Frequently turbulent, incessantly discriminatory and culturally unique, the pivotal role of agriculture in the history of South Africa, and the Eastern Cape in particular, cannot be denied. From frontier battles to state-sanctioned removals, the roots of the country and province’s farming industries run deep and lay an unsettling, perhaps brittle, foundation for the future. But in order to plan for the future, some understanding of this storied and complex past is necessary.
Perhaps the earliest conflicts over land in what is now the Eastern Cape were roughly a millennium ago, in the form of forays by the Xhosa and Khoi-Khoi into each other’s lands to raid cattle. This wouldn’t be the only case where ‘might is right’ prevailed in local land matters.
Portuguese explorers would glance off the Eastern Cape coast, but it was not until Dutch settlers, despondent with life in Cape Town under the Dutch East India Company, began trekking north-east up the coast that cultures would genuinely clash over land again. These Trek Boers met with the Khoi in the region of the Fish River and soon enough tussles over farming land began.
The better-equipped Europeans ground down their indigenous opponents and were soon confronted with the Xhosa. This set the scene for almost continuous hostilities for roughly a century until the early 1880s, with the British entering the fray as the latest colonial powers around the start of the 19th century. The 1820 settlers played their role as a surge of immigrants to the area, encouraged by colonial government to act as a defensive buffer against the Xhosa.
Jumping forwards to the 20th century, two statutes stand out as the pre-cursors to apartheid and pillars of the land inequality that colours so much of South Africa to this day. The notorious 1913 Land Act, coupled with the 1936 Trust and Land Act (often coupled together as “the Land Acts”) essentially reserved some 87% of South Africa’s land mass for whites and, to a minute extent, coloureds and Indians. The remaining 13% was set aside for black people – roughly three quarters of the population.
Once apartheid was so-called properly implemented in 1948, black land was formally organised into homelands, or “Bantustans” intended to later become independent black states. Importantly, black land tenure even in these designated regions was largely by weak forms of title. That is, 99-year leaseholds or some other right to occupy, while the land was effectively held in trust by the South African government.
With the agricultural role of black South Africans previously entrenched as labourers and rarely anything more, it took the democratic elections of 1994 to set in motion a fraught road to land reform.