Economic opportunities

Black sharecroppers plouging their fields

Black sharecroppers plough their fi elds. Peasant farmers depending on their families for labour dominated production in the eastern half of South Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1904 a wellinformed observer wrote that the traditional African ‘is the best all-round cultivator of South Africa’. Blacks in Basutoland (now Lesotho) and the Free State keenly responded to the large market for wheat, maize and vegetables that had sprung up on the Diamond Fields. Blacks were in a position to move around to explore the best offers from farmers. They were rarely attracted to poorer farmers who lacked land and offered poor terms. During the 1890s a group of farmers from the eastern Free State demanded that the Volksraad prohibit large-scale growing of grain by blacks, because white farmers could not compete. Farmers struck up an arrangement with black sharecroppers, who bore half the risk with them. Land shortage was not yet a problem, with only a small part of the large farms in the republics under cultivation. Replies given to the Transvaal Labour Commission of 1903 revealed that it was rare for more than 100 acres (approximately 40 ha) to be cultivated by a single owner.

British immigrants seized most of the new opportunities that became available in South Africa. In the towns and cities they became the tradesmen and artisans. Along with Jews from Europe, they took over trading with farmers in the interior and with Xhosa peasant farmers on the frontier. It was the British who first engaged in large-scale land speculation. During the 1830s they were prominent among those who started wool farming in the eastern part of the Cape Colony, and they founded export-import firms in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. In the rural towns across South Africa English speakers occupied all the prominent positions. They were engineers of the roads, bridges and railways and deep-level mining shafts, and they were the entrepreneurs who founded sophisticated industrial and financial companies.

Jewish South Africans were prominent in expanding trade across South Africa. Adolph Mosenthal arrived in 1846 from Germany and founded a family trading firm that became one of the largest investors in the diamond industry. In the ZAR Sammy Marks established a special relationship with Kruger’s government.

Agriculture provided a livelihood for the overwhelming majority of Afrikaners. Since the final decades of the nineteenth century there had been a steady increase in the demand for wheat and dairy products in the western Cape, with fruit exports becoming a promising option. Wine farming, hit hard by phylloxera disease in the 1880s and stagnating until 1910, started to pick up in the first two decades after Union. In the eastern Cape and Karoo midlands the more successful Afrikaner and English wool farmers shared in the steady expansion of wool exports, up from £4 million in 1904 to £20 million in 1919.

But less than a fifth of South Africa consists of arable land fit to plant crops. Large parts are semi-desert with frequent droughts, and other parts get enough rain but have extremely rugged terrain. Stock farming developed as a way of life and means of subsistence and only in the twentieth century as a commercial enterprise. A wasteful exploitation of agricultural resources contributed to a crisis in pastoral farming. Overstocking, together with grass burning, destroyed the natural vegetation, and thunderstorms swept the topsoil away. Farmers had been accustomed to move on to new grass and fresh land when pastures were exhausted, but by the 1880s the frontier of expansion had closed.

As cultivators, black peasant farmers, using family as a labour force, were well ahead of the republican burghers, who were mostly stock farmers. In 1904 a well-informed observer wrote that in the eastern half of the country, blacks were ‘the best all-round cultivators of South Africa so far’.

English cultural dominance

Comments are closed.