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The Land Question: A historical perspective on form and content


Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)

Land expropriation, with or without compensation, dominates South Africa’s over-abundance of contemporary controversies threatening to solidify existing divisions in our fractured society.

All South Africans agree that the land issue is highly emotive. Most South Africans agree that the 1913 Natives Land Act – an expression of the white supremacy upon which the then recently formed Union of South Africa was built – consolidated the sequence of uncompensated land expropriations, achieved by force or fraud since 1652.

What cannot be disputed is that the Land Act, legitimised by an all-white Parliament, reserved 92% of South Africa for the exclusive ownership of white colonial settlers, their descendants and any immigrants from anywhere in the world provided they were white.

This is to say, regardless of how one might see the question of compensation in 2018, land, in what became South Africa in 1910, was subject to an explicitly racist expropriation, sanctified in law in 1913.

And, yet, it is a serious mistake to understand the 1913 Land Act solely – or even mainly – in racial terms.

An over-racialising of the Land Act over-simplifies history, as will be made clear. Apart from the concerns of historians, this unduly racialised history has contemporary consequences that compound the binary distortions of our already heavily racialised present: white oppressors, black oppressed; white wealth, black poverty; white privilege, black pain; white robbery, black deprivation; white assertiveness, black deference.

With the land and its many laws being the focus of so much of today’s acrimony, it is easy to overlook that “the land laws were also labour wars”, to use CW De Kiewiet’s pithy assessment.

Lord Carnavon, Britain’s colonial secretary in 1867 and spiritual founder of what became South Africa, saw a single and strong modern state as essential to “bring an end to the political and economic independence of the Africans and to incorporate them as the working class of this economically and geographically expanding new dominion”.

While the dignity of land is a central theme in much of the current polemics, it was, ironically, the claimed “dignity of labour” that lay behind many of the official land laws of the day. According to Cecil John Rhodes:

It is our duty as a Government to remove these poor children (ie Africans) from this life of sloth and laziness, and to give them some gentle stimulus to come forth and find out the dignity of labour.

The “gentle stimulus” he had in mind, as the then minister of native affairs, was the Glen Grey Act of 1894. The Act, responding to the urgent need for large numbers of cheap workers following the discovery of gold and diamonds, introduced one of the many similar taxes deliberately designed to drive young and healthy African men off the land and down the bowels of the earth, as migrant labourers.

The Glen Grey Act was aptly named after the person who inspired the means, in the words of the noted historian, Colin Bundy, to “gouge wage-earners out of the countryside, and to dragoon and discipline a mass new work force” out of subsistence agriculturalists.

Earl Grey, writing in 1848 as Britain’s colonial secretary to the governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner of Natal, noted:

The disposition to be satisfied with ‘having a sufficiency to eat and time to sleep,’ … is that which almost universally distinguishes uncivilized men, and is the origin of the difficulty … of obtaining Zoolah labour …. But when the Zoolahs find themselves under the necessity of working, they will gradually acquire habits of industry; hence will spring a steady supply of labour, and Natal will become a more favourable field for the enterprise of Europeans …

The policy which I believe to be best adapted to promote civilization is… by such taxes as may tend most to… increase the amount of labour which, in a state of barbarism and in a country very thinly peopled, is necessary for that purpose…. [Cited by Jeff Guy, Women in Labour: the Birth of Colonial Natal, 2009]

Seeing black people as “barbarians” in need of being “civilised” by the dignity of labour is etched into our colonial history. So, too, is the use of racism to justify both the deliberate destruction of tribal society and the consequent rationalisations of treating black labour like the black slaves that preceded them elsewhere.

The Roman distinction between slaves and animals – a speaking instrument rather than a mute implement – aptly captures the conditions of the wage labourers deliberately created to maximise the super-profits of colonial racism. The 1913 Land Act reflected and reinforced this racialised wage-slavery.

The facts of a racial-capitalism are, indeed, an indelible part of our history. But too much must not be written into this. Capitalism has a global history; it’s a history, moreover, considerably longer and more varied than its particular emergence in South Africa might suggest. It’s a history that takes us beyond race.

The first lesson of this history is that capital, on its own, is not a sufficient constituent of capitalism. The missing prerequisite is labour. This universal truth was well captured by the president of the South African Chamber of Mines, even though he was probably unaware of the profundity of what he was saying when addressing the Chamber’s AGM in 1912:

We must have labour. The mining industry without labour is as bricks would be without straw, or as it would be to imagine you could get milk without cows.

Our general assumptions of the world include the idea that workers are a natural part of society. However, the reality is that each working class has had to be created and thus has its own individual history; its own form of realising a common content.

What emerges from this collective history is that capital will use any differences amongst people – whether real or manufactured – to justify the always bloody and forced creation of individuals, in sufficient numbers, who, being without land or the tools for making things, have only their own labour power to sell, if they aren’t to starve.

The oldest working class in the world is British. This is because capitalism first took hold there. The creation of the British working class is thus especially instructive. What emerges from this history is a complex combination of planned and unintended consequences over many centuries.

Foremost among the unintended consequences are the technical developments along with scientific advances that led to Britain’s Agricultural Revolution. These changes in agriculture drove large numbers of people off the feudally owned land and into what became the slums of British towns and cities, where, to survive, they offered themselves as workers.

The English struggle between Protestants and Catholics during the 16th and 17th centuries had similar unintended consequences. This was especially so in Ireland, which, until 1801, was a colony of England. The forced expropriation, without compensation, of land owned by the Catholic Church, with the English aristocracy and soldiers only too pleased to be given this stolen Irish land, resulted in 97% of Ireland being owned by landlords, most of whom lived in England. Landownership by these absentee landlords was so heavily concentrated that a mere 750 families owned 50% of the land.

These changes left most of the Irish desperately poor, with some 40% of them being reliant on potatoes as their major source of food. When, beginning in 1845, successive potato crops were destroyed by a fungus-like infection, the result was what became known as the Potato Famine. Some one million people died because of this Famine. Large numbers escaped starvation by leaving Ireland, with many of them moving to England, where they became known as Irish navvies, the world’s first despised and discriminated “economic migrants”.

One-in-three of the labourers who built Britain’s mass railway network were Irish workers.

Coincidentally, the Potato Famine coincided with the 1845 Enclosure Act, which was the last of similar Acts deliberately introduced to create the workers required by British capital at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

Successive Enclosure Acts removed the feudal rights to common land enjoyed for centuries by peasants or small-scale tenant-farmers. Exclusive ownership of the formerly common land went to the aristocracy or capitalists who increasingly became large-scale landowners. As EP Thompson puts it, in his magisterial, The Making of the English Working Class

Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers (p.237-8)

The first Enclosure Act deliberately designed to separate peasants from the land and thereby join the ranks of the working class was introduced, in 1801, to speed up the supply of cheap labour required by the rapidly growing cotton mills following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793.

By accident and design the Britain’s urban population grew enormously. Most of the city dwellers were desperately poor.

Their number and level of poverty was such that the New Poor Law of 1834 had to be introduced so that only the most desperate amongst the poorest of the poor would submit themselves to the “relief” of the workhouses.

The world has come to know these workhouses through the writings of Charles Dickens.

Emerging from this hugely condensed history of the creation of the British working class is that being of the same colour, language, religion or nation is no protection against cruelty and exploitation. The (white, Christian) British ruling class that so readily saw itself as civilised readily embraced the barbarism inflicted on its own (white, Christian) working class by capitalism.

Indeed, Frederick Engels was so traumatised by the conditions of the British working class in 1844 that he became Marx’s financier. Twenty-three years later, with Engels’ financial support, Marx used the first volume of his Capital to describe how and explain why capitalism everywhere entered the world stage “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt” and how this history is a history of “expropriation written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire”. [pp. 926, 875]

It was easy to be barbaric against the Irish because, although also white and Christian, they were Catholics, and, in any event, their native language sounded barbaric and the English they spoke was easily dismissed as foreign.

Social differences between the British ruling class – its landed aristocracy and, at the time, its barely tolerated new capitalists – and the new working class were so stark and, seemingly, a permanent part of nature, that the elite saw those below them as an entirely different race. In the words of a leading Victorian journal

The poor are a caste apart, a race of whom we know nothing, whose lives are of quite different complexion from ours, persons with whom we have no point of contact… [These differences would] last from the cradle to the grave. … The English poor man or child is always expected to remember the condition in which God has placed him, exactly as the negro is expected to remember the skin that God has given him. The relation in both instances is that of perpetual superior to perpetual inferior, of chief to dependant, and no amount of kindness or goodness is suffered to alter this relation.

Being the equivalent of a different race made morally possible the inhumanity with which the British ruling class treated workers who, in other contexts, would be their kith and kin.

This brings us back to the creation of South Africa’s working class and the particularities of its history “written in letters of blood and fire”. The point about the 1913 Land Act is simultaneously to affirm its racism while challenging the over-racialised understandings to which we are daily exposed.

Seeing the Land Act as the South African form of a universal process by which capital creates the workers without whom nothing can be made or sold forces us to look more critically at the terms of the debate over whether there should be any compensation for land expropriation.

After 24 years of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), we know enough to know that the only people who can be empowered under capitalism are the already empowered and those with the political power or connections to advance their elitist economic aspirations.

Corruption merely compounds this outcome. Land expropriation, with or without compensation, will, on its own, leave untouched the multiple poverties of the working class whose creation the 1913 Land Act consolidated by design.

This unavoidable conclusion takes us beyond race and the inherent limitations of capitalist empowerment and, in so doing, is the necessary first step on the road to finding 21st century answers to South Africa’s land question. DM


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