Expropriating the Lives of the Poor

BETWEEN the 17th and 19th centuries, white – mainly Dutch-speaking – colonialists did not consider legal niceties when they coveted land on which groups of indigenous black people lived.

During white expansion in the 19th century, armed Boer commandoes didn’t seek permission. They didn’t offer to buy. They didn’t negotiate. And they certainly didn’t prepare any legal documents under the heading, ‘Land Expropriation without Compensation’ (or whatever the hell the Dutch translation of this was).

They had a far easier method of getting what they wanted.

Time after time in the interior of Southern Africa, their modus operandi was to shoot dead as many of the black land-dwellers as they could – and then kidnap their children.

And here’s something else to remember for those who picture Boer land-grabbers as rough around the edges, but essentially decent and brave pioneers, searching only for sufficient land to set up their own independent countries: the notion of private property was unheard of in African societies. Land belonged to the whole community. It could not be sold or voluntarily ceded by, say, a chief.

Add to this the fact that if it is considered that the main ambition in the area of education for the vast majority of Boers who had trekked from the Cape Colony was to be able to read the Bible, it becomes difficult to understand why they were – and continue to be – given the benefit of so much doubt for the manner in which they acquired land.

The primary method of land acquisition for both Boer and Briton in the first three centuries of colonialism in Southern Africa was theft through the barrel of a gun.

It took more than 240 years for land dispossession to be legalised in the Cape.

In 1894, Cecil John Rhodes introduced the Glen Grey Act to the legislature of the Cape Colony. Its purpose (which the National Party refined and then used 54 years later as the basis for its apartheid policies) was to force black communities off their land and into wage labour.

The Glen Grey legislation was followed in 1913 by the Natives Land Act, which confined African people to just over 7 percent of the land in the Union of South Africa, compared with the just under 93 percent that was set aside for the exclusive use of white people.

In 1936, in terms of the Natives Trust and Land Act, the 7.3 percent of South Africa that was given to African people, was extended to almost 13 percent.

It would be easy to counter the arguments against land restitution without compensation by some newspaper analysts by using these facts alone.

But to do this would let them off the hook far too easily.

Theft is theft, whether it occurred in the 1650s or during the high-noon of apartheid in the 1960s. It should never be forgotten that there was nothing good about the policies of the National Party.

I would like to highlight the specious arguments about the land and property policies of the National Party, by including observations contained in a harrowing book about the forced resettlement of Africans – The Discarded People’ – which was written in 1969 by a Roman Catholic priest named Cosmas Desmond. Furthermore, I would like to highlight the effects of the Group Areas Act of 1950 by drawing on my own rites of passage.

But first ‘The Discarded People’….

In a foreword describing the living conditions of African people who were forcibly removed from so-called blackspots (around 350 black communities around the country, which were surrounded by white residential or industrial areas), author Nadine Gordimer wrote: ‘Our separate development planners have explained at length why communities are moved; what we must not forget is that the important question that can’t be answered by any number of demographic maps is how communities live when they are moved.’

She noted too that ‘the physical conditions of life described in this book are such an appalling desolation that one is almost unable to think beyond bread and latrines’.

And Desmond wrote: ‘[T]he vast majority of people are not given any effective choice [about moving]. Firstly, many African people are so conditioned that they take any proposal from a government official as a command. ‘Secondly, they know that if they do not “agree” to move they will be liable to prosecution.’

He gave as examples how the Bakubung people were forced to move to Ledig in present-day North West after initially refusing to move, and the residents of Morajo in Thaba ‘Nchu, in present day Free State, who, having approached the Supreme Court for relief, were bluntly told to comply with the removal order.

Desmond warned: ‘If we are used to seeing Africans living in hovels in back gardens, cooped up in a location, or being treated like medieval serfs on white farms, then we will not be too horrified when we see them dumped in a veld with a tent and left to fend for themselves.’

By the time apartheid apparatchiks began conceding that their policies were unworkable, more than 3.5-million African people who had been living on the peripheries of rural towns had been forcibly uprooted and moved to the middle of nowhere, there condemned to lives of hopeless poverty.

This was apartheid at its worst. This was how the National Party expropriated land without compensation. This was how they destroyed the lives of rural inhabitants of South Africa.

But it was not only in the rural areas that the government stole property from black people.

Land was stolen in urban areas as well….

I spent my early childhood years in Diep River, a suburb located in the south of Cape Town. We lived in a rented, semi-detached, two-roomed house, in which the roof leaked in winter. But it was located near to the shops, and bus and train transport hubs.

When Group Areas inspectors came to tell the families in the road in which I lived that they would have to move, they asked: “Where would you like to move to? And because everyone had complaints about the houses, and because most people were politically naïve, they chose other suburbs south of the City, such as Plumstead, Wynberg, Claremont, Newlands and Mowbray.

My father, a postman, was entitled to a government housing subsidy. He had a sneaking feeling that a move to Newlands, Claremont, or any of the other places was not going to happen. He decided to investigate the opportunities on the other side of the railway line, in Heathfield.

He heard that a company called Model was building ownership houses there. He took the plunge – for R13 a month over 20 years, thanks to his Post Office subsidy.

And so we moved.

Two of our other close neighbours also moved.

Most of the others stayed – until one day they were given keys and the addresses of their new homes. They were told they would be moving to Manenberg.

I only learnt about the real trauma of that move years later.

We kept in touch with our old neighbours for a while – and we heard lots of stories about those who had moved to Manenberg. They were mostly sad tales. This one’s son was now a drug addict. That one was in jail. Those two were killed in a prison gang-fight. And so it went on.

In Cape Town, Group Areas legislation did much more than move people to the sandy wastes of the Cape Flats. It destroyed the lives of men and women who were unable to cope with living in a township. And worse, it set children on the pathway to drugs and gangsterism.

Today, when analysts and so-called experts speak about the danger of the Rand tumbling should the government change the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation my immediate response is to say, ‘Fuck you! You were happy to support apartheid or to say nothing about it. What do you know about being uprooted, about being forcibly removed, about having your family torn apart?’

The very least the Ramaphosa administration should do is base any of their decisions about land on the experiences of those who suffered so grievously at the hands of the administrators and supporters of apartheid.

But will they?