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The most popular word or phrase in South Africa this year is “land expropriation without compensation”. For many years black South Africans were not allowed to own land.

In 2014 a valuable donation was made to the document collection of the National Museum. For the first time the author was struck by the reality of the Group Areas Act of 1950 and the impact it had on black communities. Mrs. Alina Motsumi donated three “Certificates of Occupation” dating from the 1970s along with a “work permit” from 1978.

The aim of the Group Areas Act was to obtain separate development in geographical, political, economic and social terms for different and/or ethnic groups. A number of acts which date as far back as the early 20th century were passed to achieve these aims. As early as 1903–1905 the South African Native Affairs Commission recommended that land should be reserved for black occupation or ownership. The commission further recommended that the purchase of land by blacks should be limited to certain areas. The result was the Native Land Act, no. 27 of 1913. The act ingrained racial territorial separation between blacks and whites in the Union of South Africa (1910–1961). Black people were prohibited from buying land outside the areas reserved for them and vice versa.

The Group Areas Act of 1950, however, was the cornerstone of apartheid (1948–1994). The act marked off areas of land for different racial groups, and made it illegal for people to live in any but their designated areas. Thousands of non-white South Africans were uprooted and moved into racially segregated neighbourhoods in cities or to reserves which by the 1970s would be called homelands. These homelands (previously known as Bantustans) were established by the Apartheid Government to prevent non-whites from living in the white urban areas. They included Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Venda, Gazankulu, KaNgwane, KwaNdebele, KwaZulu, Lebowa, and QwaQwa.

In the 1940s, restrictions on land occupation by black people were done through the Native (urban areas) Consolidation Act of 1945. It further strengthened the laws controlling the presence of black people in urban areas, strictly specifying the conditions under which blacks might live and work in urban areas. Before 1952 there were a number of areas where black people could own the land on which their homes were built. The Bantu (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act of 1945 as amended in 1952 abolished this right. They were instead granted the right to build their own houses on 30-year leasehold plots, or they could buy houses on such plots from the local authority on a 30-year lease. In 1968 even this limited right was abolished and in future all blacks would have to rent their houses. Permits were given to the holder or a certificate of occupation which allowed him (women only obtained permits under special circumstances) and his dependants to live there provided they paid the monthly rental fee. The board had powers to evict any person not included in the permit and send him or her to the reserves.

This was meant to encourage black people to buy land in their respective homelands. Existing property owners could keep living in their homes but could only sell their property to the local authority. They were also not able to bequeath the property after their passing.

Due to the housing shortage in the townships, government wanted family housing to make way for hostels for migrant workers. Strict conditions applied when black people wanted to apply for a home. The applicant had to be a male over the age of 21 years. He had to have proof of his dependants. He therefore had to be married and his wife needed permission to live with him in that area. Women and foreign men seldom made the waiting list. Exceptions were made when women had dependants or were living with their husband before he passed away and she earned enough to afford the rent. In these cases written permission had to be obtained from the Chief Bantu Affairs Commissioner.

Once a permit was granted the following information had to be included. The name of the permit holder, identity number, number of the house or site, ethnic grouping, every member of the family also had to be listed including their date of birth and their relation to the holder of the permit. It was against the law to have someone staying in the house who was not listed on the permit. The permit expired on the last day of each month and had to be renewed monthly by paying the rent. A number of reasons could lead to the cancellation of the permit, namely unemployment for more than 30 days, a prison sentence longer than six months or desertion by either spouse. Other grounds for cancellation were if the permit holder ceased to be a “fit and proper person”, in the opinion of the Superintendent, or if he failed to carry out the instructions of the Superintendent relating to the erection or demolition of any structures on the site.

In practice the housing regulations led to great hardships. A woman whose husband died, or who was divorced or deserted by her husband, often ended up being evicted from her house. In terms of the law, black South Africans needed a permit and thus permission for almost every aspect of their life: to seek work, to work, to reside, to rent a house, to live with a husband or wife, to have their children living in the same house, to visit relatives for a weekend, to change jobs, to move to another place, to be on the streets after curfew and to obtain a pension. Permits such as those donated by Mrs. Motsumi provide tangible evidence of the hardships black people endured during apartheid and emphasize the importance of collecting and preserving these documents for future generations.

In this text the word Bantu is only used within its original historical context.

Black Sash. 1974. African family housing in urban areas.. DISA Archive. Pamphlet Box 96.
Giliomee, H. & Mbenga, B. 2007. New History of South Africa. Cape Town: Tafelberg.
Group Areas Act 41 of 1950.
Liebenberg, B.J. & Spies, S.B. (Ed.) 1993. South Africa in the 20th Century. Pretoria: van Schaik.
Olivier, N.J.J. 1989. Race discrimination in South Africa: An overview. Koers Journal 54(3): 303–318.

Sudre Havenga

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