Originally published in Inqaba ya Basebenzi No. 4 (October 1981).

by Florence Bosch and Themba Sikhakliane

For the toiling people in South Africa, the question of who owns and controls the land is completely bound up with who owns the factories, mines, farms and other workplaces, and with who controls the state which protects the ownership of these things.

Black people in South Attica are effectively denied the right to own land in their own country. Certainly, the ruling class has ‘generously’ allowed 13% of the most barren parts for occupation by Africans and a tiny amount in the urban areas for Coloured and Indian “Group Areas”. But removals and evictions show that even in these “reserved areas” the will of the state holds sway.

No black person has a right to live anywhere in South Africa – let, alone own outright a patch of soil. There is no other country in the world where a minority in society denies the right to land to a majority on the basis of colour. The reason for this must be found in the way South African capitalism developed.


When the Dutch (and later British) colonialists invaded the shores of South Africa, they were confronted with well-organised indigenous tribes holding land communally and producing largely for subsistence. To ‘open up’ South Africa for capitalist domination, the colonial rulers were confronted with two needs – to conquer the tribes and seize their land, and to transform the tribesmen into wage labourers.

This proved no easy task, as the bloody wars of resistance testify.

Lacking the power to remove the indigenous tribes from their land altogether, the capitalists drove them into the reserves, ‘freeing’ their land for exploitation by white farmers. Those that could not be pushed out were reduced to servitude on their ancestral land, now controlled by the brutal white landowning class.

Through the imposition of cash taxes, combined with the relentless pressures of overcrowding and poverty, the capitalists then drove the tribesmen from the reserves in search of employment and used the instruments of the pass laws and influx control to control them.

That arch-villain Cecil Rhodes summed up this process in 1894 when he spoke of “the gentle stimulant of the labour tax to remove them [i.e. Africans] from a life of sloth and laziness; you will teach them the dignity of labour.”

In this way the capitalist class could secure for itself the supply of cheap labour necessary for development.

Late Development

At the time capitalism dug its roots in South Africa, it already existed as a world system and was entering its highest, convulsive stage of wars and revolutions – the epoch of imperialism.

Monopoly capitalism had already carved-up the world market on the basis of large-scale production. This enabled the monopolies to undercut smaller producers by lowering prices.

So, to accumulate wealth, the South African capitalists, interlocked as junior partners with world capitalism, were compelled to produce, sell and buy commodities at prices laid down on the world markets. The possibilities for development have been shaped within these limits.

The capitalists have been able to compete profitably in agriculture, industry and mining only by maintaining in existence a constant supply of cheap labour through the migrant labour system.

The transformation of indigenous tribesmen into cheap wage-labourers migrating between the reserves and the workplaces, always under the strong arm of the law, made possible South Africa’s economic development. The whole edifice of apartheid which arose – racial division, passes, and the police state – ensures that this cheap labour system continues.

By placing barriers on the right of black people to own land, the SA ruling class not only got the land and cheap labour, but they also made sure that no black farming class could arise to compete with them for profits. The 1913 Land Act, for example, was passed for this purpose.

Capitalism in South Africa did not develop in the gradual manner it did in Britain and other advanced countries. Its development was rapid and convulsive. The conquered tribesman found himself thrown directly into wage labour; the very same class that stole his land confronted him as slave-driver on the factory floor and down the mine.

Thus it became imprinted on the consciousness of the migrant worker that the questions of land deprivation, national oppression, the pass laws and cheap labour are all inseparably bound-up together.

All this explains why the relation between the workers and their bosses appears at the same time as a relation between the conquered and their conqueror. The black working class has been shaped in production not just as a class, but as part of a nation struggling for liberation.

The struggles that developed against land seizure, cash taxes, “rehabilitation” schemes and all the measures intended to force out the Africans into selling their labour power to the capitalists, bore the imprint of a struggle between a working-class-in-the-making and imperialism. The Bambata rebellion, for example, often cited as the last stand of tribal society, was in reality the struggle of land-workers and a disappearing peasantry against the poll tax impositions of the vicious colonial state.

The struggles against cattle-culling in the late 1940s, for example in Witzieshoek, and those that followed against Bantu Authorities and the Rehabilitation Schemes, were battles of migrant workers and their families against a continued onslaught intended to reduce them to pauperism.

In the reserves, the masses have increasingly lost their real link with the land. People struggle in vain for mealies from their tiny plots and milk from barren grazing lands. Millions are completely landless. Even when confined to the countryside, all these are forever dependent on wages for survival.

To the oppressed workers, the re-conquest of the land is an essential part of their struggle against oppression and exploitation. The land was seized from them to reduce them to wage labourers; it is used as an instrument against them to perpetuate their servitude.

The land and the pass are knotted together. The pass brands the migrant as a landless proletarian, destined to move between the reserves and the urban areas at the whim of the bosses.

The barriers on free movement are bound-up with the barriers to the land. The same class that denies blacks the right to the land, at the same time forces Africans to live on it in the reserves.

That is why the questions of the land, the pass laws, poverty and democracy are all seen as one and the same. They all go back to one thing – capitalism. Who owns the land has a central part in determining who rules society.

Reconquering the Land

The solution to the problem of who should own the land poses itself differently for the workers than for the middle class elements. Sections of the black middle class see the solution to the land question as the re-division of the land so that they might own land and get rich. They want barriers to land ownership lifted, the white farmers pushed off, and the land granted to themselves.

But the working class always solves its problems in its own way. For the working class, the owners of land are not simply whites, but capitalists who use their ownership of the land as a lever to take all that the workers produce. To destroy the power of the capitalists requires seizing from them what they have stolen and using it for the good of the people.

Re-division of the large capitalist farms would not solve the problems facing the working class and its families; it would mean a reduction in food production and the replacement of one group of capitalists by another.

Re-conquest of the land can only mean the complete taking over of the country – the land, the factories mines and banks – by a workers’ government based on the majority of the people, with the expropriation not only of the white capitalist farmers, but the industrialists and financiers too.

Only when the land has been re-conquered in this manner will the power of the whites over the black people – and with it the power of the bosses over the workers – be broken.

Why should it be the workers, who own nothing but their ability to labour, who hold the solution to the land question?

Because it was the capitalist class who completed the process of stealing the land from the people and who hold it today. The South African bourgeoisie has carried through its revolution on the land, ensuring that large-scale capitalist production predominates everywhere.

The bywoners have long been eliminated. Every year sees more small white farmers gobbled up by big business on the land. Today about 80% of the maize is produced on 10% of the farms.

The peculiar, distorted and very rapid development of capitalism in South Africa meant that tribesmen were transformed directly into proletarians. A stable peasantry has never existed in South Africa for this reason. The rural poor of the reserves are none other than the families of the migrant workers.

This explains the special significance of the laud question for the working class, whose historic role it will be to liberate the land for the people, and the people from the land.

How will the question of who owns and controls the land then be resolved? Only in the course of determined struggle, of industrial and agricultural workers united. The land question will not be solved by the passing of laws, but by the forcible seizure of the land.

This will require the organisation of the workers on every farm in the country, and their linking up with the workers’ organisations in the industrial areas.

The same organs of democratic workers’ power used to take the land in the course of the revolution can then be used to re-organise production.

At a national level, the revolutionary overthrow of the present regime and its substitution by a democratic workers’ state will lay the basis for the planning of all social production to meet the needs of the people. The priority as far as the land is concerned will be to ensure sufficient for every man, woman and child to eat, both in the towns and on the land.

This will require nationalisation of the large farms and estates and the organisation of production on them under workers’ control.

At the same time areas of unused farmland would have to be taken over and turned to productive use, with collective farming encouraged and assisted. Only in this way will efficient, large-scale production with tractors, harvesters, etc., be possible.

The revolution on the land will not only have to provide food for the towns, but also lift from misery and brutal degradation the agricultural workers who have long produced the food of South Africa and got so little in return. The overthrow of capitalism would make possible for the first time a decent standard of living for workers on the land.

Furthermore, the reserves as reservoirs of cheap labour must go, together with the pass laws. People will then be able to move freely from village and farm to town.

Hundreds of thousands of people now in the reserves will flee from the barren life on a barren strip of soil to which influx control has condemned them for so long, to seek new opportunities in the towns. In this way, the revolution will liberate the people from the land.

What will happen to the land in the reserves and on the smaller white farms? This will have to be decided by committees of workers together with their families in the local areas. It would not undermine the power of a workers’ state if some re-distribution into private hands takes place, as long as the main food producing regions are in the hands of the state and controlled by the workers in the interests of all the people.

Whatever the case, huge resources will have to be pumped into the poorer areas to enrich the soil, and provide implements and irrigation. In this way voluntary collectivisation can be encouraged, with greater productivity in the production of food.

The Freedom Charter, programme of Congress, calls for the restoring of the land to the people. Every oppressed person agrees with that. But how is this restoration to be achieved, and what will it mean in practice?

To carry through this programme of re-conquest of land by the people, there can be no compromise with the interests of the white landowning class. Unfortunately, the leaders of the ANC are not clear on this issue. Thus Sechaba, October 1980, states that “the capitalist farmers … will have to be re-educated in the spirit of the Freedom Charter … [as] is happening in Zimbabwe.”

But the point to be made about Zimbabwe is that the land has not been restored to the people!

All the more is it the case in South Africa that the land can only be taken back by collective force, in the course of a revolutionary struggle against the capitalist class as a whole. And the land thus liberated must be put to the service of the entire people through the means of a workers’ state nationally and organs of workers’ power locally.

Because the peasantry has been eliminated in South Africa, the demand simply for the redistribution of the land as a whole into private hands would only undermine the unity of the revolution; who would become the new land-owners and who not? That is apart from the immediate crisis and chaos it would cause in the vital production of food for the towns.

The task in the next period is to build the links between the industrial and agricultural workers, to develop a united and invincible force that can sweep away capitalism from the face of SA.

That is the only way to solve the land question, along with all the questions of national and social liberation.

© Transcribed from the original by the Marxist Workers Party (2021).