The Enclosure Movement Revisited: The South African Commons

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As I have said elsewhere in relation to the European conquest of North America, "Private property is not necessarily theft, as Proudhon put it, but a good deal of theft has ended up as private property" [Bromley 1991, 25]. Nowhere is this more true than in South Africa.

The term "enclosure" in my title is also appropriate to the South African setting. The two great English enclosures-the first beginning in the mid-fifteenth century and continuing into the seventeenth century, and the second covering approximately 80 years near the end of the eighteenth century-entailed the eviction of tillers from the land and their replacement first by sheep and then by emerging agricultural technology. The object of attention in both these institutional transformations was the changing economic value of people on the land in comparison with other forms of agricultural technology or with new agricultural enterprises. Recall that the people being evicted were not displaced for reasons pertaining to them as individuals, but were removed by the more powerful landowning class for reasons owing to the perceived imperatives of economic change sweeping rural England. While those displaced may have taken small comfort in this subtle distinction, it offers a profound contrast to the enclosure movement in South Africa.

There we find a history of displacement that has little to do with sheep versus men or with promising new technology. That is, those being evicted were not the incidental by-product of some economic imperatives to keep agriculture "competitive." Moreover, the evictees were not simply sent off to an urban sector that was undergoing its own economic transformation. In South Africa, the term "enclosure" must be regarded not as something that was done to land, but as something that was done to people. Indeed, those Africans evicted from areas coveted by the white population were first simply displaced. It was not until the full flowering of apartheid following World War II that they were "enclosed" in large areas euphemistically referred to as homelands." This is an enclosure movement with a particularly venal connotation.

Finally, I have chosen to emphasize the South African "commons" because the institutional restructuring now underway will, in large measure, restore the traditional South African commons to its rightful owners. The current story concerns how that might occur.

First a little background. In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck, under contract with the Dutch East India Company to provision the growing ship traffic around the Cape of Good Hope, arrived near Cape Town. The subsequent colonial history-at least until the rise of Hitler in the early 1930s-was neither better nor worse than colonial history throughout the world. Local inhabitants were moved out of the way, killed, subjected to rather standard humiliation and deprivation, and generally abused in the fashion of the day. The aggressively Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church provided a special brand of heavenly inspiration for such treatment. But aside from this divine guidance provided by the civil religion" of South Africa, Afrikaner colonialism and subjugation was rather like that found throughout the smaller latitudes.

But Hitler's rise to power, and the Afrikaner identification with Aryan superiority, provided serious impetus to what was to become the most complete and brutal isolation of a people in world history. Fifty years after the first seeds of apartheid were sown, and as apartheid was beginning to crumble, that troubled nation "had the widest gap between rich and poor of any country in the world for which data are available. Eighty-seven percent of its land, and 95 percent of its industrial undertakings, are in white hands" [Sparks 1991, 3881. Nor was the economic concentration only in terms of race. At that same time, more than 82 percent of the market capitalization of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was controlled by just six conglomerates-four of whom controlled almost 78 percent of total capitalization. …