Fighting for dignity and freedom in our lifetime

The ANC and the land question: From grievance to demand – 1927 to 1948

Josiah T Gumede, president of the African National Congress (ANC), attended the International Congress against Imperialism in Brussels on 15 February 1927 as a representative of the ANC. The South African delegation also included JA La Guma, a member of the Communist Party of South Africa, and D Colraine of the South African Congress of Trade Unions.

In his speech, Gumede related what he termed “a very sad story of what is happening to the proletariat of South Africa” … “we have no place to lay our heads. All the land was taken from us in the name of the Crown of Great Britain and the people were driven away from their ancestral homes which were turned into farms.i

In December 1942, the conference of the ANC requested its president, Dr AB Xuma, to appoint a committee to study the Atlantic Charterii and draft a Bill of Rights to be presented to the peace conference at the end of World War II. Accordingly, an Atlantic Charter Committee – consisting of prominent African professionals and intellectuals of varied political views – met on 13 and 14 December 1943 in Bloemfontein. Professor ZK Matthews was elected chairperson. The report of this Committee – “Africans’ Claims in South Africa” – was unanimously adopted by the ANC annual conference on 16 December 1943iii.

Dr Xuma, in his capacity both as the president of the ANC and secretary of the Atlantic Charter Committee, called “upon chiefs, ministers of religion, teachers, professional men, men and women of all ranks and classes, to organise our people, to close ranks and take their place in this mass liberation movement and struggle, expressed in this Bill of Citizenship Rights, until freedom, rights and justice are won for all races and colours to the honour and glory of the Union of South Africa whose ideals – freedom, democracy, Christianity and human decency – cannot be attained until all races in South Africa participate in them”.iv

In the section of document dealing with the land question, the Bill of Citizenship Rights stated:

“We demand the right to an equal share in all the material resources of the country, and we urge:

  • “That the present allocation of 12,5% of the surface area to 7 000 000 Africans as against 87,25% to about 2 000 000 Europeans is unjust and contrary to the interest of South Africa, and therefore demand a fair redistribution of the land as a prerequisite for a just settlement of the land problem.
  • “That the right to own, buy, hire or lease and occupy land individually or collectively, both in rural and in urban areas, is a fundamental right of citizenship, and therefore demand the repeal of the Native Land Act, the Native Trust and Land Act, the Natives Laws Amendment Act, and the Natives (Urban Areas) Act in so far as these laws abrogate that right.
  • “That African farmers require no less assistance from the state than that which is provided to European farmers, and therefore demand the same Land Bank facilities, state subsidies, and other privileges as are enjoyed by Europeans.”

Youth League manifesto

The founding Provisional Committee of the ANC Youth League issued a manifesto in March 1944. Nelson Mandela was a founder member of the Youth League and participated in the drafting of this manifestov.

In the policy statement contained in the 1944 manifesto, the ANC Youth League states that “the white race, possessing superior military strength and at present having superior organising skill, has arrogated to itself the ownership of the land and invested itself with authority and the right to regard South Africa as a white man’s country. This has meant that the African, who owned the land before the advent of the whites, has been deprived of all security which may guarantee him an independent pursuit of destiny or ensure his leading a free and unhampered life.”

It goes on to say that “the African regards civilisation as the common heritage of all mankind and claims as full a right to make his contribution to its advancement and to live free as any white South African. Further, he claims the right to all sources and agencies to enjoy rights and fulfil duties which will place him on a footing of equality with every other South African racial group.”

The manifesto further states that the 1913 Land Act “deprived the African of land and land security and in that way incapacitated him for that assertion of his will to be free which might otherwise have been inspired by assured security and fixed tenure. The Act drove him into urban areas where he soon made his way to skilled trades, etc.”

The manifesto states that the 1923 Urban Areas Act imposed “…more oppression and allowed (Africans) to be ‘controlled’ from birth to the grave. This control had the effect of forcing Africans to remain impotent under unhealthy urban conditions which were set up to add their due to the ruining of the Africans’ resistance to disease. The legalised slums, politely called Native Locations, were one aspect of these conditions.”

The 1944 manifesto concludes with a three-year programme of action, item six of which sought to “work out the theories of African urbanisation and the system of land tenure”.

‘Increasing hardships’

The 35th National Conference of the ANC, held in December 1946, passed specific resolutions relating to the land question. In particular, resolutions 8.4 and 16 respectively called on the National Executive Committee to organise campaigns for land and property rights in rural and urban areas. Resolution 16 stated: “This conference is alarmed at the increasing hardships and chaotic conditions existing among African farm labourers and the homeless-houseless Africans in urban areas. Congress is convinced that this state of affairs is caused by the reactionary and repressive policy of the Union government motivated by the desire to bolster up white supremacy.”vi

On 2 August 1948, the ANC Youth League released the “ANC Youth League Basic Policy Document”. In the section on economic policy, which dealt with the land question, the Youth League states that “political democracy remains an empty form without substance, unless it is properly grounded on a base of economic and, especially, industrial democracy”. vii

The league called for “far-reaching agrarian reforms”, including:

  • The re-division of land among farmers and peasants of all nationalities in proportion to their numbers;
  • The application of modern scientific methods to, and the planned development of, agriculture;
  • The improvement of land, the reclamation of denuded areas and the conservation of water supplies; and
  • The mass education of peasants and farmers in the techniques of agricultural production.

This clearly is a departure from the earlier “willing buyer, willing seller” approaches adopted by successive ANC leaders and conferences – in particular, the appeal to the British public by John Langalibalele Dube, begging and saying, “We do not ask for anything the most niggardly among you could honestly refuse us. We ask for freedom to purchase land wherever opportunities occur, and our sparse means permit. We ask that we be permitted to build for ourselves a home wherever a landlord is agreeable. Who can affirm that such requests are unreasonable or impossible”vii

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