Together with journalist Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, Richard Msimang was tasked by the SANNC with documenting the experiences of Africans under the Natives Land Act, for submission to the South African government. Plaatje recorded the experiences in Native Life in South Africa: Before and Since the European War and the Boer Rebellion, published in 1916 with the now legendary opening sentence, 'Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.'
Msimang opted for a narrower yet equally effective explanation of the facts in a 1916 article later published as a pamphlet, Natives Land Act 1913: Specific cases of evictions and hardships, etc. His immediate purpose, Msimang noted, was 'to vindicate the leaders of South African Native National Congress from the gross imputation by the Native Affairs Department, that they make general allegation of hardships without producing any specific cases that can bear examination'.
The SANNC, he continued, had been wrongly accused of making 'wild statements of existing hardships which they failed to support by concrete facts'. Because the charges emanated from the Native Affairs Department, they should be treated with suspicion, as 'from our bitter experience, that Department was in the habit of making prejudiced statements' in order to 'blind' the misinformed European public. So, he asked, what were the real facts?
79 and 100 individuals or more families at Peters and Colwoorth respectively are BEING EJECTED BY THE GOVERNMENT itself in anticipation of the supposed requirements of this law. Yet, without providing land for them.
He began by describing the proceedings of a meeting held in July 1913, in Pretoria, to protest the new law. Despite the fact that the Act had only been in force for six weeks, there were already numerous instances of evictions. One of these had occurred in the vicinity of Pretoria, while in Natal people were being driven out of their homes and their 'ancient residences'. The Native Affairs Department had pleaded ignorance of the evictions, despite the fact that they had with them eighty names of people served with eviction notices. The government's strategy was to deny knowledge of such instances of evictions from homes and farms.
The prime minister, Msimang charged, had also repeated the lie. Evictees had directly reported their plight to him, and he had simply turned a blind eye. In Thaba 'Nchu, people who had been evicted addressed the secretary for native affairs during his tour of the Orange Free State.
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His advice to them was 'to sell all their stock, and return to the farms to labour in capital as unpaid servants!' Otherwise, they should go to the reserves (even though he was aware that there were none apart from Thaba 'Nchu, which was already full to capacity). The same stance was taken by the prime minister in Cape Town when he claimed that vague allegations were made without evidence.
Msimang exposed the lie by stating a bald fact: '79 and 100 individuals or more families at Peters and Colwoorth respectively are BEING EJECTED BY THE GOVERNMENT itself in anticipation of the supposed requirements of this law. Yet, without providing land for them. These are the cruel and careless injustices under which our people suffer, and against which we ask relief.'
The government's defence was to deny that the evictions were taking place in terms of the Natives Land Act. Instead, it claimed that the evictions were the result of the Squatters Law Act of 1895. This law, which was applied in the Orange Free State, prohibited farmers from employing more than five African householders on one farm without government permission. The law also prohibited Africans from living outside reserves.
However, it proved to be ineffective, as land companies repeatedly broke the law. Here, however, the problem, as noted by Msimang, was that the Natives Land Act of 1913 had entrenched the provisions of the Squatters Law Act of 1895. Thus, Msimang's response to the government was that its argument was 'a mere subterfuge'. The evictions, he said, were deliberately made 'with the sole intention of debt-enforced labour, as provided in the Act. White farmers know full well that since the Act, natives are no longer free to obtain land or to make terms for occupation of land.'
Msimang's study focused on two provinces with large numbers of squatters. In Natal there were 436 000 squatters, and in the Free State about 80 000 squatters. These people would soon be driven off the land. In Natal, most of them had already been given six months' notice to vacate the land, while in the Free State the average notice period was five days, and in two cases he was aware of people were given 'one hour's notice to leave and trek'.
The effect of the Act was not merely removal from the land, but deprivation of cattle and other livestock, the people's only means of wealth and livelihood.
The removals were capricious and amounted to 'loss of buildings without compensation, and reduction to a state of vagabondage with no prospect of permanent settlement'. The blacks he had interviewed had given him the number of livestock they possessed, and this indicated the extent of the losses that they would sustain. Thus, the effect of the Act was not merely removal from the land, but deprivation of cattle and other livestock, the people's only means of wealth and livelihood.
Having set out his general comments, Msimang went on to deal with specific instances of notices that he described as only 'a few specimens': Jantje in the Free State was told 'to leave the farm within eight days to seek a place'; William was given two days 'to seek a place not to remain an hour in the farm'; Jacob, Piet and Melka, together with twelve cattle and twenty sheep, were instructed to leave in four days.
Apart from individual cases such as these, there were also group evictions that affected large communities. Msimang recounted one such instance in the district of Ladysmith. Chief Sibisi and his people had for many years lived as squatters or tenants on the farm known as 'remainder of Brakfontein sub-A and remainder of Weltevreden sub-D', a property owned by the government. The notification to leave affected seventy-nine families, including that of Chief Sibisi. The families were told to leave by way of the following notice addressed to Vellem Sibisi, the 'kraal head' residing on the farms:
Take notice in terms of section 4 of law 41 of 1884 that you are required to remove with your kraal and inmates from whichever of the said farms you may be residing on six months from this date.
The aforementioned farms having all been purchased by the government for closer settlement purposes.
The farmers were aware that as long as Africans were able to own property, they could maintain their independence.
The notice was signed by the assistant magistrate of Ladysmith. Upon receipt of the notice, the chief was required to leave the area. When the matter was reported to the magistrate, the latter advised the tenants that they could remain, provided they agreed to work as labourers for the new farm owner. Msimang then resorted to legal argument, focusing on the details of the law. The notice was purportedly written under the Squatters Law Act, but it was effectively implementing the provisions of the Natives Land Act; not only were natives being ejected from land, but there was no alternative land which they could hire.
The undertaking that they could remain on the land provided that they worked for the owner was equivalent to slavery, and in any event made no sense for 'an old man like Chief Sibisi'. The perversity of the enterprise, Msimang pointed out, was demonstrated by the fact that people were being evicted by the government in the full knowledge that there was no alternative land for them.
The same applied in the case of Mgemgeni Hlonuka, an induna at Rooiport Farms in Ladysmith. He and his people received a notice to vacate, but on appeal to the authorities the magistrate informed them that they could 'go where you like or stay there and work on the farm as labourers'. They left the farm, but indicated that they had nowhere to go and would, therefore, be squatting as they moved from one place to another. The same fate awaited the families at Stokville Farm, Colworth, where hundreds of people were uprooted and left stranded with their livestock.
This was the inevitable outcome: the farmers were aware that as long as Africans were able to own property, they could maintain their independence.
The government itself was ejecting people, an action 'most disquieting in the native mind', so people inevitably asked: 'can we believe the promise that we shall be given land, when it is the government that is evicting us from our residences without even attempting to provide temporary places for us pending the settlement of areas.'
Blacks clearly had no hope of being granted any land. In the district of Weenen, where there were 120 families, the municipal office ejected Chief Noxaka Mbhele and all his followers, giving them three months to pack and 'trek'. Any failure to leave as instructed would result in 'steps' being taken against them. Msimang also cited the affidavit of Chief Sandanezwe Mcunu, from the district of Dundee:
I have livestock consisting of 50 sheep, 30 goats, 30 herd [sic] of cattle and seven horses. If the time of notice expires before I have found another farm for myself and my said afflicted people, I fear I shall have no place to which to go and shall be obliged to sell or dispose of my said livestock at a loss for which I shall have no place in which to store them for grazing.
My said people are appealing to me to find a place for themselves, their families and such stock as they possess. But I do not know where to go under the circumstances. The farmer tells us to sell all our livestock.
Upon reporting the situation to the magistrate, Chief Mcunu was advised that he should come to an arrangement with the farm owners 'whereby we must agree to work on the farm for nothing and without pay according to the new law'.
The situation in the Free State was no different. Many people who were evicted were simply told to go to Basutoland. After Zachariah Doge was evicted, he was forced to wander about with his family and the twenty cattle and forty sheep they owned. Anbooi Molele was evicted, but he returned as a labourer after selling his stock at a loss. People were usually given about a week, or at most ten days, to vacate a property.
Some disappeared and were never heard from again. John Bhaka was one of these: he went to Basutoland, but his family reported that he had not been seen or heard from since. A large number of people were simply recorded as 'whereabouts unknown'. On the farm Kienzi, in Kroonstad, the Maphike family informed Msimang that 'the conditions under which we live are that we and every member of the family have to labour in the month by month in the year without pay or other remuneration except that we get in return small pieces of land to till for ourselves'. Jacob Maphike described the circumstances in which he lost his livestock:
About three months ago, our master came to us in the farm, called us together, asked us to collect our stock, which we did. He then counted the aggregate number of livestock belonging to each person squatting in his farm. After counting the stock: cattle, sheep, horses, he said to each of us, you have too much stock, I have not sufficient room or place for them in the farm. You must sell or dispose of your stock, or you must leave this farm.
Many people had no option but to give their livestock to the very farmers whose land they were working with no pay. Msimang noted that these people were given notice to leave if they refused to sell their livestock. The farmers knew full well that they would not find other farms to live on, so it was a 'good opportunity to make them life serfs'. This was the inevitable outcome: the farmers were aware that as long as Africans were able to own property, they could maintain their independence.
Msimang concluded that the Natives Land Act had created 'slavery, persecution and vagabondage'. Citing the case of Sethlogo Merabe, with his wife and eight children, he noted that while they were on the farm, Merabe and his children were forced to work on the farm every day, with no pay. During the rainy season they ploughed up to ten acres, with each field being 300 by 20 yards. He received no compensation, and afterwards the farmer simply decided to evict them all. Arbitrary periods were given for such evictions, and reasons were often absent in the notices to vacate. An especially pernicious effect was vagabondage. Merabe had 48 head of cattle, 192 sheep, five horses, one wagon, two ploughs and a few other implements.
Like homo sacer, the metaphorical figure of Roman law, a white farmer could kill a black worker, but the killing would not count as murder.
After his eviction he tried to find a new farm where he could settle, but 'every farmer he has approached seeking residence tells him to dispose or sell his stock first and thus be reduced to poverty and be without property or other means of independent subsistence'. He refused the option of becoming a farm labourer, and was instead 'moving from place to place in search of a new home'. In many cases, property was arbitrarily appropriated by the farm owners. Jacob Maroe of Geluk Farm in Kroonstad eventually parted with his property under compulsion.
When a farmer wanted to buy his 'hamel' (wether), Maroe refused to sell the animal. The farmer reportedly told him: 'If you do not sell me the hamel then you must leave the farm at the end of the month.' Maroe then agreed to sell the wether for ten shillings. The farmer rejected this, but made no counter-offer. Maroe then suggested nine shillings, which the farmer accepted. But that money was never paid, despite the wether being given to the farmer. To make matters worse, at the end of May 1914, Jacob Maroe was given notice to leave. He told Msimang that he did not know where to go; it had been extremely hard to find an alternative place to settle.
In similar vein, Foreman Ranope revealed that he had once owned 200 head of cattle and had access to grazing land which was suddenly taken over and given to a white farmer. He was then 'employed' by the farmer as a sheep shearer. Because he had no time to inspect the fields and look after his cattle, he discovered one day that his crops had been eaten by cattle. But these were not his own cattle, they belonged to the farmer.
He then 'went to the baas and asked why he destroyed our crops like that'. The farmer's response was that he was forced to do this as there was a drought and 'he would not let his cattle die and let the natives live'. After a further confrontation, the farmer told him to leave within three days. When he left, his entire herd of 200 cattle was impounded by 'Mr van Niekerk', the farm owner. Not only had he worked for no payment, he also had his livestock and his land taken from him, and he was left to roam across the Free State.
Often, sham transactions were entered into, in terms of which blacks were compelled to 'sell' their cattle in order to have a place to stay.
In some cases, the police enforced the Natives Land Act. In the case of Simon Teatea of Leeuwkuil Farm, he had been evicted from the farm where he had been staying as a squatter, and after six days of wandering about, he found a place to live called Jacob's Farm, which was in the Senekal district. In return, he and his children were expected to work for the farmer.
Since there were twelve in the family, including his wife and his ten children, the farmer was keen to allow them to stay on the farm. One day, without any notice, the farmer complained that the girls were lazy and not working according to instructions. When Teatea denied that his children were lazy, the farmer called the police to arrest them for insubordination. On arrival, the police accused Teatea of being insolent simply because he was able to read and write and also owned property.
They told him that they would 'put him right' and make him walk all the way to the Basutoland border. They then summoned one of the girls, Eliza, and when she appeared a policeman took a sjambok and started thrashing her. Teatea intervened and the policeman stopped, but he warned that worse was to come. The next day, the farmer arrived with a notice giving them eight days to pack up their belongings and leave. By this time, Teatea had already built seven huts for his family, but he was told that, before leaving, they had to pull down all these huts.
Richard Msimang's accounts constitute what are probably the most vivid and graphic illustrations of the effects of enforcement of the Natives Land Act. By using individual stories of eviction, hardship and deprivation, Msimang was able to demonstrate that the Act achieved three interrelated outcomes.
First, the loss of land and the drastic curtailment of security of tenure with black people being evicted at the whim of government or any white person. Second, the loss of property, particularly in the form of cattle. The accounts show that the cattle were not 'lost', but were instead confiscated and taken away by white farmers.
Often, sham transactions were entered into, in terms of which blacks were compelled to 'sell' their cattle in order to have a place to stay. The third outcome was the overnight conversion of black people into a class of labourers.
But importantly, the stories in Natal and the Orange Free State show that these were no ordinary labourers. They were unpaid labourers, operating in an environment equivalent to forced labour, which resulted in many leaving to settle in Basutoland. Physical punishment was commonplace, and as a rule there were no consequences. Like homo sacer, the metaphorical figure of Roman law, a white farmer could kill a black worker, but the killing would not count as murder.
** This is an extract from "The Land Is Ours" by Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi. It is published by Penguin Random House and written.