentieth-century tragedy, with repercussions that live on today.

In Tsala ea Batho, Plaatje described Africans on the ‘brink of a precipice’. The NLA addressed two closely connected white economic fears: labour shortage and competition from African farmers. It did so by outlawing land ownership and occupation by Africans outside designated reserves, thus extending to the country the law of the Orange Free State (‘Only Slave State’ in Plaatje’s words).

The consequence was to prejudice two practices: share cropping, a form of inter-racial agricultural partnership that had proved highly successful, particularly in the Free State, although it was resented by poor whites; and land rental. The major change was a shift from rent payment to labour tenancy and wage labour. As historian Colin Bundy puts it, ‘Peasants became serfs’. The Land Act was not just about land, it was a revolutionary measure designed to effect long-term change in the political, economic and social relationship between whites and Africans. In Plaatje’s view, it ‘arrest[ed] … native progress’, condemning Africans as a group to labourer status.

In the short term, the very success of independent African farmers was regarded by whites as a factor in labour scarcity; Africans were becoming too well-off and had to be excluded from the modern economy. The people disparagingly referred to as squatters were, in fact, competent small farmers. African farming, virtually indistinguishable from white, went into steep decline and wages of farm labour were driven down. In Natal, A.T. Bryant described how the Act established greater control over labour, to the benefit of increasingly commercialised farming.

The parliamentary opposition pointed out the haste involved: the NLA had not been included in the governor-general’s speech and the legislation was railroaded through in one session. The Land Commission that should have preceded it reported only in 1916, with what Plaatje described as ‘diabolical’ consequences. Unusually, the governor-general agreed in advance not to withhold royal assent. The amount of land purchased by Africans was minuscule, suggesting that the NLA was based on a deliberately contrived panic. It was a punitive measure, an act of dispossession with short-term economic imperatives driven by longer-term political ambition. Plaatje called it class legislation: although it purported to limit white rights in the reserves, he pointed out that there was ‘no such person as a white squatter’. Bill Johnson writes that with supportive legislation that followed in the twenties, the NLA was a ‘cornerstone of white supremacy’.

The tone of the debate in the House of Assembly confirms this. Minister of Native Affairs J.W. Sauer promised that ‘the bulk of the two races, the European and the native, should live in the main in separate areas’, although the NLA did not apply to municipalities. He argued that land purchases by Africans were ‘accentuat[ing] feelings of race prejudice and animosity with unhappy results’, and there was frequent mention of the ‘native problem’, the ‘squatting evil’ and ‘friction’ in what was clearly regarded as a white man’s country.

Selby Msimang wisely interpreted the legislation as the reflection of a white view that there was no community of interest with Africans. This was to have dire consequences. The Unionists supported segregation but called for administration, not legislation. Speakers expressed concern about the voiceless millions; justice, toleration and the fate of workers who had contributed to development; the positive role of individual land title in developing societies; and the effect of rigid demarcation: ‘a wire fence’ in Patrick Duncan’s words. T.L. Schreiner, elder brother of Olive Schreiner and the NLA’s most trenchant critic in parliament, asked how areas that already showed a high level of racially mixed ownership could be unscrambled, a question answered decades later by the brutality of apartheid-era bureaucrats.

The immediate result was the uprooting of thousands of Africans, their livestock and possessions in the mid-winter of 1913. Plaatje describes at first hand the refugees and their starving cattle, victims of ‘harsh and callous instigators’. He recalls the death of a baby whose outcast parents had to dig a ‘stolen’, and presumably forever unmarked, grave in the dark. In Bessie Head’s words, Africans had become a ‘floating landless proletariat whose labour could be … manipulated at will’. Many ended up in the reserves, protectorates or towns. There is evidence that farmers anticipated the passage of the Act before June: sharecroppers were either thrown off the land or forced to relinquish their stock and become wage labourers. An underdeveloped peasantry confined to the reserves provided a reservoir of cheap labour for the mines that transferred the costs of reproduction to rural areas.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this was an era of growth for independent churches, the leaders of which, with their millennial tendencies, held some promise of land and security. And it was a rallying point for the infant South African Native National Congress, of which Plaatje was the first secretary-general. He travelled with delegations to London in 1914 and 1919, in unsuccessful attempts to get the legislation overturned, his book a powerful polemic written specifically to promote this doomed cause. But his words were prophetic: ‘South Africa has, by law, ceased to be the home of any of her native children whose skins are dyed with a pigment that does not conform with the regulation hue.’

Sharecropping and rent-paying tenancy survived clandestinely. Although the 1936 Native Land and Trust Act, which released more land, abolished common-roll franchise and established the consultative Native Representative Council, was even more draconian, it was only in the sixties that final evictions took place. Labour tenancy survived because of the weakness of the agricultural sector and the inability of farmers to compete successfully for workers. Ironically, until the fifties, the number of Africans on white farms increased. The history of South Africa has largely been one of struggle over land and labour.

The NLA was repealed in 1991, and under a democratic dispensation a process of land restitution and reform was started, which remains largely unrealised. But in the 100 years that have elapsed, the basis of advanced modern economies has shifted from resources such as land to intellectual capital. The desire to reverse the malign effects of the NLA now has as much to do with the national psyche as the economy.

● The land set aside for African occupation comprised 25 locations in Natal and 21 in Zululand, plus mission reserves (21), a fragmented allocation of just over six million acres in all, of a total of about 27 million (more than 20% and well above the national average). In 1913, the African population of Natal numbered 831 000, of whom 430 000 lived in locations or reserves, 57 000 on Crown land, 35 000 in urban areas, 48 000 in service and 261 000 on white farms. It was the last group that was most at risk from the NLA.

● Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje (1875−1932) was largely self-educated. He was a postal worker and court interpreter, and prior to World War One edited two newspapers, Koranta ea Bechuana and Tsala ea Batho. He translated Shakespeare’s plays into Setswana and wrote Mhudi, reputedly the first African novel.

This article was first published in The Witness on 20 June 2013 and entitled ‘Cornerstone of white supremacy’.

Further reading: Sol Plaatje, Native Life in South Africa (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1995).