Forced removals refer to the moving of people from their homes against their will. This may not always involve physical threat or force, but sometimes coercion or other tactics against which the evictees are not in a position to challenge are employed[i]. Examples of the types of tactics used to move people against their will from their homes will be illustrated further below.

South Africa has experienced a long history of forcible removal of people as the result of racist legislation. It is incredibly difficult to calculate precise numbers of people who experienced forced removal in the country It is equally difficult to pinpoint a specific origin for the legislation, that segregated South Africa’s cities into racially constructed group areas. Earlier discriminatory laws were often used as platforms for building new ones during the apartheid era,[ii] so to understand those which famously occurred under the Group Areas Act (and heavily influence urban landscapes today), it is important to consider the legislation preceding that which occurred under apartheid rule. It is also worth noting that economic conditions in South Africa today have seen forced removals continue across the country. [iii]

While apartheid saw the rigorous implementation of removals on a massive scale, segregation and forced removals occurred before the National Party came into power and introduced apartheid legislation[iv]. Examples of pre-apartheid legislation include the 1913 Native Land Act , the 1906 and 1908 Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance 29, and the 1936 Native Trust Land Act.[v]These items of legislation served to limit the freedom of all people not classified as White)living in South Africa by controlling their movement, limiting their power to own land or businesses and exploiting their labour to the benefit of White South Africans[vi].Some of apartheid’s most oppressive legislation (such as the Group Areas Act) was built upon these earlier regulations that sought to control the movements and rights of all who were not White (for example, the 1925 Areas Reservation Bill sought to restrict Indians).[vii]However, it was the Group Areas Act of 1950 that formalised and rigorously implemented forced removals on an enormous scale; from its promulgation on the 7th of July 1950 to its repeal in 1991 under the Abolition of Racially Based Land Measures Act.

“You can’t say there is an unfair division of land, because land was divided by history… we’ve pegged it down and that’s final.” – The Deputy Minister of Bantu Administration and Development, 1975. [viii]

While the Group Areas Act legislated the forced segregation of people according to the ethnic groupings they ‘belonged to’ (these identities were assigned to people by the apartheid government).Segregation existed long before apartheid was implemented and was already instituted by colonial authorities through various urban planning efforts.[ix]The earliest evidence of forced removal on this landscape dates to the seventeenth century when San and Khoi inhabitants were dispossessed at the Cape by European settlers under the leadership of Jan Van Riebeeck, when the Dutch East India Company elected to create a permanent settlement at the Cape. While the dispossession of indigenous people during the time of early European settlement differed in nature to forced removals under the Group Areas Act, a similarity is reflected in the entrenched attitudes of those in power many centuries later, resulting in large-scale forced removals throughout the country.[x] Colonial authorities, having established control and discrimination by White people over all those who were not classified as White, passed legislation that reflected the efforts of the authorities to retain this control, resulting in people being forced from one location to another. Examples include the series of acts promulgated in the early 1900s in order to restrict the freedom of Asian South Africans who saw their rights to trade within the areas referred to as Asiatic Bazaars removed, as legislation became more and more discriminatory toward them.

Other attempts to legally segregate the populace by ethnic distinction included a long list of discriminatory laws that can be traced back as far as the nineteenth century. Legislation such as the 1920 Native Affairs Act, the 1924 Class Areas Bill, the 1934 Slums Act and many more, led up to the eventual enforcement of separate ‘Group Areas’ from 1950 onward, resulting in mass evictions and forced removals. A good example of one of the ways that legislation forced people unjustly from their homes is the anti-squatting legislation in 1880 and 1908. Driven by White farmers to fulfil needs for cheap labour, they successfully lobbied for legislation. This forced cash-tenants (people who rented their land from farmers) to become labour tenants (people who worked for 3-9 months per year without pay on farms in exchange for being allowed to live there).The people in question were Black people for who opportunities to own land were severely restricted. Those affected by these anti-squatting laws had the following options: to accept the farmer’s offer of taking labour tenancy over cash tenancy, move out, or be prosecuted as a squatter. Legal tenants could be considered ‘squatters’ because farmers had power to label them as such. Farmers would coerce them into changing their status to labour tenants. In this way many people were forced to move from their homes. Similarly, under the 1913 Land Act, many Black people living as cash tenants and share-croppers on White-owned land were restricted from owning land and forced off of land that they rented. In areas like the Free State Black people were coerced to accept labour tenancy over cash. Not only did this lead to the disempowerment and dispossession of a large number of Black people, it also provided White farmers with increased power and access to labour from people made vulnerable by the new legislation.[xi]

By the time the Group Areas Act was promulgated, Black South Africans were already officially restricted from living or moving within most areas not designated to them throughout South Africa. This was as a result of legislation such as the 1923 Natives (Urban Areas) Act.[xii] However, it was difficult for authorities to enforce regulations to ensure the racial segregation of neighbourhoods. Many areas, particularly those in close proximity to areas with employment opportunities, were ethnically diverse despite attempts to restrict this diversity. In the Western Cape, areas such as Windermere grew out of the increasing need for people to find housing closer to work opportunities, resulting in multi-ethnic living spaces that was home to many families before the eventual removal of its Black residents from 1953 onward.

In 1931, the Cape Province Municipal Association (CPMA) requested that the limitations on freedom already enforced upon the Black population as part of the 1923 Natives (Urban Areas) Act, be extended to apply to Coloured people as well.[xiii] This included determining where people were allowed to live, which amenities they were to use and in many ways was similar to the later restrictions implemented by the Group Areas Act. Efforts to legislate this segregation saw an upsurge of large-scale protest by members of the public and the recommended amendments were referred instead to national authorities by provincial decision makers,[xiv] thus temporarily thwarting the CPMA attempts to implement segregationist legislation against Coloured people.

In another step toward enforced segregation, the late 1930s and early 1940s saw the implementation of pegging laws which limited the freedom of Indian South Africans. Pegging refers to the prevention of free selling or purchasing of land, meaning that Indian land owners were neither allowed to sell land already owned nor have the freedom to purchase new land.

The examples listed above are some of the measures implemented prior to the drafting and enforcement of the Group Areas Act, which paved the way for forced segregation under apartheid. However, until 1950no comprehensive legislation was in place that would allow the government to institute segregation of its populace according to their ethnic classification at national level. People found ways to live and work among one another as urban areas expanded and circumstances created by World War II brought increased urbanisation and industrialisation. The resultant increased need for labour necessitated some leniency of segregationist laws. [xv] This was of concern to those in powers and to members of the White population who did not wish to share their living environments with those from other population groups. They apparently did not want to have their neighbourhoods and communities encroached upon by what was referred to as ‘irregular settlements’ in government documentation [xvi]. As a result, legislation was created to limit the freedom of all non-white residents. [xvii]

After World War II, the South African government under Jan Smuts made attempts at managing the growing urban populations through careful urban planning. This included the creation of distinct and separate areas for different population groups, as indicated by correspondence between planning officials at the time. [xviii]

In 1946 the Asiatic Land Tenure Act was promulgated and is considered to be a “direct precursor to the Group Areas Act” [xix]. Informally known as the ‘Ghetto Act’, this enforced further limitations upon Indian people living in Natal. They were denied the right to purchase property in areas defined as ‘controlled’ [A1] where only Whites were allowed to own land. Furthermore they were only allowed to lease land in these controlled areas on condition that they were using the land for trading purposes.

Forced removals under the Group Areas Act:

“We make no apologies for the Group Areas Act, and for its application. And if 600 000 Indians and Coloureds are affected by the implementation of that Act, we do not apologise for that either. I think the world must simply accept it. The Nationalist Party came to power in 1948 and it said it would implement residential segregation in South Africa… We put that Act on the Statute Book and as a result we have in South Africa, out of the chaos which prevailed when we came to power, created order and established decent, separate residential areas for our people.” Senator PZ van Vuuren, speaking in parliament in 1977[xx]

By 1982, under the Group Areas Act of 1950, over 3.5 million people were forcibly removed and many more faced removals thereafter.[xxi] These removals were documented by activist research projects such as the Surplus People’s Project [T2] (SPP) under the co-ordination of Laurine Platzky[xxii]as well as The Discarded People by Cosmas Desmond[xxiii]. To date, millions of people have experienced forced removals at the hands of state authorities and countless numbers as a result of private evictions by landowners in rural areas.[xxiv] Black farm labourers make up the biggest group of people to have been forcibly removed from their homes.[xxv]

The Group Areas Act stated that its purpose was to “provide for the establishment of group areas, for the control of the acquisition of immovable property and the occupation of land and premises, and for matters incidental thereto”. [xxvi] Essentially, this Act prevented people from purchasing or selling property between racial groups and ensured that members of these designated groups were limited to living within certain urban spaces. Urban areas were divided into zones according to racial grouping and people were prevented from owning or leasing residential or commercial property in areas where their designated racial group was not legally allowed to live. Central urban areas deemed attractive to live in were designated as White-only zones (e.g. seaside locations, attractive suburban spaces, lucrative farming locations), whilst areas further away from the suburbs were zoned for use by Black, Coloured or people of Asian heritage (e.g. the Cape Flats in Cape Town and areas such as KwaMashu in Durban and Soweto in Gauteng). The board that administered the Group Areas Act was modelled after the Asiatic Land Tenure Board, = headed by the Minister of the Interior. This board had up to seven members who determined which areas would be proclaimed group areas or not.

There were a number of different types of removals that occurred under the act. According to Gerhard Maré[xxvii], removals could be divided into 11 categories: farm removals, black spot removals, ‘badly situated’ area removals, urban relocation, informal settlement removals, influx control, group areas removals, removals that occurred because of the development of infrastructure, military/strategic removals, political removals (e.g. banishment) and Bantustan betterment scheme removals.

For a full glossary of terms [T3] , including those listed above, please visit the Surplus People’s Project’s glossary of terms relating to forced removals in South Africa available on South African History Online.

Methods of forcing people from areas where they were not desired included violent action (bulldozing homes, threatening people with weapons), as well as seemingly non-violent methods (spreading fear, bribing community leadership, intimidating residents, imposing unfair building restrictions as well as closing schools and stores).[xxviii] When people moved away from their neighbourhoods as the result of non-violent action as described above, the government frequently described this movement as ‘voluntary’, because they were not physically threatened out of the area. This allowed the government to declare that forced removals were no longer occurring in South Africa, despite the fact that people were moving out of declared areas against their will.[xxix]

People affected by removals under the Group Areas Act

Apart from a small number of White people, the majority of those affected by removals under the Group Areas Act have been Black, Coloured and Asian (largely Indian). While popular opinion has it that there were few Black people living in urban centres because of earlier legislation that prevented this, there were many Black people living in what would later become ‘controlled’ areas. They were evicted under the Group Areas Act along with Coloured and Indian people. Frequently areas where Black people resided were declared Coloured or Indian group areas and Black people were forced out. In Durban, for example, an estimated 80 000 Black people were forcibly removed in 1961 as the result of group areas proclamations. [xxx]

In the 1950s, after the National Party came into power and instituted fierce segregationist legislation, a series of campaigns including the Defiance Campaign, boycotts, strikes and anti-pass campaigns were launched by the ANC and its allies. This further fuelled the Nationalist government efforts to remove all Black people from urban areas and allow the government more control over them.[xxxi] By the 1990s, a very small number of Black people remained in areas that were declared White, where they resided as service workers to White employers (e.g. domestic cleaners, gardeners, etc.). They remained socially segregated, however, and were forced to live in domestic/servants’ quarters on white-owned properties. [xxxii]

Once people were forcibly removed and ‘resettled’, the communities that they once belonged to were destroyed, leaving their members scattered across a variety of areas with little opportunity to reconnect and re-establish their former relationships. Some families broke apart when certain members of the family used the opportunity to take on different ethnic identities from other family members (e.g. some light-skinned Coloured people could sometimes assume White ethnic identities and therefore the same rights as White people). Oral history testimonies offer further insight into such experiences and reveal the difficulties and traumas experienced by individuals and groups who were forced to separate from their homes and community members.

“I tell my children about Simon’s Town; swimming, the mountain! You know what my children tell me? And you brought us up in this hole! They can’t understand that I had such a happy childhood. Here they can’t go anywhere. There is nothing for them… They don’t like Ocean View… They don’t even have friends, their family is their friends.” Mrs J.O. Ocean View, Western Cape [xxxiii]

Each province experienced forced removals in unique ways that were affected by the area’s industry, as well as the ethnic groups of the people who lived there. For example, the Transvaal and Eastern Cape saw the increasingly devastating effects of forced migrant labour. The Eastern Cape too saw growing tensions between its Black and Coloured populations, brought about by apartheid legislation such as the Coloured Labour Preference Policy, which resulted in some forced removals. Between Bantustans too there grew increased conflict, with segregation enforced by legislation and the under-resourced and overwhelmed Bantustans struggling to provide employment, services and opportunities to their rapidly growing populations; made up of people who were forced from their homes to their ‘homelands’. Indian people found their economic prosperity diminished by the increased restrictions of segregation and were often driven into poverty when they were forced out of their homes and businesses.

Some people experienced removals from their homes to make way for leisure spaces for White people only while others were evicted in order to build infrastructure such as electricity or water supply that they had no access to.[xxxiv] There was no limit to the reasons behind forced removals or the ferocity of its implementation.

In addition, White people made large profits out of the Group Areas Act and forced removals, particularly developers and speculators, from people who were forced to sell their homes cheaply out of intimidation and fear of the law. Suburbs such as Mowbray and Harfield Village in Cape Town are examples where gentrification of the neighbourhoods arrived on the backs of forced removals, resulting in enormous profit for buyers and sellers of property.[xxxv]

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