Apartheid land theft is an explosive issue as manifested in South Africa’s “expropriation without compensation” debate and Israel’s massacre of Palestinians in Gaza as they marched peacefully in protest at the unending usurpation of their territory.
The expropriation and forced removal of the indigenous people from their land by European settler-colonialists is a grave and enduring injustice. In South Africa, White settler-colonialists began the official process of dispossessing “natives” from their lands by forcibly excluding Black people from the 1890s onwards. A series of laws culminating with the Natives Land Act of 1913 had a profound effect on the African population across the country. It laid the foundation for other laws which further entrenched the dispossession of Africans and, later, the segregation of “Coloured” (mixed-race) and Indian people.
The Act’s most catastrophic provision for Africans was the prohibition of them buying or hiring land in 93 per cent of South Africa, thus closing avenues for livelihood other than to work for white farmers and industrialists. In essence, Africans were confined to ownership of just 7 per cent of South Africa’s arable land, rendering them destitute.
The Natives Land Act was a critical part of the edifice that became racially divided South Africa. Further legislation, such as the Urban Areas Act (1923), Natives and Land Trust Act (1936) and the Group Areas Act (1950) reinforced land dispossession and segregation.
In 1947, 93 per cent of private land in Palestine was owned by Christian and Muslim Palestinians; Jews owned just 7 per cent. Nevertheless, the United Nations, under pressure from the US, allocated approximately 55 per cent of Palestinian land to the Jewish state proposed by the UN Partition Plan passed in December of that year.
Within twelve months, over 80 per cent of the land within Israel that was once owned by Palestinians had been confiscated by the state following the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 men, women and children. Today, 93 per cent of the land in what is now Israel can only be leased or owned by Jews or Jewish institutions.
The Palestinians were thus deprived of their homes and land upon which they had lived and worked for generations. The Israel Land Administration mandated the World Zionist Organisation and its subsidiaries, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, to develop the stolen land for the exclusive benefit of Jews.
On 30 March 1976, just months before the Soweto uprising in South Africa, thousands of Palestinians from towns and villages in the occupied Galilee region marched in protest against an Israeli order to confiscate more land belonging to indigenous communities in the area. Israeli police shot and killed six Palestinian protestors.
Since then, “Land Day” has been commemorated annually. It is a major date in Palestine’s political calendar and an important event in the collective Palestinian narrative, equivalent to Soweto’s 16 June 1976 uprising or the 21 March 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. Land Day emphasises Palestinian resistance to Israel’s brutal colonisation and oppression, as well as Palestinian sumud (steadfastness).
The population of historic Palestine pre-1948 was largely rural. People lived and made a living off pieces of land that they had inherited across many generations. Israel dispossessed and expelled Palestinians violently, and many of them still have the keys to the homes that have been wiped off the face of the earth by the Israelis, who continue to annex Palestinian territory illegally while the “Judaisation” of Jerusalem continues unabated in violation of international laws and conventions.
On Good Friday, 30 March 2018, thousands of Palestinians gathered in the Gaza Strip, unarmed, for a peaceful protest against the Israeli occupation; it was dubbed the Great March of Return. Snipers from the Israel Defence Forces started shooting live ammunition at the crowd, turning Good Friday into Bloody Friday. At least 16 (some reports say 17) Palestinians were killed, and more than 1,500 were wounded, including 150 children. Many have life-changing injuries.
All Palestinian factions united behind the Land Day march in an act of mass resistance to the colossal theft of their territory, of which they now have control over just 8 per cent.
Almost 25 years since South Africa’s freedom from Apartheid, studies show that “Whites” still own 67 per cent of commercial agricultural land; 15 per cent is owned by “Black” communal areas (mostly state-owned); 10 per cent is other state land; and 8 per cent covers the rest, including urban areas.
Thus, the shadow of the Natives Land Act of 1913 is still evident in post-Apartheid South Africa where a significant proportion of land remains in the ownership of White farmers. Blacks and the government together own about 26 per cent of commercial agricultural land, up from 14 per cent when Apartheid formally ended in 1994.
This ongoing injustice will guarantee that racial tensions continue to simmer in South Africa, no doubt fuelled by the recent offer by the Australian Foreign Minister for White South African farmers to emigrate. Similarly, fallacious scenarios of a Zimbabwe-style land grab, as opposed to structured land restitution, feeds into the frenzy.
As history shows, the unjust occupation of another people’s land cannot be sustained for long. When the crash comes, it is usually sudden. The continued resistance of the 2 million Palestinians crammed into the open prison that is the Gaza Strip, together with another 10 million Palestinians around the world, demonstrates that they do not intend to simply melt away; they will not be destroyed and will not be subjugated forever.
Just as Soweto and Sharpeville is symbolic of Black South Africa’s resistance and victory over Apartheid oppression, so too is Gaza the remaining symbol of Palestine’s dispossessed people and their resistance to the settler-colonisation of their land by Apartheid Israel. Freedom will surely come to Palestine, just as it did to South Africa.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.