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Centenary of the 1913 Land Act


Address by President Jacob Zuma on Gala Dinner marking the Centenary of the 1913 Land Act, Cape Town

20 June 2013

Honourable Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform and all Ministers and Deputy Ministers

Distinguished participants,

Ladies and gentlemen,

As of yesterday 19 June, South Africa marked 100 years of the 1913 Land Act which dispossessed land from the black majority.

The then racist colonial government passed the Act that stipulated that blacks could no longer own land.

It also restricted black people from buying or occupying land except as employees of a “white person”.

By 1913, when the law was passed formalising the dispossession and theft of land from indigenous people, Sol Plaatjie pointed out, a black person found himself “not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth”.

While the Act dispossessing land from black people was promulgated in 1913, the dispossession of land began earlier than 1913. The colonial wars were in essence about land, with the indigenous people fighting endless battles to retain control of their land and dignity.

The land dispossession was a culmination of the aggression that had taken place against the Khoi and the San many years earlier, which is one of the most brutal forms of human aggression. It is reported that during Vasco Da Gama’s first voyage to India, the KhoiKhoi in the Cape Peninsula were numbering probably between four and eight thousand.

The Khoi people thought the Dutch were just passing through, until they saw them building a fort and planting vegetables and fruits.  From 1659 there was a war over cattle and the wars continued until around 1713 when the indigenous pastoral society started disintegrating.  Whites then took control of the fertile territory below the mountain escarpment extending 50 miles north and 40 miles east of Cape Town.

According to historians the Khoikhoi became a subordinate caste in the colonial society, technically free, but treated no better than the slaves.  During these wars, some were captured, thrashed and sent to Robben Island.

The 1913 Land Act was a step further, it served to formalise and institutionalise the dispossession of the indigenous majority.

ANC leaders of the time paint a helpful picture of the impact of the Land Act on the dispossessed.

President John Dube, writing in a 1914 article in Ilanga newspaper, said the following;

"It is only a man with a heart of stone who could hear and see what I hear and see and remain callous and unmoved.

“It would break your hearts did you but know, as I know, the cruel and undeserved afflictions wrought by the hateful enactment on numberless aged, poor and tender children of my race in this their native land.

“From the ashes of their burnt out kraals, kicked away like dogs by Christian people from their humble hearths, from the dear old scenes where their fathers were born and grew up in simple peace, bearing malice to none, and envying neither European nor Indian the wealth and plenty they amass themselves from this their land,

“these unfortunate outcasts pass homeless, unwanted, silently suffering, along the highways and byways of the land, seeking in vain the most unprofitable waste whereon to build their hovel and rest and live, victims of an unknown civilisation that has all too suddenly overwhelmed and overtaken them..."

The ANC, then called the South African Native National Congress, passed what is called the Resolution against the Natives Land Act, 1913 and the Report of the Natives Land Commission, in October 2, 1916.

Congress said;

"To deprive the Natives as a people of their freedom to acquire more land in their own right: To restrict or limit their right to bargain mutually on even terms for the occupation of or settlement on land: To reduce by gradual process and by artificial means the Bantu people as a race to a status of permanent labourers or subordinates for all purposes and for all times with little or no freedom to sell their labour by bargaining on even terms with employers in the open markets of labour either in the agricultural or industrial centres. To limit all opportunities for their economic improvement and independence: To lessen their chances as a people of competing freely and fairly in all commercial enterprises.

THEREFORE this Congress, representing all the tribes of the Bantu Races within the Union, earnestly prays that Parliament unhesitant(ly) reject the Report of the Natives Land Commission and instantly withdraw the Natives Land Act 1913 from operation as a statute."

And in 1919, ANC President Sefako Makgatho, addressing an ANC conference said the following; "in all countries and among all nations worthy of the name of a free people, these common rights to the purchase and sale of land are recognised as resting upon the elementary principles of justice and humanity, which are the heritage of a free people"

The Natives Land Act was just the beginning. It was followed by a number of laws such as Natives Administration Act and Natives Urban Areas Act which severely restricted and repressed black people.

President Makgatho described the pass system as a form of slavery.

And in his 1923 ANC Presidential Speech to conference, President Makgatho said the following, in reference to the Native Urban Areas Act;

"We have built the railways and cities, and have sacrificed precious lives in the gold, diamond, and coal mines...[hence] we feel justified in demanding the enjoyment of the fruits of our labour."

The loss of land meant that black people had lost their gateway to livelihood and resources such as livestock. It destroyed the potential economic growth that could have thrived from these farming communities.

The apartheid government also relocated all black people into improvised homelands and to poorly serviced townships. Since they could no longer provide food security for themselves and their families, they were forced to look for work far away from their families. The Act marked the beginning of socio-economic challenges the country is facing today such as landlessness, poverty and inequality.

The Act was enforced for 78 years until it was repealed in 1991, and during these many years it did enormous damage, so much so that despite 22 intervening years, the legacy of the Act stubbornly persists.

We take our hats off to the black people of this country and to the Khoi and the San people, for not allowing the pain of the past to stand in the way of building the present and the future.

The pain of being driven off one’s land is worse than anything one can imagine.

The importance of land was best explained by former ANC President AB Xuma when he said in his 1941 Presidential address to the ANC conference.

“The fundamental basis of all wealth and power is the ownership and acquisition of freehold title to land.

“From land, we derive our existence. We derive our wealth in minerals, food, and other essentials. On land we build our homes. Without land we cannot exist. To all men of whatever race or colour land, therefore, is essential for their wealth, prosperity, and health. Without land-rights any race will be doomed to poverty, destitution, ill-health and lack of all life`s essentials’’.

The democratic government in 1994 committed to address, in accordance to the rule of law, the inequalities in land ownership and particularly to those dispossessed as a result of it. Land dispossession is no doubt the fundamental violation of the rights of the indigenous people and the original sin so to speak, of those who came to settle in this country.

Thus the government undertook to redistribute 30 per cent of land to black people by 2014. Since 1994, government has been addressing land reform through restitution, redistribution and tenure reform.

This approach is guided by the national policy of reconciliation and nation building.

As we are all aware, progress has however been slow and we have admitted that the 2014 redistribution target will not be met. Only 6.7 million hectares of land had so far been transferred through redistribution and restitution.

Despite the slow pace of land reform, we were also concerned in 2009 by the slow progress with regards to the development of rural areas.

Our view is that people living in rural villages should also have water, electricity, sanitation, quality health care and education, roads and income generating activities.

It is for this reason that we decided to separate land reform from the Department of Agriculture, and to also make rural development a national priority. A brand new Ministry and Department were created.

The decision has been vindicated as finally, the two functions are getting the attention they deserve.

In 2009 we were confronted with 12 million people who continue to live with poverty in rural areas and skewed land.

Government still faced discordant spatial ownership patterns.  To correct this injustice was and is a mammoth task.

And in order to succeed, we need the backing of our whole nation.

As the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform has explained in public platforms this week, some progress has been made in land reform and that should be acknowledged.

A total of 4 813 farms have been transferred to black people through various redistribution programmes since 1994. This translates to more than four million hectares, benefiting 230 886 persons.

A total of 50 440 beneficiaries were women while 32 563 were young people, and 674 were persons with disability.

Of the more than four million hectares acquired, the Government had, since 2010, recapitalised 696 farms into full operation, employing 4 982 permanent workers and investing 1.8-billion rand in infrastructure, inputs and strategic support.

Of the 696 recapitalised farms, 332 were cropping and 364 were livestock farms. The gross income generated by these farms, as of 31 January 2013, was 126-million rand.

Today, the democratic Parliament held a special debate to pay homage to the millions of people whose lives were ruined by the Act.

We also have this important exhibition here for the public to live through this injustice.

The exhibition highlights the sordid history of bias, distortion and greed that has characterised our nation’s land distribution patterns.  It is an occasion for sober reflection.

But it is also an occasion for optimism.  The reality is that these days are behind us.

A great wrong was done, and now it is up to us to follow-up by doing a great right.  We are now in charge of our own destiny.  We have achieved a successful transition to democracy.  We have a model Constitution, based on fairness.

But we have not yet fully reversed the dreadful pattern of poverty and landlessness - the havoc created by the Natives Land Act.

Correcting the consequences of this Act is a critical cog in the wheel of state – it is a crucial component in the National Development Plan.

There can be no successful national development without accompanying rural development and land reform.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is good that there is still cooperation on this matter in our country and that the land question is treated with sensitivity.

When I delivered our State of the Nation Address to Parliament in February this year, I indicated that Government was considering the re-opening of the lodgement of land claims to those that did not lodge their claims by 31 December 1998.

I announced that we would also explore exceptions to the 19 June 1913 cut-off date to accommodate claims by the descendants of the Khoi and San, together with claims on heritage sites, and historic landmarks.

The Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill was approved by Cabinet for publication and public consultation on 15 May 2013.

In addition, the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Bill has recently been approved by the National Assembly and is presently before the National Council of Provinces for approval before it is signed into law.

These two Bills will help the reversal process.  But as I said earlier, success will require national support.

We are already looking ahead as to what our agriculture sector should look like in the next 30 years through the National Development Plan.

In this case, it is important to stress that land reform is not just about how much land is given back to claimants, but should include skills transfer.

Claimants should be empowered to use land productively for job creation, food security and attracting young people to farming.

Government will provide better incentives for commercial farmers that are willing and capable of mentoring smallholder farmers.

We will also provide adequate post-settlement support to new landowners so that land continues to be productive.

We call on all South Africans to commemorate this landmark, with a view to correcting the wrongs of the past and to reinforce reconciliation.

We urge the public to participate in the process of improving land redistribution and reform to reverse the impact of the 1913 Act.

We call on the public to engage in a meaningful debate about the acceleration of land restitution, within our constitutional framework.

Working together we can ensure that the repossession of lost land which was one of the tenets of our quest for liberation is achieved.

I thank you.

The Presidency




February/March 2020

















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