Traditional authorities were indispensable in the application of the provisions in the 1913 Natives Land Act in areas of rural South Africa designated as "Scheduled Native Areas”.  The Native Affairs Department (NAD) officials and successive ministers of Native Affairs had a peculiar understanding of the nature and basis of the power of chiefs in pre-colonial African societies.

They believed that traditional authorities were custodians of land who had a decisive role in land tenure systems. This approach was used extensively by Sir Theophilus Shepstone in KwaZulu Natal.

When the Union government was established, it simply continued the system and refined it over time and adopted by NAD officials and administrators across all the provinces. It bestowed on chiefs and traditional authorities the power to allocate land to their subjects. Where hereditary chiefs were not found, commoners were appointed.

The impact of and reaction to the 1913 Natives Land Act is extensively covered in respect of Africans on white commercial farms. Studies on the struggles of sharecropping and labour tenant African communities on white commercial farms abound. This feature considers the role of traditional authorities in the application of the 1913 Natives Land Act. It seeks to show that there were regional and historical variations in the way different chiefs and traditional authorities responded to the emerging political dispensation embodied in the Union of South Africa.

By the end of the 19th century, two forms of administrative models had evolved and were applied to Scheduled Native Areas across South Africa with varying degrees of success.  The first was elements of what became known as the ‘Shakan system’, based on the Zulu model of a centralized state. The second was a hybrid form of government based on both the direct and indirect systems. This was called the Transkeian model.

In the Transkeian model magistrates were appointed to head districts and were assisted by headmen to preside over locations. There could be up to 30 locations in a district. A headman, appointed by the colonial administration and under the authority of the magistrate, presided over each location. In the case of the Transkeian model, headmen were drawn from subordinate chiefs and ward heads of pre-colonial and pre existing political order. In the Transvaal provision was made for the recognition of chiefs. But this recognition was upheld until after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. The delay notwithstanding, some of the more powerful chiefs in the Transvaal enjoyed de facto recognition prior to 1910.   

In the Orange Free State in the early years of union, no recognition was accorded to chiefs and they were not incorporated into the administrative structures. This lack of uniformity prompted the union government to enact the Native Administration Act of 1927. Drawing from the despotic Natal system, the Act declared that the Governor General shall be the Supreme Chief of all natives in the provinces of Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

As Supreme Chief the Governor General ruled by a simple method of proclamations and wielded immense powers. These included the power to recognise or appoint any person as a chief or a headman in charge of a tribe or location, and could depose any chief or headman and was authorised to define their powers duties and privileges.

Regulations issued under the Act prescribed a long list of duties assigned to appointed chiefs, recognized chiefs and headmen to ensure control over rural populations. The most significant of these, for purposes of this discussion, is the traditional authorities’ powers and duties in respect of land. They were required to “allot in a just manner land for arable and residential purposes”. This land would be located in Scheduled Native Areas in the Eastern Cape, Natal and the Transvaal. At the time of promulgation of the 1913 Natives Land Act, this land amounted to just over 7%. It was increased in the next three to four decades to 13%.

The provisions of the Native Administration Act appear to have completely undermined and transformed the institution of chieftaincy, severing it from the roots of its support and popular accountability. The reality was rather more complex, with ordinary people showing unwavering loyalty to chieftaincy in an “attempt to sustain social and cultural continuities and to generate ideologies of resistance in the face of deep dislocation brought by colonial conquest and economic transformation”. (Delius, P. Affidavit submitted as historical evidence)

The responses of chiefs to the reality of colonial rule ranged from full cooperation to subtle resistance marked by membership of, and association with, the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), renamed the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923. In the first 30 years of its existence, the ANC had an upper house of chiefs who exerted a great deal of influence in the organization. But these chiefs remained part of an elaborate colonial administrative system that was evolving and constantly refined to control rural populations. Full cooperation with colonial authorities was not a criteria for the chiefs’ membership of the SANNC.

With the administrative framework established by the Native Administration Act, chieftaincy in the 1930s through to the 1960s and 1970s was largely subjected to the authority of white magistrates and officials. However, chiefs were able to exercise a measure of autonomy in matters relating to land tenure. In the 1920s it was reported in Pondoland that headmen and chiefs levied fees for each land allotted and the practice became widespread in Transkei. In some cases such practices are reported in the 1910s. In Mzimkulu in 1916 it was reported that all the best available land was allotted to headmen and their relatives. These continued even after the promulgation of the Native Administration Act in 1927.

Inevitably, land allotted to “natives” in the reserves became inadequate as populations increased. Young men seeking to establish their own families expected to be allotted land that was growing critically scarce. Consequently, land was allotted mainly to the older generation and those connected to chiefs and headmen. Following the Zulu model of traditional law, women did not enjoy the right to land. Only widowed women who could prove that they had family responsibilities were allotted land.

Apart from identifying with the ANC and exploring possibilities of undermining restrictions on land, some traditional authorities particularly in the Transvaal responded by acquiring land beyond the “Scheduled Native Areas”. In the Transvaal chiefs were allowed by law to buy land with the help of intermediaries. Missionaries were the most widely intermediaries by chiefdoms seeking to acquire additional land. Chiefdoms in the Western Transvaal engaged extensively in land deals that were conducted on their behalf by missionaries.

An emblem of the Bafokeng Chiefdom. Source:

Chief Molotlegi Mokgatle of the Bafokeng in Phokeng near Rustenburg, who reigned between 1897 and 1938, is widely recognized for his astuteness in exploiting a window of opportunity allowed by existing legislation and acquire large tracts of land. Part of the platinum rich Merensky Reef is located in land he acquired at different times in the 1920s and 1930s.

Land shortage in the “Scheduled Native Areas” was recognized as one of the main causes of poverty among “Native” populations in the reserves. In 1932 the government instituted the Native Economic Commission (NEC) to propose steps aimed at addressing the problem of poverty in the reserves. A key finding of the NEC was that arable land was shrinking drastically because of unscientific farming practices of rural populations. The Commission recommended strict application of betterment and reclamation schemes that were largely imposed on rural communities, generating a great deal of discontent.    

In response to growing poverty in “Scheduled Native Areas”, the government passed the Native Land and Trust Act of 1936. Informed by the findings and recommendations of the NEC, the Act proposed measures aimed at increasing allotment to “Scheduled Native Areas” along with stricter controls on land tenure. Transvaal was allocated over 5m morgen of land, the lion’s share from the total added to “Scheduled Native Areas”. Just over 1,6m morgen was allocated the Cape. Natal received just over half a million morgen and the Orange Free State received a meagre 80 000 morgen. The Act also provided for the establishment of the South African Native Trust (SANT) and all released land was vested in it. The Act also reaffirmed the idea of rule by proclamation as articulated in the Native Administration Act of 1927. This included a provision that the Governor General could make regulations prescribing the conditions on which natives may occupy or hire land held by SANT as well issue proclamations in respect of land utilization to deal with soil erosion.

The implications of the Act were far reaching, particularly in the Transvaal where much of the land was held by absentee landlords. Communities residing on such land had minimal contact with authorities until the SANT was established. One immediate impact of the Act was that duties performed by chiefs in reality, and yet defined in law as the domain of white magistrates and officials devolved to SANT. The SANT was much more involved in matters relating to land allocation, a responsibility that had hitherto given chiefs immense political influence. The 1940s and 1950s were therefore marked by increased frustration on the part of chiefs as their influence diminished.  

Another factor that added to the chiefs’ woes was a change in migration patterns. In the 1920s and 1930s the majority of urban migrants from the reserves were single males. During and immediately after World War II the majority of urban migrants were families. The consequence of this was that the support base of the chiefs was eroded and undermined, and with it, their influence. By the end of the war poverty levels in the reserves had worsened. Another Commission of Enquiry headed by Professor F. R. Tomlinsonwas established to investigate conditions in the reserves.

Professor Tomlinson with his report on native reserves. Source: africanmediaonline

The Tomlinson Commission of 1946 recommended that the government should invest considerable amounts into reserve economies to ensure that rural populations will not migrate to urban areas. It also recommended that industries be established on the fringes of the reserves to create employment for rural. Logical though these recommendations seemed to be, they were ignored. The reason is that after the 1948 general election the Nationalist Party (NP) emerged victorious and had a different set of priorities.

The NP government was committed to policies that advanced the interests of white commercial farmers and white workers. It was also determined to reverse the tide of urban migration by keeping new migrants out of the urban areas. This it achieved by tightening legislation related to the control of rural communities. In 1951 the NP government passed the Bantu Authorities Act. The Act created a legal basis for the deportation of Africans to their designated homelands. The Act required that anyone leaving the reserve would have to be permitted by the chief, and it stated that no Africans in excess of the labour requirements of an urban area would be allowed to enter and reside in such area. This Act was complimented by the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952, which tightened influx control regulations.

Chiefs were also expected to apply the provisions of the Native Land and Trust Act of 1936. These included the implementation of betterment and reclamation schemes. As these measures entailed stock culling and other restrictions related to use of arable land, they were becoming increasingly unpopular. Chiefs were becoming mere servants of the NAD and consequently, being alienated from the rural populace. Resistance to betterment and reclamation schemes and chiefs responsible for their implementation became apparent in the Eastern Cape. It is these developments that led to the Pondoland Revolt in 1960.


The role of chiefs in the implementation of the Land Act of 1913 is critical. In the 1920s and 193 chiefs used their authority to allocate land, accumulate wealth and political influence. The Native Administration Act of 1927 was an attempt to tighten control of rural communities. The Act succeeded in curbing the power and influence of chiefs by investing their authority in the SANT. The NP government further reduced the power of chiefs, turning them into servants of SANT. This led to the alienation of chiefs from their subjects. Resistance to government became indistinguishable from resistance to the chiefs.

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