Authored/Compiled by Wade Goodwin

The Empty or Vacant Land Theory is a theory that was propagated by European settlers in nineteenth-century South Africa to support their claims to land. Today this theory is described as the Empty Land Myth because there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support this theory. Despite evidence to the contrary, several parties in South Africa, particularly right-wing nationalists of European descent, maintain that the theory still holds true to support their claims to land-ownership in the country. 

With his book The Past and Future of the Kaffir Races (1866), W. C. Holden was one of the early writers on South African history to publish a book that used the theory of empty land (as an explanation) for land ownership in South Africa. To legitimise European settlement in South Africa, Holden argued Europeans and the Bantu tribes had entered South Africa at roughly the same time. He contended that up until that point, South Africa was primarily an ’empty land’. 

The theory outlined by Holden claimed that the Bantu had begun to migrate southwards- from present-day Zimbabwe- at the same time as the Europeans had begun to migrate northwards from the Cape settlement- with the two movements finally meeting in the Zuurveld region- between the Sundays River and the Great Fish River. This, the theory claimed, gave equal right to the land to whoever could take ownership of it, with force, and maintain that ownership. There were, therefore, no ‘original’ inhabitants with an ‘original’ right to the land, only two migrating groups who had equal claim to it.

Although Holden was the first to publish the theory of empty land in a book, the “theory” itself had been circulating in the colony for a long time, with many colonists claiming that they had as great a right to the land as the newly arrived Bantu. Myths of empty and vacant land were common currency by the mid-1840s.

In 1838. The Graham’s Town Journal argued, for example, that the Xhosa had been “the usurpers of the whole of the territory between the Kye and the Fish River.” It contended that the British had more of a right to the land than a people wh, “had gained a footing in it by treachery and violence.” The British were convinced that the Xhosa had only recently entered into the region and had taken the land by force from the Khoikhoi, and so the British had the right to take it by force from the Xhosa. 

The British based this belief on two observations they had made. The first belief, at the time, was when the British and the Dutch were approaching the frontier, there had been a few isolated incidents of Xhosa clans who were fleeing internal conflicts moving into Khoikhoi territory. This belief was prevalent in the Zuurveld region. An example, such as when the Khoikhoi Queen Hoho and her clan had been defeated in a battle in the Queenstown area in the 1770s by a group of Xhosa fleeing Rarabe, was often touted.

The eastern frontier of the Cape Colony, a point of convergence between the Xhosa and the British settlers. Source

Although these were very few and isolated incidents, the British and the Dutch jumped and vociferously used them to claim that the Xhosa had clearly taken all the land between the two rivers by the violent expulsion of the Khoikhoi. 

That the Xhosa used Khoikhoi place names for regions and geographic features was also pounced upon by the British as an unequivocal indication that they must have taken the land by force in recent times. Contemporary historical work shows that there was a long period of intermingling and integration between the western Xhosa and eastern Khoi, giving rise to the Khoi place names in Xhosa territory and the permeable nature of the boundaries between the two groups.

Much of the idea of the ‘vacant land’ myth in African colonial history rests on a White misunderstanding – however willful – of African sovereignty and land use. Most of the Bantu and Khoikhoi used the land in a rotation, often leaving large sections of land fallow while they cultivated another region or moved their herds to greener pastures. As pastoralists, they would migrate through various grazing grounds, thereby appearing to leave a grazing ground, not in current use ’empty.’