SA history of disrespect for property rights

Tragedies, such as legislated racism and disrespect for individual and property rights are generally manufactured by individuals with malign political intentions. The adoption of The Natives’ Land Act, 1913, is a historical example of this kind of political manipulation and these tragic consequences are with us today. Unfortunately, South Africans appear to be about to once again become the victims of the same kind of political manipulation.

Most people want to be left alone to live their lives in peace and with good will towards their fellow beings. Given the opportunity to vote directly on matters affecting their lives and relationships with others, they would never vote for the kind of disruption caused by the 1913 Act.

The notion that all white people in SA gained from the adoption of the 1913 Land Act and other political crimes against black citizens is contestable. Sol Plaatje, in his book Native Life in South Africa reminds us of this. The Land Act forced the white farmers who had entered into beneficial partnerships with black families to terminate these arrangements.

He wrote, in addressing the government of the time, “bear in mind that many landowners are anxious to live at peace with, and to keep your people as tenants, but that they are debarred from doing so by your Government which threatens them with a fine of 100 Pounds or six months' imprisonment”.

No white farmers, even those who were opposed to the adoption of this legislation, could defy the threat of the severe penalties contained in the Land Act. An amount of 100 pounds in 1913 would have bought 25 ounces of gold (more than R400,000 in today’s rand), or 6 months in prison. The threat prohibited any attempt to continue to farm in partnership with, or sell or lease land to, black farmers and totally deprived black citizens of their land rights.

There were, however, white farmers who sought to profit from the loss of rights the Act inflicted on black farmers living on their farms. They made outrageous and cruel demands on their former partners, which, upon being rejected as being totally unacceptable, led to families being evicted with their livestock from farms on which they had lived their entire lives. The consequences for the black farming families were appalling.

It also deprived black South Africans of property and the right to own land in their own country. The repercussions of this abominable political act are being felt 105 years later.

People currently engaged in the land debate should acquaint themselves with the facts regarding the 1913 Act, such as the account contained in Plaatje’s book. While being desperately concerned about the consequences he attempted to remain as objective as possible.

Prominent political figures in Parliament such as Patrick Duncan, Percy Fitzpatrick, and Theophilus Schreiner “contested the Bill in Parliament at every stage” losing one of the votes by 57 votes to 32 (64% to 36%). Plaatje described the process as “the grim struggle between right and wrong, and the latter carried the day”. We learn from Plaatje that the adoption of the Land Act was driven by racist politicians; that most affected citizens learned about the new law only when their partnerships were declared illegal and they were prohibited from continuing to freely contract with each other.

Those who supported the vote to adopt the Act were fed wrong information. The responsible Minister informed Parliament that during the previous three years, black South Africans had bought 50 000 morgen of land per annum, which according to Plaatje “scared every white man in the country”. It later transpired that this report was untrue, that the British occupation had legalised land ownership by black South Africans and that it was land they already owned to which they had received title deeds. The scare story that “black people were buying up all the land” appears to have been a deliberate lie to induce parliamentarians to vote for the Land Act.

Sol Plaatje, who was the first Secretary General of what was later to become the ANC, accompanied the organisation’s President, John Dube, and three other members to London to ask the British government to nullify the Land Act. Unfortunately for everyone, the First World War broke out in 1914, the British called on the South African government to support them in the war, and the hopes of help from the British government to repeal the Act were destroyed by the war and the insensitivity and lack of empathy for the natives as they were called at the time.

Had the free market prevailed in 1913, South Africa would not face the land question we have today. Economically, white farm owners found it to be more profitable to farm in partnership with black partners with crop-sharing incentives than to rely on wage labour. Plaatje also commented that radical racist white politicians were disturbed by what they regarded as the overly friendly relationships that existed between white farming families and their black family partners.

White South African farmers suffered not only the loss of good relationships with their black partners but the right to do with their property as they wished, and the right to sell it to black buyers. It also meant a probable reduction in the profitability of their farming operations in the absence of their dependable black partners.

The loss to their black partners was extreme. They were compelled to exchange their partnership positions for work as wage labourers, sell off their livestock at give-away prices, or leave with their livestock and try to find other places to live and graze their livestock. Tragically, they did not realise how the Land Act had slammed shut those options. Plaatje described how they tramped the roads looking for their preferred options, with their livestock dying along the way. The owners were eventually forced to sell off their stock and take up employment on the mines and in the towns and cities to earn money to care for their families.

The current proponents of expropriation of land without compensation should read Sol Plaatje’s analysis of the passage of the 1913 Land Act, the exposure of the fiction and scaremongering used in its motivation, and strongly reconsider what they are in the process of doing.

Eustace Davie is a director of the Free Market Foundation

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