This year is the centennial commemoration of what many now believe was the one Act that irrevocably put South Africa on the road to Apartheid. Few have been more outspoken about its impact than South Africa’s leader of the opposition, Helen Zille:

 The 1913 Land Act was apartheid’s ‘original sin’ because it reserved 87% of South Africa’s land exclusively for white ownership, as the basis of the ‘Bantustan’ policy. It not only dispossessed many black South Africans of the land they owned, but also sought to prohibit black people from ever acquiring land in so-called ‘white’ South Africa.

Unfortunately, history is never that simple. There is no doubt that most white South Africans, English and Afrikaners, at the start of the twentieth century believed that the majority of South Africa’s land – and perhaps even the lands of neighbouring countries – should be proclaimed as ‘white man’s land’. The demand for produce in the rapidly-expanding urban areas combined with low input costs, notably the low cost of black wages, made large-scale agriculture a lucrative enterprise. White farmers were also keen to expand and thus enter the traditional black areas with its highly fertile land. This steady expansion had only one consequence: that, eventually, all black land would have been claimed by white farmers. This didn’t happen though. Instead, a group of white officials in the Department of Native Affairs after unification noted the rapid decline in black land and realised that without statutory intervention blacks may soon own no land at all. The result: the Land Act of 1913. Here’s Hermann Giliomee in The Afrikaners (p. 326):

 They saw merit in the idea that a settlement, even if not equitable to blacks, would at least prevent further white encroachment in the reserves. In 1915 the Secretary for Native Affairs referred to a district where fewer than half of the farms formerly owned by ‘natives’ were still in their possession. As the liberal historian W.M. Macmillan pointed out at the time: ‘[Open] competition in land is fatal to the weaker race … Given free right of entry of white into native lands, the natives will presently be landless indeed.

Looking back from our current vintage point, it is easy to assume that the counterfactual to the Land Act of 1913 was a larger share of land for black South Africans; i.e. that instead of the 13%, black South Africans should have received 30%, or 50% or 80%. But what Giliomee suggests here is that that would be a wrong conclusion: instead, in the absence of the Land Act, the land that black South Africans were living on would have been systematically claimed by white settlers, leaving blacks destitute with few alternatives other than to provide their labour to the mines and as farmhands. The Land Act thus protected instead of pilfered land belonging to blacks.

SANNC delegation that went to England to convey African people's objections to the 1913 Land Act, 1914. L-R: Rev W. Rubusana, T. Mapike, Rev J. Dube, S. Plaatjie and S. Msane. Courtesy of South Africa History Online.

SANNC delegation that went to England to convey African people’s objections to the 1913 Land Act, 1914. L-R: Rev W. Rubusana, T. Mapike, Rev J. Dube, S. Plaatjie and S. Msane. Courtesy of South Africa History Online.

(So here’s a thought experiment: there was no Land Act in 1713 for the Khoi of the southwestern Cape. What if the Dutch East India Company had proclaimed 13% of the Western Cape as Khoi-land. Would Khoi-descendants living in these hypothetical areas today celebrate or abhor the 1713 Land Act? That is an open question. Instead, what happened in the absence of a Land Act was that many Khoi died in the smallpox epidemic of 1713 and those that remained had little choice but to work on settler farms, where many of their descendants still work today.)

The late Lawrence Schlemmer once said that he knows of no former colony – other than South Africa –  where the indigenous population continued to live on 30% of the region’s most fertile land after colonisation (I thank Hermann Giliomee for this reference). This is not to suggest that colonisation – or the Land Act – was morally just or defensible, or that it did not contribute to a highly unequal South African society. But before we denigrate the Land Act, we should think about the alternatives. Maybe missionary societies would have acquired some land for black farmers to till. Perhaps white farmers would not have infiltrated black areas to any great extent. But probably not. In all likelihood, black South Africans would have owned considerably less land than what the Land Act of 1913 sanctioned.