As far back as 1850 the white rulers of the (then) Transvaal had shown themselves totally incapable of devising a system that would bring in sufficient revenue to finance both military expenditure and civil administration. And unity, if anything, served only to compound their difficulties.

Because the cost of acquiring and defending land was far more than the treasury could afford, payment was made by securing land against debts. At best it was a short-term holding operation – for it meant having to find new land with the further expenditure again secured by the provision of land against republican currency.

When large areas of the country became unavailable for burgher occupation, the authorities tried to solve the problem with a two-pronged initiative: the first involved using land rather than currency to pay officials; the second revolved around the issuing of exchequer bills (known as mandaaten) for services rendered to the State.

But without capital, labour, or markets, the land acquired by many of the less well-off proved almost worthless. Indeed, the only way they could profit by its acquisition was to sell it – at first to richer members of the Boer community, and later to speculators outside the republic [and remember much of the land was acquired by theft in the first place].

At a time when large tracts could change hands for as little as £25, an array of Boer notables – usually top-ranking government officials – acquired ‘little countries’. In the Lydenburg district, Volksraad member Hendrik Bührman owned 18 farms by 1869. But even this paled into insignificance when compared with the landholdings of Johannes Vos, the landdrost clerk of Marthinus Wesselstroom: taking advantage of yet another badly thought-out government scheme (that offered burghers one or more quitrent farms in addition to their freehold farms), Vos had acquired 120 such holdings by 1866.

Other prominent Boers such as Paul Kruger and Piet Joubert, both of whom had access to privileged information, made small fortunes buying and selling off land. Kruger, in fact, went as far as quitting his favourite pastime – hunting – to concentrate on land speculation.

But while the rich got richer, the country got poorer. In 1865, in a new bid to bail the republic out of its financial difficulties, the government decided to print paper money, again using land as security. But the currency was so worthless that it was rejected even by state officials, who together with clergymen, traders and other individuals chose rather to pay with credit notes called ‘good-fors’.

In 1868, 1,000 farms totalling 3-million morgen were used to guarantee the issue of paper money. When the bubble burst and creditors started presenting their chits, vast chunks of the republic passed into the hands of British absentee landlords such as Parker Wood and Company, the Harmony Company, and AL Devenish who between them acquired 77 farms. Small companies and private individuals acquired dozens more – usually at public sales in the bustling, diamond-rich northern Cape town of Kimberley.

From Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa – the Real Story

Edited by Dougie Oakes