3 ‘Black Spots’ and Forced Removals


One of the key laws of Apartheid was the Group Areas Act. It defined South African cities as spaces for white people, and expelled black people to their edges and to Homelands. But, as mentioned in Chapter Two, there were areas which did not fit this rule: places within the cities which had people of different races living together. Generally, these had been set up before the 1913 Land Act which stopped black people from owning land in most of South Africa. The most famous examples are Sophiatown in Johannesburg, and District Six in Cape Town. The slumyards described in earlier chapters, had already been destroyed by the pre-Apartheid government.

Both Sophiatown and District Six are famous for having had a vibrant cultural life – they produced many jazz musicians, writers and politicians. Sophiatown, in particular, was also known for its gangsters. Because there was such a shortage of accommodation for black people in the cities, places like this became very overcrowded too. They were preferred to locations, since they offered a bit more freedom from government control.

The fact that these areas defied the principle of Group Areas – by having racially mixed populations, and by allowing black people to settle in, and even own land in the cities – meant they were the focus of specific government attention. Despite resistance, the destruction of Sophiatown began in 1955. Its black residents were forcibly removed to Meadowlands, in what would become the township of Soweto. In place of Sophiatown, the National Party built houses for poor whites. They called the new suburb Triomf (Triumph). In 1968 the government began to take apart District Six too, and its residents were removed to the Cape Flats. Many more areas like this were demolished. In all, over 860 000 people suffered forced removals from urban areas in the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, the government started to clamp down on black migration and impose ‘influx control’ – attacking the rights of Africans to come to town at all (through stricter pass laws) and to live there permanently.

As well as Group Areas, there was another driver of forced removals: the ideology of Separate Development. This idea stated that different ethnic groups should be kept apart and allowed to develop into their own nations. The Bantu Authorities Act set up different government structures for black and white people, and in 1959 the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act set up eight (eventually ten) black Homelands with some power to run their own affairs. These Homelands were already Native Reserves, but the Homeland policy went further than the Reserves. Like the Reserves, they had the economic purpose of providing a cheap source of migrant labour for white-owned industry. In addition, they had an important political purpose: there were growing calls for black people to have self-government, and Homelands that were theoretically independent worked as an excuse for not giving them political rights in the rest of South Africa. The white government also hoped Homelands would weaken organised resistance to Apartheid, as it divided Africans along ethnic lines.

Forced removals in rural areas affected even more people than forced removals in urban areas. Unfortunately, rural removals have often been ignored or forgotten – although not by the communities who were subjected to this injustice. The government referred to black communities living on land designated for whites by the term ‘black spots’. It didn’t matter if they owned this land or were tenants on white-owned farms. In line with Separate Development the people who lived in ‘black spots’ were pushed into Homelands which they had sometimes never seen before, under chiefs who didn’t necessarily rule them before. Altogether, from 1960 to 1983, 3,5 million people were relocated in urban and rural forced removals.

There had been locations before, but never this big. Townships were Apartheid creations, planned and split along ethnic lines. Every town had its location, and big cities had many townships dotted around it. For example, in Johannesburg, Lenasia was the Indian township, Eldorado Park the Coloured township, and Soweto the black one. Townships acted as pools of labour for the white city; they were just close enough for labourers to travel into the city every day. Most township residents could not own land there, but rather had to rent their houses from the local government, and the services provided were of a very low level. Although life in townships was difficult and in many ways controlled, ordinary people often found ways around this. The strict ethnic divisions never worked completely in a place like Soweto, and residents helped each other, building strong bonds of community.

Life in the Homelands was extremely difficult. Although in theory they were self-governing, in reality they were ruled by brutal and corrupt partners of the Apartheid government. Chiefs were paid by the government, and if a chief opposed the government they were replaced by a more co-operative one. People in Homelands were forced to live and farm under tough measures known as ‘betterment’ schemes, which involved limits on the number of cattle they could own, loss of shared grazing land, and forced moves from scattered homesteads to villages. This made it much harder to make a living from the land. Moreover, the land was very often infertile, and as more and more people packed into the Homelands (because of the forced removals, for example), soil erosion and over-farming meant they were even less capable of feeding their inhabitants. There was great poverty and very few job opportunities, and so most people who could, left as soon as possible. The Homelands became dumping grounds for people who could not be used by white South Africa – the very old and the very young.

In the same way that rural areas have often been left out of the story of forced removals, it has often been assumed that resistance only occurred in the cities. This is not true. The onslaught of oppressive laws and the way they were changing rural society were desperately resisted in the countryside. Communities fought hard against being forced off their land and into Homelands and townships, whether in town or countryside. In the Homelands, the issues which provoked the fiercest resistance were the Betterment schemes, and Bantu Authorities, described above. Betterment had already started by the time Apartheid began, but it was contested throughout the late 1940s and 1950s. Black farmers saw it as a way to keep them poor and take away their land. Bantu Authorities, meanwhile, turned chiefs into organs of the Apartheid state who could be appointed and dismissed by a government official – and accepting Bantu Authorities meant a chief would have to implement Betterment in that area. Generally speaking, the government gave chiefs more power over their people than they had had before; before colonialism and Apartheid there had often been room for ordinary people to participate in communities’ decision making (rather than chiefs deciding on their own), but this was lessened. This was the last part of a process, which had been running since colonial times, of taking away communities’ political and economic autonomy autonomy Freedom to act or be independent. making chiefs accountable upwards (to the white government) rather than downwards (to their people).

These issues exploded in the late 1950s in the form of the Rural Revolts. Resistance sprung up across the Native Reserves (soon to become Homelands). Two of the biggest and most famous revolts were in Pondoland (the Transkei) and Sekhukhuneland (Lebowa), but there were also revolts in the Ciskei, KwaZulu and elsewhere. In Sekhukhuneland, the revolt flared up when the government removed the Paramount Chief who had refused to accept Bantu Authorities. Chiefs who accepted Bantu Authorities were unpopular and often seen as collaborators. One of these was Botha Sigcau in Pondoland. The houses of his councillors were burned and some councillors were killed. The government sent in the army and police, who shot into an unarmed mass meeting, killing at least 11. Government property and security forces were later attacked by the rebels, and a State of Emergency was declared. Over 5000 people were arrested in Pondoland alone and the leaders of the movement were banished (sent into internal exile), imprisoned or executed. Similar tactics were used by the government across the country. By 1961 the revolts had largely been crushed.