No Farming, No Jobs! - 1913 Land Act and 2008 Labour Laws

The effect the SA labour laws have on the unemployed is similar to that which the iniquitous 1913 Land Act had on black farmers. Like white farmers then, employers are now subject to severe penalties for contravening the legislation. In both cases barriers to entry were legislated. In 1913 the law prevented blacks from owning land or farming. Today the labour laws prevent job seekers from getting jobs.

Threatened by a fine of £100 or six months imprisonment for a contravention, white farmers in 1913 were forced to abruptly terminate their partnerships and leases with their black partners and tenants, and turn away new applicants. (A sum of £100 in 1913 converts to about R107,000 today using CPI as a basis). Today, potential employers, especially small firms and individuals, are deterred from employing people because of the high price they would have to pay if they contravene the provisions of the labour laws.

In his book Native Life in South Africa, Sol Plaatje describes how black farmers trekked along SA’s roads with their livestock, searching in vain for a white farmer from whom they could hire land or with whom they could farm in partnership as they had been doing for years, arrangements that had been inexplicably terminated. “The law” would not allow them to continue. White farmers could only offer them wages in future, an option that did not interest them. They preferred to retain their independence.

The black farmers, whose livestock began dying from lack of food, could not believe that a piece of legislation could turn their world into such a hostile place. Previously the mutually beneficial arrangements with white farmers had allowed everyone to prosper.

Before the new law was passed, white farmers supplied the land, oxen, implements, seed, and kraal manure to fertilise the soil. Black farmers supplied labour and sometimes trek oxen and implements. The arrangement had worked well, especially after the Anglo Boer War when the Boer farmers returned to farms that had been burnt and destroyed by the British army when it implemented a “scorched earth” policy to prevent farmers’ wives from sustaining the Boer army with provisions from the farms. The black farmers who fled the farms in the face of the destruction, returned to them after the war with the wagons, implements, and trek oxen they had managed to save. With the help of their black partners, white farmers were then able to rebuild the farms, sharing the crops, based on the contributions made by the respective partners.

The 1913 Land Act did not impact negatively on black farmers only, it had negative consequences for their white partners as well as it deprived them of arrangements that suited them far better than having to rely on reluctant employees. They lost too the shared responsibility of their black partners for tending the crops, success when the crops were good and losses when they failed. The Act also deprived white farmers of a larger potential market for land they wished to let or sell. This legislation therefore had far-reaching and long-term negative consequences for the economy. However, the worst consequences by far were the unwarranted taking of property from black landowners, the summary removal of their right to contract in matters relating to land, the betrayal of trust, the bitter humiliation it brought upon black farmers, and the ever-lasting harm it caused to the relations between black and white South Africans.

Today, it is poor and unemployed South Africans (most of whom are unskilled black people) who are the victims of legislation. While the labour laws are directed at employers, certain aspects of those laws cause many people to be unemployed and to remain unemployed. According to StatsSA, 3.9 million members (25.5%) of the potential workforce are “officially” unemployed but the figure rises to 7.4 million (48.4%) when those who have given up looking for employment are added to the total.

The black farmers who were dispossessed of their property and contractual rights by the 1913 Land Act were championed by the organisation that was to become the African National Congress (ANC). Sol Plaatje was the first Secretary and his book documents the perfidy of the politicians who drove the legislation through Parliament against the opposition of what Plaatje described as the “ministerial group” and the apparent discomfort of many others who spoke out against the injustice of what was being done but did not vote against the measure.

It is incongruous that the government of the day now claims, without any apparent discomfort, that the labour laws do not cause unemployment. Do they not recognise the similarity of the consequences brought about by the 1913 Land Act that they hated with justifiable passion, and the labour laws that have been placed on the statute books? Do they not recognise that the farmers who trudged from farm to farm looking for farmland to lease or a farming partnership have been replaced with today’s unemployed who trudge from business to business looking for work?

In 1913, contractual rights to buy land, hire farmland or enter into partnerships with white farmers on mutually acceptable terms were withdrawn by statute – white farmers were severely punished if they contravened the law. In 2008, contractual rights of the unemployed to enter into contracts with employers on mutually acceptable terms have been withdrawn by statute – employers are severely punished if they contravene the law. Is the similarity not striking?

Those who framed the 1913 Land Act knew what the consequences of their actions would be, and engaged in a deliberate and brutal act of dispossession. The Minister responsible for the current labour legislation has acknowledged that it has had unintended consequences: that it was a mistake. The intention was to provide greater job security, not to cause unemployment. The brutal fact is that the legislation has caused unemployment and the harm should be undone as soon as possible. The misery of the unemployed and their families in 2008 is no less poignant than that of the dispossessed farmers and their families in 1913.

Government can easily test the accuracy of the statements of those who maintain that the labour laws do not cause unemployment, or the alternative, our statement that they do. Give the unemployed the right to enter into contracts with employers on mutually acceptable terms, exempting the resultant agreements from the labour laws, and let us see whether or not the unemployed get jobs.

Authors: Temba A Nolutshungu and Eustace Davie are directors of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the authors. The views expressed in the article are the authors' and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Feature Article / 27 May 2008
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