Nelspruit the Segregated city

Homelands as Labour reserves



Until the demise of apartheid, Nelspruit remained a small town, a hub for the transport of agricultural goods from the surrounding areas to the larger cities inland.

Demands for segregation early in the 20th century resulted in the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923, which provided for stricter controls over the influx of Blacks into urban areas. The law reinforced the notion that the towns were the White man’s creation and domain, and Africans were only allowed into towns when their labour was needed. The act had drastic implications for Africans, regarded as impermanent sojourners, and therefore ruled out as recipients of services, as property owners, or participants in administration and political activity.

When the Pact government – an alliance of Afrikaner Nationalists and White labour – came to power in 1924, it began to promote the development of the manufacturing sector. Agriculture was also promoted: branch railways were constructed to increase access to markets, railway rating policies were made more favourable for farmers, and agricultural marketing boards were established to stabilise relatively high farm prices. Agricultural production was reorganised, pushing landless Boers off the land, forcing them to the cities. The subsequent 'poor White problem' saw the enactment of the colour bar and job reservation policies, and the civilised labour policy, especially on the railways - poor Whites were employed in unskilled positions and paid a 'civilised' wage excluding labour from other races.

But residential segregation has a history that reaches far back into South African history. According to AJ Christopher, “formal urban segregation began in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in 1834 and the first substantial influx of Blacks to the towns”. The London Missionary Society established a separate residential quarter for its charges in 1834, “setting a precedent for the ‘locations’ which were to be established in South Africa in the ensuing 150 years”.

In 1874, the Cape government passed laws that ensured residential areas in the Eastern Cape were separate, with non-White areas close to but removed from White areas. The Orange Free State and Transvaal governments adopted the system, while the Natal government devised policies to regulate the influx of Blacks into towns, ensuring that they never had a permanent presence.

After the conclusion of the South African War, laws to regulate Black settlement proceeded apace, especially after Union in 1910. A Native Recruiting Organisation, established in 1912, tried to ensure that labour could be channelled to the mines and sugar plantations in the country. Trade union activity was suppressed, and territorial segregation served the interests of racism and capitalism. The result of all these policies saw unemployed Blacks contained in the reserves, which by the 1940s began to experience severe malnutrition, infant mortality and the breakdown of tribal society.

The Apartheid period

Pass laws

The Homelands

The apartheid period saw the introduction of a far more rigorous, systematic and comprehensive form of control over the population of South Africa, especially Black people. The ad hoc segregation laws were systematised and organised according to an ideology that addressed every aspect of life, in pursuit of a rigorous separation of the races.

The Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952 set the basis for the state to control the distribution of labour between town and country. It channelled labour through labour bureaux, and Africans had to seek permission from the nearest bureau to take up employment in urban areas.

The development of the homeland system, under the rubric of separate development, saw the policy of containment take on a new reality, making possible forced removals, and industrial decentralisation.The growth of Nelspruit thus proceeded along strictly segregated lines. A mini population boom began in the 1950s and 60s, and the White population increased from 2186 in 1951 to 4247 in 1960.

The population explosion accelerated even further between 1964 and 1974, virtually doubling. In 1965, the town had 1200 homes and 260 registered businesses. From June 1969 to June 1973 the number of business establishments grew from 261 to 543.The boom necessitated the creation of new suburbs: Nelspruit Extension Two and West Acres were established in 1950, and Extension Three came into being in 1954/5. Extension Four and Sonheuwel followed (1958), Extension Five in 1962, Extension Six in 1964, and Eight in 1967. Curiously, Extension Seven was proclaimed later, in 1970.

To house the Coloured population, Nelpark was established in 1974, with housing being provided in the form of duplex flats. Valencia, for the Indian population, came into being in the early 1970s.

Infrastructural developments proceeded apace. An enlarged Post Office began operating in 1958, together with a more modern telegraph company. Electric trains began operating in the mid-60s. The Nelspruit Laerskool (primary school), for White children,with 1384 students, and a youth centre, was established in 1964. Leisure activities also benefited the Whites of the area; a  caravan park was set up in 1965;the Rotary Club openedin 1967; and the new public swimming pool opened in October 1972.

In 1971 the Botanical Garden was established, reflecting the town's increasingly close links with the conservation project that brought the Kruger National Park into existence, to play a role in tourism as well as scientific research.

More ominously, a new and enlarged police station opened its doors in May 1964, to be used later to lock anti-apartheid activists behind closed doors in the 1970s and 1980s. In June 1968, the central square was renamed Presidentsplein, reflecting the triumphalism of apartheid designs.

By the late 1970s, Africans from the region were removed to the homelands, and workers in the town had to commute from the townships, most of them from Kanyamazane, some 30km from central Nelspruit.

Whites lived in the centre of the town, surrounding the business district, while Africans, Indians and Coloureds were placed at various distances from the White centre. But the development of commercial agriculture required a large and permanent workforce, and African labourers were settled in various townships within a radius of Nelspruit, the most populous of which is Kanyamazane. Other townships in the area include Friedenheim, Khamagugu, Pumlanga, Matsulu, Entokozweni, Dlamini, Kabokweni, Ngodini, Nelindia, Valencia, and Msogwaba.

Homelands as Labour reserves

Homelands as Labour reserves

Nelspruit is situated close to three former homeland territories. To the south lies the area that was called Kangwane, to the north areas falling under Lebowa and Gazankulu.

The Bantustans, as the reserves were referred to, served to keep Black South Africans out of White areas and confined in their ethnic homelands unless their labour was needed in the White areas. With hardly any infrastructure or industrial activity, these so-called national states were totally dependent on the apartheid government for their budgets, and most of the populations lived on the proceeds of migrant labour. The rulers of these “states” were generally appointed by the apartheid regime, although some of these developed political parties that contested for power.Typically, the ruling group would be a coalition of chiefs and petit-bourgeois power-mongers.

Under the apartheid theory of separate development, each of these was destined to become a self-governing state, and four of them were granted independence: Bophuthatswana, Venda, Transkei and Ciskei. Kangwane was next in line for this apparent statehood, but declined to accede to independence. Gazankulu was granted self-governing status in 1973. Ruled by Shangaan cultural chauvinist Hudson Ntsanwisi, the economy was nonexistent, with less than 16000 people in paid employment in 1978. Of these, 15% were hired by the administration.

Kangwane, called the Swazi homeland and granted self-governing status in 1978, saw its leadership oscillate between two main groupings: a faction made up of petit-bourgeois intellectuals and the majority of chiefs, led by Ernest Mabuza, and another faction of traditionalists, closely aligned to the Swazis, led by David Lukele and Chief Johannes Dlamini. With hardly any industrial activity within the homeland, Kangwane had the lowest GDP of any homelandin 1982.

One of the most fragmented of homelands, Lebowa was supposed to be home to the North Sotho, the Ndebele and the Pedi, and was ruled by Chief Minister Cedric Phatudi and his Lebowa Peoples Party (LPP). It was granted self-governing status in 1973. Phatudi’s reign was challenged by Collins Ramusi, who wanted to limit the power of the chiefs. The chiefs put pressure on Phatudi to expel Ramusi, and the LPP split into two factions, pro-Phatudi and pro-Ramusi. Lebowa also entered into territorial disputes with both Kangwane and Gazankulu. Like the other homelands, it functioned mainly as a labour reservoir.


Kanyamazane is a township situated about 30km from Nelspruit. It was established in 1978 as a labour reserve, and was then zoned to fall within the Kangwane homeland. It was also part of a housing project for the employees of a mining processing company based in Nelspruit.

The project, a joint initiative of the mining company and the Pretoria-based National Building Research Institute, allowed for several grades of home ownership – basic types of housing which had to be completed by the owner, ostensibly with the help of the company. The state also declared that it would make provision for semi-public and public land to be developed for communal use, by the community itself.

By 1980 a considerable number of families had settled in the houses built in the area, but little or no communal activity had taken place, pointing to the limitations of self-help schemes under apartheid conditions.

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