Land grabs a hundred years ago
by Richard Wadley
After the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in 1886, instantly wealthy entrepreneurs needed to find ways in which to make themselves even richer. One route was to create companies that would purchase agricultural land in new areas being formally surveyed for the first time. The rationale was that the development that would surely accompany the expected growth in mining would necessitate growth in agriculture in the region. And there was always the possibility of further mineral discoveries.
The Waterberg was a prime target for land acquisition: by 1899, according to a detailed map produced by Friedrich Jeppe, almost half the land (with its attendant mineral rights, of course) on the Waterberg Plateau had been ‘grabbed’ by only three land companies: the Transvaal Consolidated Land Co., which became Rand Mines; the Oceana (Transvaal) Land Co., which became absorbed into Goldfields; and the Anglo-French Land Co., which later bought control of Oceana. Others, like the Oslo Land Company, would follow.
The means by which these acquisitions were made were often unscrupulous: company agents would accompany the ZAR surveyors in the field and immediately rush back to Pretoria to stake their employer’s claim on the most promising properties (at a shilling an acre!); other agents would persuade struggling existing owners to sell their land in exchange for a tenuous right to remain on it as tenants. Johann Rissik, then the Surveyor-General of the ZAR and later to become Minister of Lands in the Botha government, was concurrently a director of the Transvaal Consolidated Land Co. – reminding us (if any were needed) that conflicts of interest among Government officials and opportunistic land acquisitions are not recent phenomena!
In the next few years, the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War - with its disruption of farming activity, the destruction of farmsteads, commandeering of cattle and horses, forced removal (and internment) of families and their subsequent impoverishment - aggravated by a prolonged drought, would provide further cheap acquisition opportunities for land companies.
Devastating though it undoubtedly was for the Waterberg community, not every aspect of this ruthlessly capitalistic process was negative, however. Oceana, for example, lobbied the Kruger government into the construction of the railway line from Pretoria to Pietersburg (Polokwane) and even contributed the bulk of its cost. It also tried, unsuccessfully, to have a branch line built to its newly-discovered tin mine at Rooiberg. And, far from sitting idly – or expectantly - on the land they had acquired so cheaply, the companies moved quickly to hire appropriate expertise and to develop its agricultural potential. This would turn the plateau into an important beef farming region for the next century, and provide the motivation for further investments, like the railway line from Modimolle (Nylstroom) to Vaalwater.
Revised, October 2012
Jeppe, Friedrich (1899): Jeppe’s Map of the Transvaal or South African Republic and Surrounding Territories (Sheet 2 of 6). ZAR, Pretoria.
Natrass, Gail (1989): The tin mines of the Waterberg (Transvaal), 1905-1914. Contree 26 / 1989 (5-12).
Trapido, Stanley (1978): Landlord and Tenant in a Colonial Economy: The Transvaal (1880-1910). Journal of Southern African Studies 5 (1) (26-58).