At the stroke of a pen, it is said, millions of black South Africans lost their land. Yet land alienation was not in fact the major intention and outcome of the Act. By and large, dispossession had already taken place after the colonial wars of the 1800s.
The Land Act came at the end of this process. In certain respects the Land Act aimed to constrain further dispossession. It did not, as is often suggested, set aside 13% of the agricultural land for black South Africans, but rather 7%, with the promise of more to come – a promise that took 23 years to be realised.
The 1936 Native Land and Trust Act set in motion, especially in the then Transvaal, a large-scale state-led process of land acquisition from white owners and transfer to Africans. In the Transvaal, 444870 hectares were added to the paltry 912971 hectares reserved by the 1913 Act. A common comment is that the Act set aside the least productive land for African communities, but in fact substantial areas with significant agricultural potential in the heart of the old kingdoms were included.
It is also important to recall that, both before and after 1913, white-owned land was not occupied only by whites. Black people predominated on the great majority of white-owned farms in South Africa.
Many of those in the rural areas of the Free State, northern Cape and western Transvaal were sharecroppers – largely, though not exclusively, African smallholders who farmed on white-owned land and who, instead of paying rent, gave a portion of the crop, usually about half, to the landowner.
However, the 1913 Act was also designed to control the forms of tenancy allowed in white-owned areas. Sharecropping or rent tenancy would be abolished. Africans were forbidden to purchase or rent land outside the areas specifically scheduled for their occupation. Finally, certain areas were allocated for African occupation only, the intention being to formalise the system of reserves already well established in the Cape and Natal.
Relatively independent existence
The Land Act did signal the direction South African agrarian life and policy were taking. An increasing proportion of white landowners wanted fuller control over their land. They also competed for labour with the mines and growing cities, which offered higher wages.
African land ownership, sharecropping and rent tenancy enabled African people to congregate on some land and to defend a relatively independent existence as smallholders with some choice on the labour market. The 1913 Act did not aim to move black people off commercial farms but to keep them there as workers rather than tenants.
It is often argued that the Land Act destroyed a surplus-producing African peasantry and thus ushered in impoverished labour reserves. Yet the evidence suggests that the African elite during the first half of the 20th century, disadvantaged as it was in competition for land and capital, largely sought to secure its future through education and the professions rather than farming.
Innovative and accumulating sharecroppers, freed from the constraints of the communal lands and the political control of chiefs, could have formed a base for competitive African farming but they were undermined over the long term. For Africans in the heart of the old reserves, the Act had little immediate impact. By 1913, their economic self-sufficiency had been undermined in most parts of the country. They were already partly dependent on income from migrant workers.
We should not lose sight, either, of the fact that the Land Act was an important foundation stone for a much longer-term drive towards a white vision of racially segregated worlds in South Africa. More sharply defined separate territories were gradually consolidated in the apartheid era (1948 to 1994). There Africans lived under regimes of semi-functional and patriarchal chieftaincy in impoverished areas bereft of infrastructure.
Many assumed that the bantustans would be swept away by the new democratic dispensation after 1994. In practice, the ANC prevaricated and has increasingly tilted towards sustaining this social order through a series of measures culminating in the Traditional Courts Bill. These areas are still characterised by relatively high levels of poverty and low levels of opportunity; the divisive legacy of the Land Acts remains, despite the political transition.
An appropriate response to the centenary of the Act demands not only discussion of the longer history of land dispossession and land reform, but also a much wider-ranging debate on how to forge a substantive common citizenship for all.
Professor William Beinart is at Oxford; Professor Peter Delius is at the University of the Witwatersrand