Restoration of our people’s dignity

09 April 2013

Most 100 year anniversaries are moments of happiness - an occasion to mark with joyous celebration. In June, South Africa will be marking a very different anniversary. This year marks 100 years since the promulgation of the 1913 Natives Land Act that saw thousands of black families forcibly removed from their land by the apartheid government.

The Act became law on 19 June 1913 limiting African land ownership to 7 per cent and later 13 per cent through the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act of South Africa.

The Act restricted black people from buying or occupying land except as employees of a white master. It opened the door for white ownership of 87 per cent of land, leaving black people to scramble for what was left.

What unfolded close to 100 years ago is nightmarish. It is unimaginable to think that the place you call home one day can be taken away from you, that life as you know it would change in an instant, forcing you to start again from the ashes of the life you once knew.  

Looking back, it is clear that apartheid truly was an evil system which systematically robbed people of their human dignity and rights. This brutal legislation not only deprived black people of their land it also tore families apart. Once the law was passed, the apartheid government began the mass relocation of black people to poor homelands and to poorly planned and serviced townships.

No longer able to provide for themselves and their families, people were forced to look for work far away from their homes. President Jacob Zuma rightly observed that the move marked the beginning of socio-economic challenges the country is facing today such as landlessness, poverty and inequality.

It is against this backdrop that black people found themselves displaced in their own land. In the words of African intellectual and activist Sol Plaatje: "Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth."

While the Act dispossessing black people of their land was promulgated in 1913, the dispossession of land began much earlier. The Act was also followed by a number of laws such as Natives Administration Act and Natives Urban Areas Act which severely restricted and repressed black people. The loss of land meant that black people had lost their gateway to livelihood and resources such as crops and livestock.  

The Land Act was finally repealed when The Abolition of Racially Based Land Measures Act, 1991 (Act No. 108 of 1991) came into force on 30 June 1991.

 The question of land still permeates our society and the centenary will bring the issue fore once more. Winston Churchill said that: "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it."

As the country prepares to commemorate the 100 year anniversary on 19 June, efforts to undo this historical injustice continue apace, albeit at a slower rate than anticipated. While this 100 years anniversary reminds us never to forget out brutal past, it critically calls on us to celebrate some of the successes we have made in reversing the injustices that were brought by these laws.

Driving the process of land restitution is the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinti. Following the democratic elections of 1994, the Government undertook to transfer 30 per cent of the land (24,5 million hectares) to black farmers by 2014, a target that seems unlikely to be met.

Thus far about three million hectares have been redistributed to communities, which constitute only 7 per cent of the set target of 30 per cent. Critics often point to the slow pace as proof that the land reform plan has failed.  But land reform is about much more than just mere numbers.  

Land reform has four pillars: redistribution, restitution, development and tenure reform. In a speech in Parliament on February 19, Minister Nkwinti said that until the establishment of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform in 2009, land reform had been narrowly interpreted to refer to the first two pillars. “The result has been a focus on the number of farms and hectares transferred from white owners to black claimants or beneficiaries of the land reform pogrammes”, he said.

Speaking to GCIS’ Public Sector Magazine recently, Minister Nkwinti said the aim of land reform should not just be how much land is given back to people, but how to equip land claimants with skills to create jobs, ensure food security, attract young people into farming and sustain farms for future generations.

If we narrowly focus on numbers alone we risk not learning from our past. Today’s world is a lifetime away from that of 1913, where farming and rural communities formed the backbone of society. Large swathes of society now live in urban areas and are unlikely to embrace farming as a career. Figures from the land restitution programme bear this out as 71 292 people have opted for financial compensation claims over land claims.

The land question will always be an emotive one that at times requires the “wisdom of Solomon”. On June 19, the nation will look back on our dark past and reflect how far we have come. Undoubtedly there have been many successes and we have largely succeeded in restoring the human dignity of people and communities who lost their land. But we are aware that much more must still be done.

Land reform and land restitution will continue well beyond the 100 year centenary on 19 June. Our common struggle in the future will be to sustain the land we have, to ensure food security and to create sustainable jobs in farming areas.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)