The history of white colonial land dispossession began at the Cape with the expansion of the Dutch colonial settlement established by Jan van Riebeeckon behalf of theDutch East India Company(VOC). On 24 December 1651, accompanied by his wife and son, Jan van Riebeeck set off from Texel in The Netherlands for the Cape of Good Hope. Van Riebeeck had signed a contract with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to oversee the setting up of a refreshment station to supply Dutch ships on their way to the East. Sailing on the Dromedaris with two other ships, the Rejiger and De Goede Hoop, Van Riebeeck was accompanied by 82 men and 8 women. When Van Riebeeck left The Netherlands in 1651, the Council of Policy, a bureaucratic governing structure for the refreshment station, had already been established. On board the Dromedaris Van Riebeeck conducted meetings with his officials – minutes of the meetings of the Council of Policy, dated from December 1651, have been carefully archived. Initially, he was authorised to set up a refreshment station for the company’s ships, but with the need for a more sustainable source of meat and vegetable supply more land was required. Land was sighted on 5 April 1652 and the ships docked the next day. Within a week of the arrival of the three ships, work had begun on the Fort of Good Hope.
The aim was to establish a refreshment station to supply the crew of the Company’s passing trading ships with fresh water, vegetables and fruit, meat and medical assistance. However, the first winter experienced by Van Riebeeck and his crew was extremely harsh, as they lived in wooden huts and their gardens were washed away by the heavy rains. As a result, their food dwindled and at the end of the winter approximately 19 men had died.
The arrival of Van Riebeeck marked the beginning of permanent European settlement in the region. Along with the Council of Policy, Van Riebeeck came equipped with a document called the ‘Remonstrantie’, drawn up in the Netherlands in 1649, which was a recommendation on the suitability of the Cape for this VOC project. Van Riebeeck was under strict instructions not to colonise the region but to build a fort and to erect a flagpole for signalling to ships and boats to escort them into the bay. However, a few months after their arrival in the Cape, the Dutch Republic and England became engaged in a naval war (10 July 1652 to 5 April 1654). This meant that the completion of the fort became urgent. Fort de Goede Hoop – a fort with four corners made of mud, clay and timber – was built in the middle of what is today Adderley Street. Around this a garden was planted and meat was bartered for with the Khoikhoi (who were initially called Goringhaikwa, and later Kaapmans).
The construction for Castle of Good Hope which stands today only began in 1666, after Van Riebeeck had left the Cape, and was completed 13 years later. Although the VOC did not originally intend to establish a colony at the Cape, permits were issued in February 1657 to free nine company servants (who became the Free Burghers) to farm along the Liesbeeck River in order to deal with a wheat shortage. They were given as much land as they could cultivate in three years but were forbidden to trade with anyone other than the VOC. With the number of private farms increasing, by 1659 the station was producing enough to supply any passing ship. The station also began to experience a chronic labour shortage and because the Khoisan were seen as ‘uncooperative’, slaves were imported from Batavia (now northern Jakarta) and Madagascar in 1657.
The land on which the Dutch farmed was used by the Khoikhoi and the San, who lived a semi-nomadic culture which included hunting and gathering. Since they did not have a written culture, they had neither written title deeds for their land, nor did they have the bureaucratic framework within which to negotiate the sale or renting of land with strangers from a culture using written records supported by a bureaucratic system of governance. Hence Van Riebeeck, coming as he did from a bureaucratic culture with a unilateral, albeit written, mandate to establish a refreshment station, refused to acknowledge that land ownership could be organised in ways different from the Dutch/European way. He denied the Khoisan rights and title to the land, claiming that there was no written evidence of the true ownership of the land. Consequently, in 1659 the Khoikhoi embarked on the first of a series of unsuccessful armed uprisings against the Dutch invasion and appropriation of their land – their resistance would continue for at least 150 years.
In response to the growing skirmishes with the local population, in 1660 Van Riebeeck planted a wild almond hedge to protect his settlement. By the end of the same year, under pressure from the Free Burghers, Van Riebeeck sent the first of many search parties to explore the hinterland. Van Riebeeck remained leader of the Cape until 1662. By the time he left the settlement in May 1662 it had grown to 134 officials, 35 Free Burghers, 15 women, 22 children and 180 slaves. The day of Jan Van Riebeeck’s arrival became a public holiday with the 300th anniversary in 1952 and was celebrated as Van Riebeeck’s Day until 1974.
During the tercentenary celebration on 6 April 1952, the Joint Planning Council made up of members from the African National Congress (ANC), South African Indian Congress (SAIC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of Democrats (COD) held mass meetings and demonstrations throughout the country as part of the lead up to the Defiance Campaign. The ANC and Transvaal Indian Congress (TIC) issued a flyer entitled ‘April 6: People Protest Day.’ In 1980 the public holiday was changed to Founder’s Day. The holiday was abolished in 1994 by the democratically elected ANC government. However, statues of Jan van Riebeeck and his wife remain in Adderley Street, Cape Town. The coat of arms of the city of Cape Town is also based on that of the Van Riebeeck family, and Hoërskool Jan van Riebeeck is a popular Afrikaans high school in the centre of Cape Town. Land was seized from the Khoikhoi, and later the San, to increase Dutch grazing pastures, expand their farming activities and to establish settlements. Over time, the reduction of grazing pastures traditionally used by the Khoikhoi, as the Dutch setup farms, resulted in conflict between the two groups.
Over time, the Dutch defeated the Khoikhoi and expropriated more of their land. Deprived of their livelihood, they were forced to seek employment on the farmlands of white colonial settlers. After the British took over the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806, colonial expansion and dispossession were expanded even further into the interior. Tensions between Dutch and British forced the Voortrekkers to begin migrating from the Cape Colony in 1834 into the interior to escape British rule. Along the way they fought, seized and occupied land while dispossessing Khoikhoi, San and African communities in the process.
The British in this period annexed land too, particularly in Natal with its accessibility to the east coast port) at times claiming conquered land from the Voortrekkers. This opened up the interior of South Africa to further colonial conquest. Conquest and land seizure were achieved through warfare complemented by dubious “treaties”, which colonists claimed were signed by the illiterate chiefs or leaders of communities. African communities fought to defend and regain their lost land, but the superior weaponry and collaboration by other local communities enabled the colonists to prevail. “Native” reserves were established from as early as 1848 in Natal by Theophilus Shepstone and these became a feature of British colonization across the continent. The explosion of the mineral revolution with the discovery of diamonds and gold gave more impetus to the colonial government to consolidate and entrench its rule. The British and Afrikaner landowners and industrialists set in motion a process that would consolidate their wealth, while excluding black people through legislative means. Thus, resolutions, proclamations and ordinances played a key role in legitimizing systematic land dispossession and segregating South Africa.
After the end of the South African War, the British and Afrikaners began working on establishing theUnion of South Africa, which was accomplished in May 1910. However, black people were excluded from meaningful political participation in its formation and the future of the Union. By the time the Union was formed, land dispossession had largely been accomplished and segregation was beginning to take root. The white minority state consolidated its grip passing more laws to dislodge African people, who had survived land dispossession through entering into sharecropping and tenancy in white-owned farms.
The Natives Land Act passed in 1913 denied Africans access to land – which before they had either owned or leased from white farmers – confining them to reserves. These reserves were expanded over time to become the Bantustans or Homelands under the Apartheid government. It is important to note that by the time the Land Act was enacted, South Africa was already moving in the direction of spatial segregation. Other legislation targeting Black African and Indian people were also passed, such as the Native Trust and Land Act, Natives (Urban Areas) Act, Trading and Occupation of Land Restriction Act and the Pegging Act to name just a few. The ascendancy to power of the Apartheid government in 1948 under the National Party (NP) took land dispossession and segregation even further. The passing of the Group Areas Act, the Native Resettlement Act and the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act among other laws sparked forced removals of African, Indian and Coloured people from their areas of residence. After the collapse and dismantling of Apartheid, legislation revoking laws that dispossessed people were passed and new ones were enacted.
The newly elected government set in motion a process that allowed people who lost their land after 1913 to lodge land claims for restitution. Despite efforts to address the land issue, the legacy of land dispossession remains visible on the South African socio-political landscape. This feature focuses on the history of the Land Dispossession and Segregation as a critical edifice in the building of a racially and spatially divided South Africa. Anyone who travels over the vast expanse of South Africa is immediately struck by the great variations in its landscape and the differing contexts and conditions under which Black rural people live.
The picture of Black rural South Africa in the hinterland of the former Transkei, Natal and Limpopo where there is still attachment to the soil, differs greatly from that of the Free State and the Cape countryside where, to a large extent, rural people eke out a living as farm workers on commercial farms. These in turn are very different from the coastal areas where subsistence fishers face a daily battle for survival. Despite these differences however, there are many commonalities. The first is the abject poverty and underdevelopment, the daily battle for survival that confronts the rural poor. But there are other similarities too. There are for example few, if any, places in the country where Black rural people are able to sustain themselves off the land alone. In fact, in many of our rural villages, people have lost all contact with the soil, subsisting almost completely from social grants and urban remittances. These peculiarities can only be understood by going back to the past – to the history of land dispossession and the manner in which European settlers accumulated capital and laid the foundations for their own well-being at the expense of the indigenous people.
The struggle between Boer and Briton, the mining revolution, the struggles of the White working class, the creation of the Bantustans, the ravages of the migrant labour system and the pass laws have left an indelible mark on the landscape of the country and on the lives of the indigenous population that endures to this day. Overcrowding and underdevelopment in the former Bantustans, poor soil quality in the marginalized lands that people were coerced onto, lack of resources, landlessness and land hunger are but some of the problems that the new democracy in South Africa has to confront.
It is a matter of great and outstanding concern that there is a deep- rooted sense of deprivation and injustice amongst the majority, who daily have to live side by side with the opulent wealth of the few; accompanied by their experience that being Black still means being desperately poor with few options for escaping the poverty trap. Underpinning this inequality is a racially skewed distribution of land. Land policy in South Africa over the past one hundred years actively supported the emergence of White commercial agriculture and capitalist profiteering through, among other measures, eliminating independent African production and restricting access to land in small communal reserves designated solely for African occupation. While acting as reservoirs of cheap and largely male labour, these communal areas were also ‘dumping grounds’ for the elderly, women, and children deemed as surplus to the labour needs of the White economy. The resolution of the land question in favour of White capital was thus central to the making of contemporary apartheid South Africa.
The 1996 Constitution of South Africa was adopted in order to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. This was the promise made to all the citizens of SA, Black and White, rich and poor. As we celebrate the almost three decades of democracy and its astonishing achievements, we need to recall the unfulfilled promises and ask to what extent the poor have had access to social justice and fundamental human rights, particularly on land ownership. Our collective reflection should suggest the wisdom of acknowledging that land is key to redistributive justice in South Africa and that without an equitable resolution of the land and agrarian question, there can be no lasting peace.
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