The history of White colonial land dispossession did not begin with the passing of the Native Land Act in 1913, it spans back to the expansion of Dutch colonial settlements in the Cape. Land and livestock dispossession resulted in wars between the Khoikhoi, San, Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and a number of other ethnic groups against the colonial settlers. With increasing conquest of Africans came the issue of how to deal with African people, which the government termed the “Native question.” In a nutshell, the term was loosely defined in the 1903 Intercolonial Conference as “embracing the present and future status of all aboriginal natives of South Africa, and the relation in which they stand towards the European population.” While the initial part of land dispossession began with annexation and division of territory, over time proclamations were made and laws were enacted by both the Afrikaners and the British to dislodge African people from their land while consolidating areas of White settlement. Thus, by the time the Land Act of 1913 was enacted, South Africa was already moving in the direction of spatial segregation through land dispossession. One of the key legislations that laid down the foundation for a spatially divided South Africa was the Glen Grey Act passed in 1894.

After the end of the South African War, the British and Afrikaners began working on establishing the Union of South Africa, which was accomplished in 1910. However, black people were excluded from meaningful political participation in its formation and future. The British and Afrikaner land owners and industrialists set in motion a process that would consolidate their wealth while excluding Black people through legislative means.

The Glen Grey Act 1894

The Glen Grey Act was passed in 1894, a year that saw the completion of the annexation of the Transkei and Pondoland. The district of Glen Grey was located partly in Queenstown and partly in the Wodehouse divisions of the Cape Colony. It had numerous valleys which were suitable for agriculture and grazing livestock. Colonial settlers were only partially successful in seizing the land for occupation and the district remained largely in the hands of Africans. In 1879 the land was proclaimed as a magisterial district set aside for missionary and railway use, and as farmland for whites and Africans. White famers resented African ownership of the land and demanded that it be taken from them. They argued that Africans, the Thembu in particular, had forfeited their right to the land when they fought against the colonial government. 

Parliamentarians were vexed with the question of African land tenure and labour since the 1880s. In 1892 a Commission was appointed to inquire into the Glen Grey land ownership among other things.  The report concluded that the land belonged to the Thembu people, and that each family owned 55 and half morgen* of land agricultural purposes and as grazing pastures.

A morgen is an old South African unit measure of land area equal to about 2.1 acres

The Commission recommended that individual ownership of land that is limited to one family was desirable. This would force the surplus or excess number of people out to labour and prevent the influx of new African people into the area.

For instance, Victor Sampson, a farmer and an election candidate for Tembuland sponsored by Afrikaner Bond complained about the overpopulation of Africans in areas where they stayed and that African locations took away labour from the White owned farms. He recommended the restructuring of land ownership as a way of controlling the African population. This, he explained, would be done by giving every existing head of the family individual ownership to a surveyed plot of land and selling what remained to the Whites.

The Act was drafted by Cecil John Rhodes and his secretary Milton and it was geared towards dealing with three main issues: land, labour and the franchise. The ideas of the Act were rooted in two commissions previously set up by the colonial government- the Cape Commission on Native Laws (1883) and the Glen Grey Commission (1893). Additionally, the Act was influenced by the views of various colonial administrators in the Transkeian Territories and the Afrikaner Bond all formed the basis of the Glen Grey Act. In essence, Rhodes’ view was that “natives” must be treated differently from the Europeans. He claimed his intention through the Act was to “give natives interest in the land, allow the superior minds among them to attend to their local wants, remove the canteens, and give them a stimulus in labour.”

Cecil John Rhodes called the Glen Grey Act the ‘Bill of Africa’ because he envisaged that it would be extended to cover not just the Transkeian territories and any district in the Cape Colony occupied what he called an ‘aboriginal native’, but he ambitiously saw the Act being extended to other British colonies outside the South Africa.

When the Glen Grey Act was finally passed, it provided for the division of all unalienated land in the district into locations. The locations were surveyed and divided into portions of about four morgens for each existing occupier and other claimants which were approved by the governor. Land could not be mortgaged and the remaining land was to serve as commonage. Alienation and transfer of land was to be approved by the governor. There was to be no subletting or subdivision of the land, the principle of “one man one plot” was to be applied.  Portions of allocated land were to be passed in the family by the law of primogeniture, (where the firstborn male child inherits the property). Land could be forfeited if the person granted the land failed to pay the cost of survey or quitrent per year and for rebellion.

Each location established by the Act was placed under the control of a board of three people from resident landholders appointed by the governor. The board dealt with issues such as overstocking of livestock and commonages.  The government levied an annual tax of 5 Shillings on every land holder and 10 Shillings on every male adult living in the district judged by the magistrate to be fit for labour to finance it activities. However, those who worked outside the district for 3 months or more were exempt from tax for that year. Rhodes rejected the idea of making more land available to the Africans as a solution to what he viewed as a problem of an increasing African population. As Edgecombe notes, “The main purpose of the land provision was to fix the existing population to the land. Any increase would subsequently have to go out and work.”


The Glen Grey Act also implemented provisions to limit the number of Africans who qualified for the franchise. From 1852 when the Cape Constitution was promulgated and it provided for colour blind franchise based on ownership and occupation and of property whether separately or jointly with any land amongst other qualifications. Growing political awareness among Africans clearly worried the colonial government. When British Kaffaria (former Ciskei area) was annexed in 1865, the racial balance was tilted in favour of Africans who came to constitute 55% of the population while Whites had 25% and Coloureds had 20%. Furthermore, there was an increase in the registration of Africans as voters between 1882 and 1886. Whites, particularly the Afrikaners who were viewed with deep suspicion by Africans, qualifying to vote became concerned as this had political implications for their candidates. As a measure to curtail this growing African influence, the Parliamentary Voters Registration Act was passed in 1887. Under the Act land held under communal tenure was discounted as a qualification to register for the franchise. This disqualified a significant number of Africans in the Cape Colony as land was held under tribal or communal tenure particularly in the Transkei and Cape.

However, Whites were not satisfied and continued to push for further reduction of African qualification in the franchise. J.H Hofmeyer leader Afrikaner Bond complained in 1891 that the “Act had not done enough to reduce the threat posed by African people to white voters.” To appease White disgruntlement, the Franchise and Ballot Act was passed in 1892 which raised the qualification and required among things that the voter be able to sign his name and provide address of occupation. Rhodes later claimed that Africans were citizens who were still children and the government protected their land, thus “they had no right to claim a vote on it.” Thus, the Glen Grey Act came in the heels of previous legislation that had begun to use land as a tool to limit African political participation. Clause 26 of the Glen Grey Act was thus aimed at meeting the threat to White voters posed by the policy of extending individual land tenure.  The colonial government hoped that when the Act is passed, land held under communal or tribal tenure would simply change to individual tenure.

The Glen Grey Act systematically limited the number of African people who could live on and own their own land. It also pushed those who were deemed unqualified to acquire land - to leave the area and look for work in farms or other forms of employment outside the Glen Grey District. 

The Zululand Land Delimitation Commission and the Lagden Report

In Natal, the Zululand Land Delimitation Commission was appointed in August 1902 to investigate and make recommendations on demarcations of land between Whites and Africans in Zululand. The commission submitted its report in October 1904 and recommended that 40% of the best and fertile land be reserved for White occupation as of January 1906. Africans who had became labour tenants on White farms of were removed to the remaining areas that had been declared as reserves.

Then in 1903, Lord Milner appointed Sir Godfrey Lagden to chair a commission that would report on “native affairs” in the four Southern African colonies which were to be incorporated into the Union of South Africa. The Commission endorsed the ideas of Theophilus Shepstone, which promoted the creation of the so called “native reserves” for easy administrative rule.

The commission argued that “Natives” had distinct rights to the reserved lands as the ancestral land held by their forefathers. These tenure rights were presumably administered by the tribal chief on behalf of the people, and these chiefs were said to have "transferred their sovereign rights including their powers of administration over communal lands to the Crown through a process of peaceful annexation.” Thus, the Crown had a duty to administer “natives” according to traditional ways of governance which were tribally based. Historian Nigel Worden points out that the “tenure proposals contained in the Lagden Report marked a departure from Britain’s mission to ‘civilize’ its colonial territories in favour of a decision to retribilise the African population.”

Amongst other concerns raised by the commission was “the unrestrained squatting of natives on private farms, whether as tenants or otherwise” which was described as “an evil and against the best interests of the country.”Thus“it had become necessary to safeguard the interests of the Europeans to prevent the 'amount of land in Native occupation from being undesirably extended.’” As Heinz Klug notes, in its report the commission “developed a vision of a future South African federation based on territorial segregation of black and white as a permanent mandatory feature of public life.”

Furthermore, the commission demonstrated a paternalistic attitude to Africans by claiming that this tribal way was one where “the father exercises authority within his family.” The commission granted White people as those who had the right to “govern the ‘Natives’ as nation its non age.” Zimmerman and Visser also note that the commission unanimously concluded that in the interests of the Europeans, the “country should be segregated: land owned by Africans held in trust for them or subject to customary law was to be kept strictly separate in ‘white’ South Africa.” Evidently, the Lagden Commission played a pivotal role in a series of processes that laid down the foundation for the 1913 Native Land Act and spatial segregation in South Africa.

Other Commissions on Land before the Land Act

The issue of land and segregation continued to gather pace in the period leading up to formation of the Union. In 1907 the Cape Colony appointed a Departmental Commission to investigate land settlement on unreserved land in order to deal with squatting and enforcing existing laws. Recommendations made by the commission resulted in the formation of another commission in December 1909 to deal with the problem. But, the 1909 commission’s work was overtaken by events with the signing of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Its report recommended that pastoral farming should be discouraged in favour of agricultural farming.

Between 1906 and 1907 the Natal Native Affairs Commission which was appointed to investigate the Bambatha Rebellion also looked into the issue of land. In its report the commission found that “native lands were native lands were overcrowded and inefficiently occupied.” The commission recommended appointing Location Inspectors who would promote closersettlements in African areas and encourage them to adopt improved methods of agriculture. This apparently was to prepare the ‘natives’ for Native Reserves and Locations to accommodate larger communities.

In the Orange River Colony, a Commission on Natives and Native Affairs was also established and presented its report in 1909. Coloured people and Africans could not own property outside the reserves. The commission rejected the idea of creating more reserves as that would result in people crowding the new reserves sparking a shortage of labour. It further stated there was no land available for that purpose in the Orange River Colony, and condemned share cropping while recommending the strict enforcing of the Masters and Servants Ordinance.   

The reports of various commissions and legislations in various provinces before the formation of the Union all contributed to the shaping of the government’s policy on “natives” and land. In all provinces African locations or reserves had been demarcated. Despite black people being able to acquire land in the Cape, Natal and Transvaal the classification of their areas as reserves followed a pattern of racial segregation.

Towards the Union, the issue of “native” land ownership was hotly debated, especially in relation to the franchise in the Cape. Black people in the Cape Province had held franchise rights which were linked to property qualifications. Consequently, any proposed legislation that sought to limit ownership to property conversely imposed limitations on the exercise of that franchise right. The major question was whether black people should lose the right to the franchise or should it be extended to other provinces. In the end it was resolved that the situation would remain unchanged and the Union would deal with the issue after its formation.

After the establishment of the Union in 1910, the white minority government did not lose sight of the land and “native” question. In November 1910 a Select Committee headed by Henry Burton, the newly appointed Minister of Native Affairs, was appointed and tasked with investigating the native land settlement in relation to the squatting problem. At the end of its work the committee produced a preliminary bill which included its conclusions, but these lay dormant until the Natives Land Bill was introduced in parliament. The committee agreed with the South African Native Affairs Commission Report which stated that “The time has come when the lands dedicated and set apart”¦as locations, reserves, or otherwise should be defined and delimited and reserved for the Natives by legislative enactment.” (S.C. 3-1910, Report of the Select Committee on Native Affairs, p.5.)

Evidently, the building blocks of the 1913 Natives Land Act were laid down over a period of time before the Act itself was passed. As Marleen Fleemer notes, “The 1913 Natives Land Act was merely the climax to these earlier moves.”

The Natives Land Act (No: 27 of 1913)

One major step taken by the white minority government in addressing the issue of the “Native question” was passing of the Natives Land Act (No: 27) on 19 June 1913. This act had a profound effect on the African population across the country. It also laid down the foundation for other legislation which further entrenched dispossession of African people and segregation later of Coloured and Indian people.

The Act defined a “native” as “any person, male or female, who is a member of an aboriginal race or tribe of Africa; and shall further include any company or other body of persons, corporate or unincorporate, if the persons who have a controlling interest therein are natives.” Evidently, this affected millions of Africans. The Act’s most catastrophic provision for Africans was the prohibition from buying or hiring land in 93% of South Africa. In essence, Africans despite being more in number were confined to ownership of 7% South Africa’s land. This was increased to 13.5% by the Native and Land Trust Act which was passed in 1936. Section 1, sub section ‘a’ of the 1913 Natives Land Act states, “a native shall not enter into any agreement or transaction for the purchase, hire, or other acquisition from a person other than a native, of any such land or of any right thereto, interest therein, or servitude thereover.” However, Africans were permitted to buy and sell land in reserves or scheduled areas while Whites were prohibited from owning land in these places as the Act stated:

A person other than a native shall not enter into any agreement or transaction for the purchase, hire, or other acquisition from a native of any such land or of any right thereto, interest therein, or servitude there over.

The Act also included anti-squatting provisions to stop share cropping and also defined the boundaries of reserves which were referred to as scheduled areas. Harvey Feinberg and Andre Horn state that “scheduled areas encompassed land which Africans had acquired by grant from the South African Republic of Orange Free State government, previously created locations or reserves, land owned under the informal and formal trusteeship system which emerged in the nineteenth century in the Transvaal, and land purchased in the Cape and Natal.” Loosely defined a squatter was a “native” tenant who paid for his tenancy using money or sharing part of his produce with the farmer.  Consequently, the effect of the Land Act was “toeliminate black tenants and to replace them in white areas by black servants or labourers who would no longer be allowed to lease land in white areas.”

Marleen Flemmer points out that the Act was passed to alleviate the problem of poor white farm labourers who were competing for employment in farms with black labourers, especially “native” tenant farmers. Pressure to introduce such legislation came more especially from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State where the aforementioned issue was a problem. According to Patricia Gratten Dickson, “The Native Land Act was also a measure designed to protect whites not only the rich white farmers who were assured of the lion’s share of available land, but the landless by owners who thereafter assured of work on farms of others, and the urban poor whites who could no longer be forced to compete with skilled or semi skilled natives.” Thus, the Act went beyond just dispossessing people of their land, it closed avenues of livelihood for Africans other than to work for white farmers and industrialists. 

It is important to note that the Land Act was passed before a decision was made on which land was to be allocated or reserved for black people, and which land was to be allocated to white people. Until this was resolved, the government maintained the status quo by prohibiting blacks from obtaining land outside the so called “scheduled areas.” Thus, a clause in the Act to establish a commission which would look into the issue of finding land for black and whites was an attempt by the government to implement the Act. As a consequence, the Native Land Commission (NLC) was established. 

The Native Land Commission (Beaumont Commission)

The Native Land Commission was proclaimed in August 1913. Sir William Beaumont, a former administrator in Natal and Supreme Court judge, was appointed as its head. The commission, which also became known as the Beaumont Commission, began its work on 8 September 1913.  The commission was granted two years to accomplish its work and submit a report which would then be used to demarcate land. It was tasked with investigating the availability of land and defining boundaries for permanent territorial segregation between black and white people. The two basic questions were:

1. “What areas within the Union of South Africa should lie set apart as areas with which Natives shall not be permitted to acquire or hire land or interests in land?”

2. “What areas within the Union of South Africa should be set apart as areas within which persons other than Natives shall not be permitted to acquire or hire land or interests in land?”

In simple, the primary purpose of the Commission in answering these questions was to find land within South Africa and divide it between Black and White people with legal boundaries to regulate its ownership. Between 1913 and the submission of its report in March 1916, the Beaumont Commission went around the country outlining boundaries and recommending which areas were to be allocated to White people and which one were to be allocated to Black people.

Click to enlarge

When the commission filed its findings, it recommended a limited increase in African areas. However the final decision was left to each province of the Union. All provinces except the Cape reduced area originally recommended by the committee. However, this was not implemented until 1936.

During the Commission’s work, racial prejudice which presumed White people’s superiority over Black people became evident. For instance, the commissioner notes the Europeans who lived in Kwelera-Maoiplaats were “sadly lacking in much that proves the superiority of the white over the black.” Subsequently, he recommended the area for Native occupation because it was a “poor soil with a steep and sour pasturage of so limited extent”¦Only a Kaffir, with his limited requirements could be expected to exist upon such terms.” He adds that in assessing the area’s suitability for settlement, he did not consult the “natives” in case they became “aggressive and annoying to their European neighbors.” (Report of the Land Commissioner, Vol. 1, Appendix VIII).

The impact of the Land Act

Perhaps the most visible impact of the Act was that it denied Africans access to land which they owned or had been leasing from White famers. Sol Plaatje wrote, “As a result of the passing of the Natives Land Act groups of natives are to be seen in the different Provinces seeking for new land. They have crossed over from the Free State into Natal, from Natal into the Transvaal, and from the Transvaal into British Bechuanaland” (Native Life in South Africa, p.99). Evidently, the Act seized the very asset which was central to lives of African people and rendered them destitute.   

The Act also “minimized competition by denying blacks the right to purchase land and the opportunity to become shareholders on white owned land.” In essence, the Land Act marked the end of the limited independence which African farmers had on White-owned land. In spite of the Land Act, sharecropping and labour tenancy continued. This was because of the long delay in its implementation and because White landlords who wanted to keep sharecroppers or rent tenants found ways of getting round the law.

Meanwhile African farm workers struggled to hold on to a land of their own, no matter how small the piece. Thus, the impact of the Land Act to black people was profound. It dispossessed and locked black people in servitude. As Solomon Plaatjie wrote, ““The section of the law debarring Natives from hiring land is particularly harsh. It has been explained that its major portion is intended to reduce Natives to serfs” (Native Life in South Africa, p.100). African people forced to move to the reserves often could not find enough fertile land to use for crops

Immediately after the passing of the Land Act, White farmers began issuing notices of eviction to Black people. R.W. Msimang documented some of these notices in his book Natives Land Act 1913, Specific Cases of Evictions and Hardships etc. The position of African farmers was weakened further when the government began to offer low-interest loans to White farmers. These loans enabled White farmers to make improvements to their farms and buy agricultural machinery. They could now farm directly on land which had previously been allocated to sharecroppers. By 1936, nearly half of the African workers in towns had migrated from White farms.

African farmers who owned land inside and outside the reserves did not receive any aid from the government in the form of loans. They therefore found it increasingly difficult to compete with White farmers who could use improved methods and expand their farms.

Lastly, the Act laid down the foundation for separate development through the development of Bantustans, or Homelands.

Responses to the Land Act

The Natives Land Act sparked fierce opposition particularly by Black African people. While the Act was still a Bill in parliament on 21 March 1913,, John L Dube, President of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), published an article “Wrong Policy” in the newspaper ILanga Lase Natal. He criticised the Native Land Bill and stated that it was intended to keep Africans down, to tell them “Get out, Fotesake (sic), to Go back to your locations, or else go back to work for your white masters.”

Between 28 February and 26 April 1913 African leaders continued criticism of the Land Bill in columns of newspapers. However, this changed dramatically after the first reading of the bill on 25 February. Protest meetings were organised in various parts of the country. On 9 May the first major protest meeting was organised by the SANNC at the Masonic Hall in St. James, Cape Town. In attendance were John L Dube, Saul Msane, Dr CH Hagger, Miss Molteno and advocate Alfred Mangena, who spoke at the meeting. He stated that “every clause in the bill was bad”. At the end of May, Dube addressed another protest meeting near the race course in Durban.

Also in May 1913 the SANNC sent a deputation to Jacobus WilhelmusSauer to persuade him to not proceed with the bill which would make Africans squatters and render them homeless. The deputation received no favourable response. Afterwards, Walter Rubusana wrote to the Governor General Gladstone asking him to withhold his support for the bill.  His response was that it was not within his constitutional functions to do so.

On 25 July 1913, after the Land Act was passed, the SANNC convened a conference in Johannesburg and resolved to raise funds that would be used to send a delegation to Britain which would appeal to the Imperial government against the Act. Officials in the Department of Native Affairs requested the SANNC not to proceed with their appeal, but the SANNC resisted these attempts.

Sol Plaatje travelled around the country on a bicycle collecting information on the impact of the Natives Land Act. Source:

Then on 14 February 1914, the SANNC met and chose five members to go to London-- John L Dube, Dr Walter Rubusana, Saul Msane, Thomas Mapikela and Solomon T Plaatje. The delegation left for London and upon arrival met missionaries and members of the Aborigines Protection Society. They later met Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary for the Colonies, and issued a petition to the king. Harcourt advised them to take their case to Parliament and not to the Crown. The British government did not intervene and consequently the Land Act was not reversed.

Solomon T Plaatje published Native Life in South Africa as a protest against the Land Act. The passing of the Act also ignited a protest march by Mahatma Gandhi. In addition, the African People’s Organization (APO) also spoke strongly against the Land Act.


As A. J. Christopher notes, “the Native Land Act was officially conceived as a first stage in drawing a permanent line between Africans and non Africans.” In essence, the Land Act became a critical edifice in the construction of a racially and spatially divided South Africa. Subsequent Acts such as the Urban Areas Act (1923), Natives and Land Trust Act (1936) and the Group Areas Act (1950) reinforced the land dispossession and segregation in South Africa. The shadow of the Natives Land Act and other legislations that followed are even still evident in the post Apartheid South Africa. A significant proportion of land remains in the ownership of white farmers. However, land redistribution through a willing buyer willing seller policy, and land claims are all attempts to deal with a legacy of systematic dispossession of land in South Africa.  

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