Empty Land Myth

Historians (Marks 1980 and Nigel Worden1994:5-6) contend apartheid ideology was supported by a mythical history of South Africa as once being an “empty land” into which whites migrated and legitimately came to control the land and resources. The myth contends descendants of European colonists (Dutch, French, and later British) who had begun a permanent settlement from 1652, after their initial contacts with the indigenous settlers in the vicinity of the Cape and their subsequent subjugation, moved into an “empty land”. Some white thinkers developed several myths (see Thompson 1985) about South African history to support and legitimate the social and political structures that dominated non-whites and which protected white rule in South Africa. Stellenbosch University academic NJJ Olivier’s views epitomised support for apartheid and expressed the empty land fallacy thus:

“In the beginning of the 17th century the greatest portion of the southernmost part of the African continent was practically uninhabited. When the Dutch colonists settled at the Cape in 1652, the migrating Bantu tribes had scarcely crossed the northern borders of what is today the Union of South Africa. In course of time the east and northwardly expanding White colony had to meet the southwards-moving Bantu tribes, and eventually at the end of the 18th century, they met, and clashed, in the eastern parts of the present Cape Province. It is, therefore, a complete fallacy to state that the Bantu in South Africa have a stronger aboriginal claim to this country than the Europeans: the Bantu were at the time as much foreigners to this country as the Whites were. Equally fallacious is the prevailing assumption that the Bantu had to part with this land under duress, and that the whites stole their land from them; in this connection the Whites in South Africa have a record far superior to their brethern [sic] in North America!” (Olivier 1954:1-2)

Such views legitimised white politicians’ claims to land in a later period of consolidation of white rule across South Africa. Prime apartheid ideologue, HF Verwoerd (1961), propagated a version of the myth which claimed, subsequent to the simultaneous settlement of the land, clashes did occur between black and white over the borders of their respective territories in the nineteenth century, but, since the passing of that era, in the twentieth century, descendants of the white settlers who had conquered a greater part of the empty territory generously ceded land to the ‘Bantu’.

From the early part of the twentieth century both black and white liberal, radical and Marxist professional historians produced scholarly research that attempted to write South African history from the viewpoint of the subordinated black groups as well as to disseminate to the international community their viewpoint on the consequences of white racial domination and oppression. They used archaeological evidence as proof of settlements dispersed across the southern African interior predating the arrival of Europeans. Wilson and Thompson (1969) claimed archaeological data pointed to the presence of hominids across parts of South Africa at least two million years back, to the existence of tool-making cultures at least 44, 000 years back, to evidence of the Khoi and San ancestors’ presence at least 11, 250 years back, and the presence of the Nguni, Tsonga, and Sotho language ancestors in the south eastern and north eastern parts of the country long before the arrival of white settlers. From the initial settlement of Dutch traders in 1652, then French Protestants and British in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, whites expanded their settlement into the interior from the late eighteenth century and clashed with African people in several wars over control of the land; African chiefs often permitted whites the use of land in terms of African traditions of land use, but whites were accustomed to the notion of the exclusive right of individuals over a piece of land (Wilson & Thompson 1969:268). Whites occupied and set up governments in different parts of South Africa; sometimes they obtained land through cordial arrangements with African chiefs, but they also often directly clashed with African traditional states for tracts of land or settled on land uninhabited by Africans (Davenport 1977:43-93; Maylam 1986:2-67; Worden 1994:5-33).

Post-apartheid state departments disseminate a revised history which states that archaeological studies prove modern humans settled in territories in the borders of present day SA since at least 100 000 years ago, and artifacts surviving from the third century AD indicate these peoples reached an ‘Early Iron Age’ by that time (Maylam 1986:2- 9). These human populations comprised: hunter and gatherer San groups who roamed different parts of the interior; Khoekhoe pastoralists who settled mostly around the southern and western coastal regions; descendants of the Bantuspeaking peoples’ series of migrations from central Africa which led to a variety of population groups engaged in agro-pastoralist livelihoods and settled on the north-eastern and eastern regions some hundreds of years before the arrival of European settlers. Evidence shows that at least around the 13th century such Bantu settlements existed in this north-eastern region. Maylam (1986:9-11, 17- 19, 34-5) argues artifacts of a ‘Late Iron Age’ between 900AD to 1400AD suggest some of these inhabitants changed their settlement patterns from villages to scattered family homesteads, and that different forms of peaceful interaction occurred between the various peoples whom apartheid ideology would later choose to rigidly classify into specific ethnic groups as well as precisely demarcate limited areas of claims to their ancestral settlement. Recent accounts (Letsoalo 1987:18-20) of land tenure systems practiced by Bantu peoples across southern Africa claim these traditional states practiced private land ownership, and not “communal land tenure” as is commonly misunderstood, with established traditions for granting land to members of the community such as in the case of newlyweds, as well as granting land to non-members immigrating to the domain of another ethnic group.

Besides the scholarly work of historians, black organisations and political activists also challenged Olivier’s sense of history. In 1955, delegates to a meeting in Kliptown in the Transvaal province organised by the ANC adopted the Freedom Charter; the document’s non-racial inclusivist nationalism creed proclaimed “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, both black and white” (Karis, Carter & Gerhart 1977:205-8). ‘Africanists’ in the ANC maintained a contrary restricted notion of who made up the South African nation and who could make ancestral claims to the land. They formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959. A Transvaal PAC organiser, ST Ngendani wrote they were furious that the ANC document claimed “the land no longer belongs to the African people, but it is auctioned for sale to all who live in this country.” (Karis, Carter & Gerhart 1977:505). During the 1980s, Mosiua Patrick ‘Terror’ Lekota, a prominent member of the internally based anti-apartheid organisation, the United Democratic Front (UDF), expressed a different sense of the historical events Olivier wrote of and why he felt the Freedom Charter promised to provide a practical, fair and just approach to the unequal distribution of the land:

“The wars of dispossession (stretching from the late 17th century down to the Bambata rebellion of 1906), the Land Acts of 1913, the Hertzog Acts of 1936, deprived African people throughout the country of whatever meaningful land ownership rights they had ever enjoyed. …” (cited in Cronin & Suttner 1985:198)

The Freedom Charter and the Pan Africanists’ opposing generalised view of black Africans’ ancestral ownership of the land divided liberation movements for several decades, and continues to do so after 1994. My discussion of land protests after 1994 in later chapters shows it is apparent that the conciliatory Freedom Charter and the generalised ancestral claim to the land still serves to mobilise people against aspects of the ANC government’s land reform and housing policies, although these people are not necessarily affiliated to the PAC.

After the British conquest of inland territories controlled by the ‘Boers’ (the term the Dutch descendants adopted to identify themselves as ‘farmers’) between 1899-1902 (Davenport & Saunders 2000:203-8, 213-32) and the unification in 1910 of the different white-controlled regions into a single state, the Union of South Africa, the minority white-controlled state also employed various measures of repression of black mobilisation and resistance which challenged the legitimacy of the state and sought to improve their circumstances. The spirit of legislation the Union government passed, such as the Natives Land Act, Act no. 27 of 1913 (Union of SA 1913), and its later amendments, secured and legitimated white control of about 87% of the country’s land mass. This Act prohibited the sale of land to ‘natives’ in those parts of the Union that came under white control after colonial conquest, and it contained an exhaustive schedule of areas where natives were permitted thereafter to purchase or hire land. Effectively, this compelled those Africans living in the remaining 13% of the land, called Reserves, Bantu Areas, Bantustans, or Homelands, and who were subject to Union taxes as well as in need of cash, to send male members of households to livelihoods earned as migrant labourers, or a source of labour power for the white-controlled economy (Murray 1987:1-3).


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