The issue of land, especially its redistribution, remains contentious in South Africa 27 years after the formal end of apartheid. Land redistribution was promised at the end of apartheid. The failure of the African National Congress (ANC) government to do so is emblematic of its failure to fundamentally transform the country.
Yet, dispossession of land is a historically rooted problem. The Land Act of 1913 forbade black ownership of land in roughly 93% of the country (amended in 1936 to 87%). In the 1960s and 1970s, the apartheid regime forcibly removed millions of black South Africans from their homes, dumping them in squalid conditions in the so-called bantustans.
The apartheid-created bantustans, or “homelands”, were 10 undeveloped territories the regime carved out for particular ethnic groups. These territories’ internal borders have disappeared from the map. But, for people living in them, the lack of opportunities that typified their lives during apartheid remains largely the same today.
In addition to the bantustans, two micro-states existed within the borders of South Africa: Lesotho and Swaziland (today called eSwatini). The coexistence of these “legitimate” states – they were recognised by the United Nations – cheek by jowl with the bantustans challenged the meanings of state recognition and sovereignty.
Today, the governments and residents of both Lesotho and eSwatini still lay claim to some of South Africa’s land. What residents of former “homelands” and the two states have in common are limited government services and few job prospects. This has happened because residents of all these places have historically been denied the freedom to seek employment in South Africa’s best jobs. This was done through job reservation for whites, passport requirements and pass laws that restricted the movement of black people.
Our journal article examined the history of border claims by Lesotho and Swaziland, as well as internal boundary changes the South African apartheid government made as it tried to implement the bantustan system. This showed how policymakers during apartheid attempted to manipulate these borders for strategic gain.
Borders are a socially constructed phenomenon. They are hardly immutable, as the splitting of Sudan in 2011 showed. But, to the residents of what used to be South Africa’s “homelands”, as well as Lesotho and eSwatini, former borders still stand as a barrier. Passports are required for citizens of the two countries. Former homelands residents have built lives and own houses in these distant and under-serviced places. Residents remain trapped: both by decisions taken during apartheid and by the inflexibility of modern states and decision makers.
This research builds on the literature of the last decade that has finally started to tackle the continuing legacy of the bantustans on the lives of millions of South Africans. Additionally, we want to help refocus attention on Lesotho and eSwatini, which have been relatively ignored by scholars since the fall of apartheid.
By studying literature on these sites, scholars will be able to examine southern Africa as an interconnected regional economy, rather than a series of discrete national economies. This will highlight the historical roots of continued regional inequities.
Our article examines the possibility of territorial transfer and border adjustments in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, South Africa was pushing for international recognition for the bantustans in order to generate a sense of legitimacy for the apartheid project.
It focused on getting its most vulnerable regional neighbours – Lesotho and Swaziland – to recognise the bantustans, whether formally via diplomatic recognition or in everyday relations on mundane matters like border control.
In trying to force its neighbours’ hands, South Africa proposed the possibility of making good on claims on South African land made by Lesotho and Swaziland dating back to the 19th century. Proposals to transfer land caused leaders on all sides to make difficult decisions that pitted national interests against global geopolitics. All too often, borderlands residents paid the price for disputes over sovereignty. This position of vulnerability continues today.
We examined a variety of records, including South African and United Kingdom archival sources, as well as contemporary reports on potential land transfers.
We focused on the ideas of land transfer and border adjustments because they are emotive issues for residents. They also signal state priorities. The transfer of Glen Grey and Herschel districts from the Ciskei to the Transkei “homelands” in 1975, for instance, shows that the apartheid regime made land concessions to further strategic goals.
South Africa approved the transfer to convince Transkei’s leader Kaiser Matanzima to declare “independence”. On the other hand, while demanding back the “conquered territory” (portions of South Africa’s Free State province taken by Afrikaner settlers in the 19th century), the leaders of Lesotho were unwilling to take on the Basotho bantustan of Qwaqwa (offered by South Africa) because it was not the whole conquered territory, and it would have meant recognising apartheid.
Lesotho’s leaders also calculated that international aid received from its status as a “front line state” – neighbouring states harbouring South Africans fighting against apartheid – was more valuable than a partial return of the conquered territory.
Swaziland’s King Sobhuza II, meanwhile, signed a deal in 1982 that would have enlarged the Swazi kingdom by incorporating KaNgwane, the area that had been designated as a bantustan for Swazi-speaking South Africans. In exchange, Sobhuza and the Swazi state would take on as citizens every Swazi-speaking person in South Africa. And, in a secret pact, they would expel the then-banned liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), from its forward bases in the kingdom.
KaNgwane leaders rejected the deal. The KwaZulu administration, which would have lost its Ingwavuma District as well under the deal, sued in court to have it declared void. And so, the deal gradually fell apart and was never consummated.
These examples show that while international borders may seem fixed, they were negotiable for the right price in southern Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s also clear that Lesotho would not, and Swaziland could not, take the apartheid state’s border deals. This shows the important role internal pressure and international aid played in influencing border changes.
These cases also show how residents of the bantustans and small regional states paid the price for border and boundary disputes. Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana all faced an increased military threat from the apartheid regime.
Even after the fall of apartheid in 1994, borderlands occupants continue to face greater difficulty in crossing borders to access work, school and services.
The challenge for the region is better integration to allow for a more just and humane border policy.