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Proto-Apartheid at an Eastern Cape town

9. The Natives
(Urban Areas) Act

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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There was no uniformity in the administration of urban locations in southern Africa prior to the South African War. Not only did towns like East London, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town operate separately from one another with little government intervention but the two British colonies (the Cape and Natal) and the Boer republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State) had little in common except a tendency towards becoming more reactionary with each passing year. Once the war had brought the republics under the Union Jack, however, Lord Milner worked swiftly to foster common policies that would eventuate in some form of federation.


A conference in 1903 to devise a unified customs strategy was among the first fruits of Milner's programme. Out of this arose the South African Native Affairs Commission, chaired by Sir Godfrey Lagden, whose purpose it was "to gather accurate information" about native administration in southern Africa and to offer recommendations to the colonial governments on the question of a common native policy. For three years thereafter the commission toured the country, observing conditions and interviewing people before eventually publishing its findings and recommendations in 1905.

The Lagden Report, writes Nigel Worden, furnished the "first clear articulation of segregationist ideals". It proposed, he says, a separation of land ownership along racial lines, recommended the creation of urban locations under municipal control and advocated the regulation of labour influx into the towns and cities by means of pass laws. Indeed, so thorough and broadly conceived were these recommendations that the Lagden Report became the blue-print for the first three Acts of the new Union parliament dealing with Native Affairs, namely the Mines and Works Act (1911), the Natives Land Act (1913) and the Natives (Urban Areas) Act (1923).

At the time that Lagden began his work, urban locations in the larger centres of South Africa were either in their infancy or, as was the usual situation in the Cape Colony, existed in a generally chaotic state. The two government locations at Cape Town (Ndabeni) and Port Elizabeth (New Brighton) had only just been established as a consequence of the bubonic plague pandemic. Only at East London was there a township (East Bank Location) which had been in existence for more than a decade and which could at the time be considered a model of organisation.

The East London scenario was also exceptional in another sense. Charles Lloyd had been Location Superintendent there for over six years and he was therefore arguably the most experienced and knowledgeable urban location supervisor in the country. Indeed, Lloyd was the only municipal inspector to be questioned by the commission and his detailed evidence formed the essence of Lagden's final recommendations on urban affairs. It would be pertinent, therefore, to examine his evidence in some depth.

Like most men in similar positions at that time, Lloyd was not a trained location inspector but had worked at East London both for the Customs Department and on the railways. His claim to an expert knowledge on "the natives" was based on the fact that he lived close to the East Bank Location (presumably in the suburb of North End) and "[had] worked among the natives all [his] life". His testimony, and the fact that he carried the confidence of the Town Council for the following thirty years, bears adequate testimony to the growing reactionary tendency at East London at the start of the 20th century.

Lloyd's recommendations were explicit in four main areas: the belief that all parties concerned should co-operate in wage fixing; the assumption that the urban areas were the domain of White people and that the African population should be there only if they augmented the labour market; the need to create some universal system of control by the introduction of a pass system; the necessity for keeping ownership of urban land out of Black hands.

Lloyd introduced his argument by postulating that wages paid at East London were "extravagant" and that this was largely the cause of "a great labour shortage" in the town. High wages, he said, enabled a person to work only a few days a week and have sufficient money "to idle at home" for the rest of the time. He therefore proposed that a uniform wage needed to be introduced throughout the town to stop this very problem.

He also came out most strongly in favour of legislation to protect the urban location system by not allowing any Black person, even one with the vote, to reside in the town proper. He believed, on the other hand, that the Africans generally belonged in their reserves and should never be permitted to remain in the towns if they were not employed. East London was setting the example in this regard, he said, for its location regulations forbade residence to the unemployed and there could in fact be no such thing as "idling about". Such people would simply be "turned out".

Lloyd elaborated quite extensively on this point. Even if a man received wages sufficiently good to enable him to work only a few days a week, he said, he would not be free to do so without being expelled from the location. If, indeed, "a native was found loitering in the location" and was unable to give "a satisfactory reason for being there unemployed", he would be expelled forthwith. Even the owner of a boarding house was expected to have some other form of employment unless his place had a "coffee shop" attached.

A man would "definitely" not be allowed to work "only three days a week", Lloyd insisted, although he would be allowed "occasionally one or two days off". When a man wished "not to work a day or two", however, it would be taken into consideration "how he had been working in the past" and permission would "perhaps be granted" if he was "a regular worker who stuck to one employer". To ask for a couple of days off every week, on the other hand, "would not be considered acceptable".

He believed furthermore that every man should be compelled to work 28 days in every month and "even if a man worked hard at the docks", he could not take Saturday off every week "but only occasionally". In order to police the system, seven special constables or headmen were employed to visit every house every day to see that no-one was loitering about. On average, he said, about five people were brought before him per day and if their explanation was not satisfactory, first offenders would be given a warning and thereafter would be given immediate notice to vacate.

When it came to location management, Lloyd revealed that he had been given remarkable powers. He dealt with all situations himself, even in the case of a riot, and only brought matters to the attention of the Town Clerk or Mayor if he considered it beyond his ability to decide, an eventuality which seldom happened. The only occasion in which he routinely consulted the Town Council before taking action was in the case of a voter who was giving trouble.

On the other hand, Lloyd felt that the major flaw in the system was the lack of a universal system "of registering the natives" and earnestly appealed for the colonies to bring in pass laws. At East London, he said, a new arrival would be given a permit to reside for twelve hours during which he had to acquire employment. Once hired, he brought a note from his employer and was then registered. A pass system would, however, be an added bonus to close any loopholes which existed.

In a later written submission, Lloyd went even further by declaring that the "average native" was "of very little benefit" as a land-owner and that his "best value" was "obtained in the labour market". On the question of individual versus communal tenure in the urban locations, therefore, he was "strongly in favour" of the latter because he looked upon the supply of labour as a most important factor "in the present and future development of colonial trade industries" which, he said, could only be utilized to maximum effect "in communities" where, like the East Bank Location, the land itself remained in municipal hands.

In 1905 Lagden drew his commission to an end by recommending that the time had indeed arrived for the four colonies to "dedicate and set apart" land for locations and reserves, that this should be done "with a view to finality" and thereafter "no more land should be reserved for native occupation". He urged, moreover, that urban locations needed to be established near labour centres and at other places but only upon proof that they were needed.

Urban locations, Lagden said, fell into three categories: municipal, government and private. Although he saw no reason to alter that system, it was nevertheless imperative that the government took a more active role in inspecting the areas on a regular basis to ensure that accommodation was adequate, that the residents were not being harshly treated or exploited and that conditions were both "sanitary and healthy". These people, he said, were South Africa's labour force and there was every reason, therefore, "why they should be encouraged to stay as useful members of the community".

He advised, on the other hand, what he called "thorough registration and cost control" so that the locations could be better regulated and "no room allowed" for criminals, drunkards and prostitutes. The urban locations, Lagden concluded, should not become "a refuge of surplus or idle natives" for whose labour there was "no local demand" or "who [would] not work". Power therefore needed to be invested in the local authority "to expel such natives" not only from the locations but from the entire urban area.

Even while the Lagden Commission was busy gathering its evidence, legislation was being passed in all four colonies enabling municipalities to lay out urban locations. The right of town councils to control these townships, however, was more specifically spelt out soon after the publication of the commission's report in 1905. Bloemfontein in particular used the evidence of the report to create a municipal location which prohibited White domicile and demanded certificates of employment for all residents. In effect, says Davenport, this established absolute cultural segregation between the races although his conclusion that Bloemfontein thus became the model for other towns in South Africa is not entirely true. The blue-print was the Lagden Commission itself and that commission's model was the East Bank Location at East London.


The lack of uniform legislation to govern the African townships meant that municipalities like East London were able to exploit their Black proletariate mercilessly. By the second decade of the 20th century, the concept of traditional liberalism was very much a dead letter, even in Cape Town, with the result that the urban African was perceived as being little more than as chattel to be crushed through intense labour and then discarded, forced back to his rural domain where, it was claimed, he belonged.

The Tuberculosis Commission of 1914 was the first to acknowledge this point, pointing out that municipalities across the country were similarly insensitive to the value of life, allowing their "locations" to degenerate to such an extent that they became veritable cesspits of humanity. They were placed on the outskirts of towns, the Commission reported, usually on "ill- chosen" sites near sanitary tips, refuse dumps or slaughter poles. Generally they had no water supply, there were no proper streets and very little sanitary control. Overcrowding was commonplace. The majority of locations, the Commission concluded, were a "disgrace" and "quite unfit for human habitation".

Even without this evidence, it is probable that the new Union government under the premiership of Louis Botha would quickly focus its attention on the urban Black population which was mushrooming during the economic uncertainty of the early 20th century. When the government did so, it is also natural that it would look to the Lagden Commission for guidance in its planning. Indeed, the principles that had been raised by that commission had continued to foment.

Although the Botha government's urban areas policy was "tentatively segregationist", says Davenport, his first attempt at urban legislation in 1912 was still premature because no clear "native" policy had yet emerged and even the Natives Land Act was still to become law. In fact, the draft Urban Bill was never published and was quickly scuppered with the onset of the Great War and the ideas allowed to froth for a few more years.

The next attempt was the Natives in Urban Areas Bill of 1918, a device to force Africans into the locations although it did recognise exemptions, especially those special situations which pertained in the Cape Province. It did, however, also produce some major innovations, the first being the idea of "native revenue accounts" which meant that for the first time rents and taxes collected in the locations had to be re-invested there and not used to augment the general municipal coffers. Indeed, this would have been a major factor in preventing the municipalities from milking their Black communities.

The Bill also allowed for the creation of elected Advisory Boards which would bring the views of the township communities to the notice of the Location Superintendents. The most radical feature of the Bill, however, was the right of township residents to own property. This was a radical departure from the advice of the Lagden Commission because, if accepted, it would have established the urban African as a permanent resident within the cities instead of serving merely as a temporary labour pool.

Like its predecessors, the Natives in Urban Areas Bill also failed to be converted into an Act of Parliament and it was left until 1922 before the government had another bite at this elusive cherry. By that time it was quite clear that new ideas were beginning to emerge within the more enlightened regions of political thought. The Native Affairs Commission, for instance, while still claiming that the "Natives [were] not by nature town dwellers" and that it was "a truism" that "the native [had] not yet made a success of city life", nevertheless accepted the fact that Africans were indeed becoming a permanent feature of the urban environment.

The Bill that was introduced, therefore, attempted to recognise this reality by granting "fixity of tenure" to the urban Black population. The principle, however, was in direct conflict with ideas being put forward by the Stallard Commission in the Transvaal which stated quite categorically that the mixing of Black and White was not only undesirable but that the African should only be allowed to enter urban areas "when he [was] willing to enter and to minister to the needs of the white man" and should be forced to depart "when he [ceased] so to minister". It should be a recognised principle of government, the Commission stated, "that Natives . . . should only be permitted within municipal areas in so far and for so long as their presence is demanded by the wants of the white population."

Opposition power within Parliament, especially from members elected to represent Transvaal constituencies, ensured that dramatic pruning of the Urban Areas Bill would occur. The primary tussle was over the question of property ownership because the principle of granting permanent status to urban Blacks flew in the face of moves to segregate South Africa into White and Black spheres. The urban domain, Barry Hertzog objected, was "white man's land" and the Native Affairs Commission which was shepherding the Bill through parliament had no right to abandon that principle.

In the end, premier Jan Smuts failed to crack the whip to bring his own party into line and so allowed the Opposition under Hertzog to dominate. Indeed, the Bill quickly took on the appearance of being the Opposition's own measure. When the Natives (Urban Areas) Act became law in 1923, therefore, the most positive clause had been withdrawn, thereby denying the possibility of permanent tenure to the urban Black population. The Act was therefore much closer to the advice given by the Lagden Commission than the wisdom of the Native Affairs Commission Report of 1921.

Rodney Davenport argues that the Act was not necessarily "a harsh measure" and there certainly were some positive elements to it. In the first place, it demanded that local authorities kept separate revenue accounts so that taxes collected within the locations had also to be spent there. It also put emphasis on Advisory Boards and ensured that the wholesale exploitation of the location residents would cease. Furthermore, the fact that the location superintendents would now represent the government and no longer the municipalities did mean that the worst of the sanitary abuse would cease.

The Act nevertheless caused an outcry. The African population was angered because its views on such things as land ownership were in the end completely ignored. The measure was therefore seen as a retrograde step to banish the majority of the Black population into townships which would be administered as racially segregated entities that were different to the White communities. They objected further to the failure of the Act to recognise them as being in any way part and parcel of the overall urban population. Without the right to own the land on which they lived, the people could never lay claim to being a permanent feature of urban life.


There was, however, almost silence from the East London community. On the contrary, residents of the East Bank Location welcomed the Act as a dramatic step forward which promised them major advantages. In a township that was sorely troubled with a collapse of standards, where life had become dangerous and disease was increasing at an alarming rate, the new dispensation at least offered hope for a better life. At last rents and taxes would be spent on upliftment. At last government loans could be raised for the provision of better housing and the Advisory Boards would hopefully open the door just a fraction to a possibly more democratic future.

East London indeed presented an interesting face to the forthcoming Act. As early as January 1921, a full three years before the Act was due to go into practice, the East London Council bowed to the inevitable and introduced almost every facet of the new legislation into its two locations. A Native Advisory Board was established, with its members elected by site holders of the two locations. The Superintendent of Locations would act as chairman. At the same time, the Council conceded the principle that money collected by way of location tax would also be spent there. The Act itself was then accepted almost immediately that it went into force, making East London one of the first municipalities to adopt it.

In a sense, therefore, the Natives (Urban Areas) Act closed the door on a chapter in the history of the East London townships. Life did temporarily improve. For more than a decade the Location Advisory Board busied itself with very real issues, like the improvement of sanitary conditions within the townships, the acquisition of better houses and the right of the people to brew their own beer which, of course, meant increased revenue by means of a brewing tax. Moreover, for better or worse, the Black proletariate at the port would now be treated no differently than their counterparts elsewhere in South Africa. Whether he or she be a resident of Cape Town, Johannesburg or East London, life would now be much the same.

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