Fighting for dignity and freedom in our lifetime

The ANC and the land question: The early years

Former ANC president Pixley ka Isaka Semei was requested by several leaders and chiefs to write a full and concise statement on the subject of the South African Native Congress. As a result, on 24 October 1911, he produced a document titled “Native Union”. In this document, he pronounced that through the congress “natives will have the opportunity and means with which to influence the public opinion of this country and to greatly assist the South African statesmen who are working for the peace, prosperity, and the development of this land.”

The organising committee was tasked with convening the first sitting of the Congress in the early part of December 1911 (this eventually took place in January 1912). Seme’s document also served as “a general announcementii sent to all the native leaders, societies and editors asking them to explain this important news to the people at large, and to advise them to arrange for the sending of delegates so that every section of the people shall be represented in that conference of the races”.

On the agenda of the inaugural sitting of the congress in January 1912 – over and above the internal organisational arrangements of the formal establishment of “the South African Native Congress as a national society or union for all the natives of South Africa”iii – was “native lands and reserves”. I do not have the record at this stage of what the conference resolution in this regard was, but what matters for the purpose of this discussion is that the land question was on the agenda of the first sitting of the South African Native National Congress.

In his inaugural address to the South African Races Congress held at Toleni on 2 April 1912, its president, J Tengo Jabavuiv dealt with issues of the unity of Africans (natives); the rights of natives under the then-evolving Constitution of the Union of South Africa; education; liquor laws; labour; and, most importantly, the squatters’ Bill. Jabavu condemned the principle underlying this draft legislation. He said the Bill was based “on rooting natives out of farms and old established locations under the specious title of Crownlands, the tendency being to establish whites rather than natives on the land”.


In an appeal to the British public about the Natives Land Act of 1913 by John Langalibalele Dubev president of the South African Native National Congress (the predecessor to the African National Congress), Dube makes the point that “… hundreds of native families, men, women, and little children, even at this moment, [are] being ruthlessly evicted from their humble homes, where perchance they were born, turned homeless, helpless, and hopeless, on to the roads – wandering in misery about the land of their forefathers in search of any wretched spot whereon to live and rest. And then, think you, that at the very moment this calamity is overwhelming them, your government and your representatives actually come forward and block the way of these wretched people to raise for themselves a new home on any farmland.

“And the farmlands are nine-elevenths of the total surface of this province. Why, I ask, should you treat us thus? We do not ask any social equality or intercourse with your race. We do not ask anything the most fastidious of you could call unreasonable. We do not ask for anything even the lowest and vilest of your own race does not already possess. 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.” It appears from this extract that the concept of the “willing buyer, willing seller” was endorsed by the ANC as early as 1912.

‘Gravely disturbed’

Alongside this appeal to the people of Britain, the ANC (South African Native National Congress) also sent an “Appeal to the Members of the Imperial Parliament and Public of Great Britain” in 1914vi. The ANC, “… gravely disturbed at the menace to native rights under the Natives Land Act, passed a strong resolution against the Bill…” The ANC further recorded to the British Parliament that “the following religious conferences of South Africa have passed resolutions against the passing of the Bill: Anglican, Wesleyan, Congregational, Baptist and Presbyterians”. Through its appeal and deputation to the British Parliament, the ANC sought to “save the Union from the disintegration which must inevitably follow the enforcement of the Natives Land Act”.

The ANC specifically objected to the following provisions of the legislation, being the Land Act that the Governor-General of the Union of South Africa signed on 16 June 1913:

“Except with the approval of the Governor-General

  • “(a) A Native shall not enter into any agreement or transaction for the purchase, hire, or other acquisition from a person other than a native, of any such land, or of any right thereto, interest therein, or servitude thereover, and
  • "(b) A person other than a native shall not enter into any agreement or transaction for the purchase, hire, or other acquisition from a native of any such land, or of any right thereto, interest therein, or servitude thereover.”

The ANC highlighted the fact that the operation of the Act had produced six classes of sufferers:

  • “(a) Persons under notice to quit
  • “(b) Persons actually evicted from farms
  • “(c) Migrants to territories outside the Union
  • “(d) Homeless wanderers with families and stock in search of new homes
  • “(e) Persons who had to leave their crops unreaped, or who had not ploughed this season; and
  • “(f) Persons who yield unrequited labour.”

The effect of the enforcement of these provisions was that when a native left a farm on the expiry of his tenancy or otherwise, he was at once rendered homeless because the Act did not allow him to purchase, hire, or lease land anywhere for farming purposes. The native could live on a farm only as a servant to the farmer. The above classes of sufferers were the result of Parliament legislating natives off the farms without making provision for their settlement.

The ANC objected to the Land Act on the basis that it discriminated (differentiated) against them because:

  • It excluded natives from the free purchase of and dealing in land;
  • It made provision for “slavery” conditions in that it encouraged the farmer to “exact unpaid service from the native tenants”; and
  • Under the law no native was allowed to occupy or own any land in the Orange Free State.

Petition to King George V

Following a Special Session held in Johannesburg on 16 December 1918, the ANC sent a petition to King George Vvii. The delegation that went to England to present the petition was led by Sol Plaatje.

The King George petition began by reciting some of the issues that had been raised by the August 1914 Appeal to the Members of the Imperial Parliament and Public of Great Britain, prime among them being the appeal to His Majesty “to exercise the right of veto against the Natives Land Act 1913…”.viii

The 1918 petition heaped praise on the British Constitution and the United States of America in defending the rights of the weak and vulnerable. It went on to acknowledge the late Queen Victoria’s role, particularly her “proclamation of Natal in 1843, (wherein) any discrimination in the eyes of the law on account of race, colour, or creed, as well as slavery in any shape or form, were distinctly repudiated. Even under the two Conventions in the Transvaal in 1881 and 1884, the late Queen Victoria discountenanced slavery in any shape or form.”ix

The petition specifically brought to the attention of His Majesty “that the policies proposed by the successive governments in South Africa have from time to time been detrimental to the original rights of your subjects in land ownership and occupation, followed by calculated encroachments on their inherent rights to acquire land … all of which have confirmed previous apprehensions and misgivings and have created serious alarm and mistrust accordingly”.x

In his presidential address to the Annual Conference of the South African Native National Congress held on 6 May 1919, SM Makgatho also dealt extensively with the question of the land. In introductory remarks, Makgatho noted that “the Natives Land Act still operates as mercilessly in different parts of the Union, and as a result many native families are still working for white farmers only for their food”.xi

Makgatho also addressed issues that related to the Native Affairs Administration Bill and the Native Urban Areas Bill. These draft legislations made provisions for such discriminatory practices as forbidding whites from renting or selling a house to a native in any town or village in the Union.


On the face of it, it appears that all this land-related legislation was illegal. Queen Victoria’s Proclamation of Natal in 1843 repudiated all discrimination on account of race, colour, or creed, as well as slavery in any shape or form. In two Conventions in the then-Transvaal in 1881 and 1884, Queen Victoria abolished slavery in any shape or form.

The Land Act and other related legislation, in draft form or otherwise, was also in violation of the 1897 Proclamation relating to the territory of Zululand, which provided for that area to “…remain integral for the use and occupation of the original inhabitants in terms of Her Late Majesty's Annexation Proclamation…” These legislations also violated “Her Late Majesty's Proclamation of 1848 in conjunction with the Convention of 1854 relative to certain lands in the Orange Free State belonging to and claimed by the Batlokoa and the Bagolokoe tribes. These claims afford a just case for review and readjustment in the Orange Free State because the undertakings then given under the said Proclamation and Convention have been departed from without any compensation or other relief being granted to the original owners of the land.”xii

There was also a call for “a review of the Conventions of 1881 and 1884 relating to the Transvaal, wherein under Article 19, freedom to acquire land and the setting aside of tribal land or locations were, amongst other things, assured to the Native inhabitants. These assurances have scarcely ever been carried out and today Your Majesty's subjects in the Northern Transvaal find themselves dispossessed of land and their original holdings encroached upon”; and “a review of the Proclamations affecting what is now termed the Transkeian Territories in the Cape Province”.xiii

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