In 1910, when South Africa became a self-governing country within the British Empire, black South Africans equalled about 70 per cent of the population. However, under the new constitution, they could not vote in three-quarters of the country and could not be members of the national parliament. The white minority, about 20 per cent of the population, dominated the politics and economy of the country almost completely and controlled more than 90 per cent of the land in South Africa. The ancestors of the whites began to settle in South Africa in 1652, while the ancestors of the Africans arrived centuries before the 17th century.
This minority viewed South Africa as a “white man’s country,” and asked “what are we going to do about the native question.” Since hardly any white South African believed in equality of the races, there was no real answer to the question, although certain whites talked vaguely about the possibility of imposing segregation. One problem for whites was that, after 1905, increasing numbers of Africans were buying land. This is the context for the debate in Parliament during the first half of 1913 about territorial segregation and the passage of the Natives Land Act on 19 June.
First and foremost, the Act prohibited black South Africans from buying land in the Transvaal and Natal provinces. However, Section 1 also included an exception clause, which allowed the Governor General to approve African requests for exemptions. Thousands of Africans took advantage of this clause and purchased more than 3000 farms and lots between 1913 and 1936.
The Act defined the boundaries of the areas set aside for the Africans, which were identified as “scheduled areas.” This land equalled only just over seven per cent of the area of South Africa, about 22 million acres (not the 13.7 per cent goal referred to during the apartheid years).
The Act required the appointment of a Natives Land Commission to investigate which additional land should be set aside for Africans since responsible officials knew that many of the scheduled areas were overcrowded and that seven per cent of the land was not enough for the rural population. The Commission reported in 1916 and Parliament debated its recommendations but, ultimately, Parliament passed no new land legislation until 1936. What was generally viewed by politicians and other whites as a “temporary measure,” became permanent with unfortunate consequences for the rural African population.
African leaders condemned the Natives Land Act in very strong terms, almost completely ignoring the purchasing which was occurring, because the Act attacked a key aspect of the African way of life, the land, and ownership rights were confined to a miniscule portion of South Africa.
The long term results in that seven per cent were overcrowding because of rapid population growth, overgrazing and soil deterioration, all of which undermined African agriculture.
In some respects, the Natives Land Act contributed to the development of a cornerstone of the apartheid system, the creation of the homelands during the 1950s and beyond. Equally important, because Africans continued to buy land outside of the scheduled areas, the territorial segregation goals of the promoters of the Natives Land Act were not achieved before 1948.