Pre-Apartheid Era Laws: Natives (or Black) Land Act No. 27 of 1913

Map showing the Bantustans in South Africa at the end of the apartheid period, before they were reincorporated into South Africa proper. by Htonl - Own work. Bantustan boundary data from the Directorate: Public State Land Support via Africa Open Data. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Black (or Natives) Land Act No. 27 of 1913:

The Natives Land Act (No. 27 of 1913), which was later known as the Bantu Land Act or Black Land Act, was one of the many laws that ensured the economic and social dominance of whites prior to Apartheid. Under the Black Land Act, which came into force 19 June 1913, black South Africans were no longer be able to own, or even rent, land outside of designated reserves.

These reserves not only amounted to just 7-8% of South Africa's land, but were also less fertile than lands set aside for white owners.

Impact of the Natives Land Act

The Natives Land Act dispossessed black South Africans and prevented them from competing with white farm workers for jobs. As Sol Plaatje wrote in the opening lines of Native Life in South Africa, “Awakening 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.”

The Natives Land Act was by no means the beginning of dispossession. White South Africans had already appropriated much of the land through colonial conquest and legislation, and this would become a vital point in the post-Apartheid era. There were also several exceptions to the Act. Cape province was initially excluded from the act as a result of the existing Black franchise rights, which were enshrined in the South Africa Act, and a few black South Africans successfully petitioned for exceptions to the law.

The Land Act of 1913, however, legally established the idea that black South Africans did not belong in much of South Africa, and later legislation and policies were built around this law. In 1959, these reserves were converted to Bantustans, and in 1976, four of them were actually declared 'independent' states within South Africa, a move that stripped those born in those 4 territories of their South African citizenship.

The 1913 Act, while not the first act to dispossess black South Africans, became the basis of subsequent land legislation and evictions that ensured the segregation and destitution of much of South Africa's population.

Repeal of the Act

There were immediate efforts to repeal the Natives Land Act. A deputation traveled to London to petition the British government to intervene, since South Africa was one of the Dominions in the British Empire. The British government refused to intervene, and efforts to repeal the law came to nothing until the ending of Apartheid.

In 1991, the South African legislature passed the Abolition of Racially Based Land Measures, which repealed the Natives Land Act and many of the laws that followed it. In 1994, the new, post-Apartheid parliament also passed the Restitution of Native Land Act. Restitution, however, only applied to lands taken through policies explicitly designed to ensure racial segregation. It, thus, applied to lands taken under the Natives Land Act, but not the vast territories taken prior to the act during the era of conquest and colonization.

Legacies of the Act

In the decades since the end of Apartheid, black ownership of South African land has improved, but the effects of the 1913 act and other moments of appropriation are still evident in the landscape and map of South Africa.

Revised and expanded by Angela Thompsell, June 2015

Resources:

Braun, Lindsay Frederick. (2014) Colonial Survey and Native Landscapes in Rural South Africa, 1850 - 1913: The Politics of Divided Space in the Cape and Transvaal. Brill.

Gibson, James L. (2009). Overcoming Historical Injustices: Land Reconciliation in South AfricaCambridge University Press.

Plaatje, Sol. (1915) Native Life in South Africa.