The Bokkeveld was home to San hunter-gatherers for millennia and later also to Khoi Khoi herders who migrated into the area, probably around the beginning of the first millennium AD. Following settlement of the Cape by the Dutch in 1652, the indigenous people slowly lost ground to the newly arrived settlers.
The Suid Bokkeveld was settled by Europeans following the frontier war of 1739, leading to the eventual extermination or enslavement of the San hunter-gatherers and the virtual enslavement of the Khoi Khoi pastoralists. The land of the ‘KhoiSan’ peoples of the Bokkeveld was claimed by the colonial government and sold to European settlers. The indigenous culture, language and autonomy of the ‘first people’ of the area was steadily eroded to the point where they had no political voice whatsoever, and were regarded by those in power as of value only as labour.
Over the succeeding generations the identity of the settlers came to be defined as ‘white’, and that of all other inhabitants gradually coalesced into ‘coloured’. Generally speaking, property ownership was the privilege of the ‘whites’.
Following the abolition of slavery in the Cape Colony in 1834, and the granting of self-governance to the Colony in 1853, a constitution was adopted in 1854 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race. Coloured persons were legally able to purchase government-owned land for settlement. After 200 years of settlement, all of the good land had long since been settled by white farmers, but there were still a few dry and infertile areas left unsettled. Some coloured farmers were able to get land in the Suid Bokkeveld, most of it the lower-altitude parts that were not desired by white farmers because of its low economic value and inaccessibility.
By the early 20th century, a number of coloured families owned their own land under freehold title in the Suid Bokkeveld. Typically these farms were home to extended families, and were used to produce largely subsistence crops of wheat and vegetables, and to graze flocks of sheep and goats. Donkeys provided transport and traction for ploughing. Honey, rooibos and other products of the veld were harvested for domestic use.
In the 20th Century coloured people steadily lost their rights, culminating in the imposition of “Grand Apartheid” by the racist Nationalist Party Government after its election in 1948. The role of the rural coloured person in the vision of the ideologues of Apartheid was that of a provider of cheap labour to white farmers and associated local agricultural industries. Blatant political oppression by the Apartheid state aligned with the economic interests of white farmers to enforce impoverished conditions of economic exploitation on coloured people, thus ensuring the availability of abundant agricultural labour at low cost to the employer.
Professor Dorrit Posel has written that:
Apartheid’s principal imaginary was of a society in which every ‘race’ knew and observed its proper place – economically, politically and socially. Race was to be the critical and overriding faultline: the fundamental organising principle for the allocation of all resources and opportunities, the basis of all spatial demarcation, planning and development, the boundary for all social interaction, as well as the primary category in terms of which this social and moral order was described and defended.
Although the Suid Bokkeveld was not declared a ‘white’ Group Area, the agreement of the neighbours and permission from the state were nevertheless required before land could legally be sold to another person who was, in terms of the Apartheid laws, classified as being a member of another ‘race group’. As a result, there was not a great deal of change in terms of land ownership in the Apartheid era. The small-scale farmers of the Suid Bokkeveld were able to retain their tenure to their farms, some of which also came to serve as refuges for the families of some farm labourers from the area.
The 1983 constitution, designed to create a platform for a new alliance of whites with previously disenfranchised coloured and Indian minorities, had the effect of stripping the coloured farmers of the Suid Bokkeveld of the last remaining services (to which they at least potentially had access) that had previously been provided by the Land Bank and the Department of Agriculture. Between 1984 and 1994 they lacked access to any sort of agricultural support services whatsoever.
This history explains something of how the coloured members of the Suid Bokkeveld community were forced to live for centuries in the economic, social and political shadow of the ‘white’-dominated South Africa. The result of the grinding oppression of the colonial and Apartheid eras was the erosion of freedom and land tenure, and the creation of a labouring class that could serve the economic interests of white landowners. The stereotyping (by people of European descent) of people of indigenous descent as being inferior, and the denial of their land-based heritage by those holding political and/ or economic power, further served to undermine their chances of achieving social and economic empowerment.
The advent of democracy in 1994 found the small-scale farmers of the Suid Bokkeveld community lacking any formal institutions to represent their interests, and a concomitant lack of collective experience in participation in democratic organisations. This was in marked contrast to the neighbouring ‘white’ community of large-scale farmers, whose participation in a number of different representative structures including the elected government of the country had been legitimised and supported for more than a century.
Isolation, poor infrastructure, low rainfall, intermittent drought and very low nutrient soils limited the development of the local economy in the Suid Bokkeveld. The need to produce grain crops for subsistence on marginal land in the more arid and drought-prone southern and eastern areas of the Suid Bokkeveld led to erosion of topsoils and desertification of previously fertile pockets of land. However, physical and political marginalisation also meant that the community was able to evolve in ways relatively free of outside interference, and to find ways of meeting their human needs that were relatively successful. In this context the church has played a significant role, creating a safe haven in which congregants’ human needs could, to a limited extent, be satisfied.