Land issue is rooted in history of dispossession

File picture: Leon Lestrade/ANA

IN APRIL 1876, Dinkwanyane, the youngest son of the Pedi chief, Sekwati, sent a defiant letter to the landdrost of Lydenburg in present-day Mpumalanga, via Albert Nachtigal, a German missionary.

His anger revolved around a matter that up to today has never been resolved in similar scenarios over many decades throughout the country – land theft. 

“I will address you Boers, you men who know God,” Dinkwanyane wrote. “Do you think there is a God who will punish lying, theft and deceit?” “I ask you now for the truth, I pray for the truth because I also speak my whole truth. I say: the land belongs to us.”

The landdrost wasn’t interested. Three months later, Dinkwanyane, who had converted to Christianity in 1864, was dead – of wounds sustained in a battle with the Boers and their Swazi allies at his headquarters of Mafolofolo.

Thus, the land inhabited by Pedi, Sotho and numerous other groups, like the land settled by Khoikhoi and San people at the southernmost tip of Africa, and like the land in the eastern and south-eastern parts of the continent, inhabited by the Zulu and the Xhosa, was forcibly taken by Dutch and English colonisers.

South Africa has a sad history of land dispossession. It is a narrative in which the adults of many indigenous communities were hunted down and killed, where their children were kidnapped and turned into inboekselings (slave labourers) and where land, crops and livestock were claimed as trophies of war.

The experience of Dinkwanyane and his people was therefore not new….

Land theft started shortly after Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 to start a refreshment station for Dutch ships sailing to and from the East. Matters worsened when the first group of colonists – the so-called “free burgers” – were allowed to farm for their own profit.

Soon, clashes over land increased in intensity….After Khoikhoi and San were declared vermin by the Dutch authorities, they were systematically hunted down by armed burgers with orders to shoot to kill on sight.

It drove many of the indigenous inhabitants into the interior. Meanwhile, the arrival of groups of British settlers in the Eastern Cape intensified an already tense relationship between European settlers and Xhosa communities, culminating in a series of frontier wars.

The first of these wars broke out in 1779, with another eight wars following over the next 100 years. The chief cause of these hostilities was contestation over land – in effect ongoing invasion and confiscation of land belonging to the Xhosa by the colonialists.

Probably the most brutal of the frontier wars was launched on Christmas Day, 1811, when troops under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Graham (after whom Grahamstown is named) marched into Xhosa territory.

On January 1, 1812, they reached the hideout of Xhosa chiefs Chungwa and Ndlambe, and Graham chillingly set out his plan of action: “My intention … is to attack the savages in such a way I confidently hope will leave a lasting impression on their memories and show them our vast superiority in all situations. I have ordered 500 men to enter the wood on foot … with orders to stay there as long as a kaffir remains alive.”

His orders were followed to the letter, with his adjutant, Robert Hart, writing that Xhosa men and women were shot indiscriminately, whether they offered resistance or not.

The Governor of the Cape, Sir John Cradock, was ecstatic over the outcome – so much so that he decreed that the headquarters of the troops be renamed “Graham’s Town in respect for the services of Lieutenant-Colonel Graham, through whose spirited exertions the kaffir hordes have been driven from that valuable district.”

Policies adopted by the authorities in the Eastern Cape turned out to be a dry run for the land strategies of the apartheid National Party when it came into power in 1948.

The Glen Grey Act of 1894, inspired by Cecil John Rhodes, was aimed at driving black people off the land and into wage labour. In introducing the Act, Rhodes had complained: “We do not teach them the dignity of labour, and they simply loaf about in sloth and laziness. They never go out and work. This is what we have failed to consider with reference to our native population.”

In Natal, defeat at the battle of Blood River on December 15, 1838, against the Boers and later against the British (after they had initially triumphed at the Battle of Isandlwana), saw the kingdom of Zululand dismembered and annexed by the white colonial authorities in 1879.

In the interior of Southern Africa, the Boers simply rode roughshod over African communities. In most cases, they claimed land with guns in hand. And on the few occasions they did enter into negotiations with African chiefs, they ignored the fact that there was no concept of private property ownership among African communities.

Land was communally owned. Moreover, some “contracts” were concluded with chiefs who had no jurisdiction over the land being handed over. And even then, the payment the Boers made bordered on the ridiculous.

For example, land between the Vet and Vaal rivers – about 60 000 square kilometres – exchanged hands for 30 cattle. In other words one cow got them 2 000 square kilometres of land.

Following the formation of the whites-only Union of South Africa in 1910, the new government formalised land ownership via the Natives’ Land Act of 1913, in terms of which whites took 93 percent of the land, while blacks were given 7 percent. In 1936, the percentage 87 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

After the promulgation of the Act, Sol T Plaatje, the first secretary of the SA Native National Congress, which later became the ANC, was moved to write in his book, “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.”

Soon after the National Party came to power in the elections of 1948, it declared its intention of creating a South Africa for whites only. Blacks would be confined to homelands for their particular tribal group.

There would be no more black South Africans, NP Cabinet Minister Connie Mulder confidently predicted. This meant that black people living in what the new apartheid authorities saw as white South Africa – in hundreds of so-called black spots – had to be moved.

A number of laws were promulgated to bring this about. These included the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act, the National States Constitution Act (which allowed the government to move boundaries of homelands at will), the Black Prohibition of Interdicts Act (which barred the victims of forced removals to petition the courts) and the Group Areas Act.

Millions of African and coloured people in rural and urban areas were forcibly removed in terms of these pieces of legislation. Thousands were simply dumped in the veld, many kilometres from their places of work, or – as was the case with mainly coloured people in the Western Cape – moved to tiny, box-shaped houses on the Cape Flats.

These were the real victims of expropriation without compensation. These are the forgotten people for which the proposed expropriation without compensation seeks to compensate. 

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising in South Africa and in the UK in sports writing, politics and features. He also the Opinion Editor for Independent Media