Law students mark 100 years since the Black Land Act

Rhodes Law students marked Wednesday 19 June exactly 100 years since the Black Land Act (BLA) of 1913 came into force by writing their Law of Property Law A exam (a component of Legal Theory 3) on the same day to highlight the importance of Law.

One of the top students in Dr Gustav Muller’s class, Kyla Rose Hazell, found it very significant to write the exam on the anniversary of the BLA.

“It makes one reflect on how significantly our law has changed and how much we have to be proud of in that regard. Perhaps more so, it makes one think about what change still needs to be seen,” she says.

Hazell feels that it is important for students of Property Law to take on a critical mindset oriented towards changing society.

She says the significance of the BLA was brought to the fore as part of the course, which current laws such as the Prevention of Illegal Eviction and Unlawful Occupation of Land Act (PIE) are trying to redress.

“I think that a formal transformative constitutional framework has not yet translated into realised property rights for all,” says Hazell, adding that we continue to be racially divided, especially in Grahamstown.

Shivani Moodley says she was made aware of the impact of the BLA and other legislation having been used as a means of subjugation and oppression during apartheid.

“It is now our responsibility to transform property law to try and create a more egalitarian society. Property law needs to be used as a tool to empower people,” says Moodley.

 She believes that the current laws are propelling us into a more positive direction and that “our courts are obliged to look at the context and circumstances of individuals and accordingly make equitable judgments.”

“People often fail to realise that had property, land and resources not been so unequally distributed during the apartheid years we would not be sitting with the issue of how to equalise the access to resources. I also think that those people that complain about a ‘reverse apartheid’ are not those people living in dire poverty and do not understand the severe need to equalise our society,” says Moodley.

The first year he has lectured the course, he slightly changed its emphasis to touch on aspects of property law that emphasise the far-reaching impact of the BLA on life in South Africa today.

The purpose of the BLA was to identify so-called ‘traditional land’ and to then reserve it for the exclusive use and occupation by black people. Section 1(1)(a) of the BLA prohibited black people from acquiring or leasing ‘traditional’ land and any person found doing so would be guilty of an offence that was punishable with a fine of £100 or possible imprisonment for 6 months. The only recourse of avoiding this was working as labour tenants on white-owned farms.

“Property law is and always will be political,” says Dr Muller, “because, under apartheid, land use systems were segregated along racial lines. Property law in post-apartheid South Africa has opened up opportunities for the acquisition of land and housing to people who were previously excluded in terms of section 25 and 26 of the Constitution.”

Dr Muller believes that the notion of ownership, especially the exclusivity thereof, has been over emphasised as an entitlement. “This overemphasis resulted in skewed powers to execute forced removals in terms of the Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act and the Group Areas Acts during apartheid”.

“This very direct link to the political nature of property law has been a recurring theme this semester in my course and fits in well with my social reform teaching perspective. My hope is that the students who attended my class will become lawyers and activists for land rights in the future.”

Writing messages such as “100 years” and “Aluta continua” on the outer pages of their exam scripts, there were some mixed feelings underlying the stress of writing exams: a combination of remembering the suffering of people under apartheid, and how so many continue to suffer but also pride in having come a long way since those traumatic times.

Photo and story by Anna-Karien Otto