Vaal Squatters in the 1940s: occupiers, speculators and Eye of the City N. Nieftagodien History Workshop March 2015

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Vaal Squatters in the 1940s: occupiers, speculators and Eye of the City

N. Nieftagodien

History Workshop

March 2015

During the 1940s a large number of African people in urban areas lived in informal settlements or squatter camps of varying sizes. Their presence, insistence on being part of the fast developing urban landscape and struggles against local authorities profoundly impacted politics of the time. For all its important insights the extant literature on squatters remains mostly confined to studies of the most well-known movements, such as Mpanza (and to a lesser degree Mabuya), and of state action against squatters in the main urban centres.1 One may argue the dearth of research on squatters, including in subsequent periods when there was a proliferation of informal settlements (1980s and post-1990s)2 has contributed to the entrenchment of an official view of squatters as a homogeneous mass descending on and disrupting urban life. Robert Kaplan’s description of ‘Third World’ cities nearly two decades succinctly captured the mounting apocalyptic anxieties of those ensconced in the modern cities of the North and perhaps in the elite suburbs of the South.3 From Kaplan’s perspective, the undifferentiated mass eking out an existence in slums are inclined to irrational and violent behaviour, and are inclined to being mobilised by all sorts of sinister and opportunistic social and political forces. Although Kaplan represents a particularly conservative, neo-Malthusian interpretation, certain aspects of his arguments have been echoed by left-wing analysts. Mike Davis’ description of the condition of slums is in fact remarkably similar to Kaplan’s.4 His influential work draws the conclusion that the ‘slum population can support a bewildering variety of responses to structural neglect and deprivation, ranging from charismatic churches and prophetic cults to ethnic militias, street gangs, neoliberal NGOs…’ 5 Here residents of informal settlements, slums, squatter camps are imagined as undifferentiated mass available to be mobilised by all sorts of nefarious movements and charismatic leaders. Despite important and sharp differences in the analyses of Kaplan and Davis, a common thread of denying autonomous agency of the urban poor is evident.

The paper attempts to counter this prevailing view by drawing attention to the multifaceted character of the squatters in the Vaal (namely, the Vereeniging and Vanderbijlpark area) in a decade of far-reaching urban transformation. The formal definition of a squatter is a person who settles illegally on land. In South Africa, the vast majority of squatters have been shack-dwellers, so the terms may be used interchangeably. Historically, there have been common underlying structural causes for the existence or proliferation of squatters – rapid urbanisation (mostly, but not always, associated with industrialisation) and the state’s failure to provide public housing. Beyond these foundational definitions, the character of squatters is complex and shaped by a variety of factors, such as the spaces they occupy, the numbers involved and the duration of such occupations. What the research in the Vaal reveals is that the act of squatting involved individuals, families and movements, who had various objectives in occupying particular pieces of land. Many sought places close to work opportunities, but becoming a member of the industrial proletariat was certainly not a uniform aim. Interestingly, demands for housing did not feature prominently. The thousands of people who chose to settle in the Vaal came from different parts of the country (mainly the Free State and Natal) but also from all over the PWV.

In this paper I identify three broad categories of squatters based on their primary objectives, the strategies deployed in their occupations and the type of land they chose to occupy. The first group comprised individuals and families who were mainly driven by proximity to work opportunities. They tended to occupy open spaces and farms very close to emerging industrial concerns. Secondly, were those initiatives that resembled the squatter movements around Johannesburg (Mpanza, Bhaduza, etc) that sought to occupy municipal and public land to force their authorities to respond to their need for houses. The final group consisted of aspirant property-owners who occupied land next to the freehold location of Evaton. A common and salient feature of all these squatters was their claim to have a right to the city, primarily recognition of their presence in the city.

But the urban areas to which they were claiming a right were in the throes of profound transformation and re-imagination. The scale of industrialisation and urbanisation was unprecedented and posed numerous challenges to the state and capital. Their collective response, which was contested throughout the 1940s but increasingly endorsed, may be summarised as ‘urban racial modernism’, with its emphasis on creating blue-prints for the production of orderly and controlled spaces. Vereeniging had been trying to reinvent itself from the 1930s, both as an industrial hub of the country and as a modern city. Vanderbijlpark was built from developers’ blue-prints in the 1940s as the new steel-producing centre of the modern economy. The presence of squatters disrupted the ideal of the modernist city and thus became a critical problem to be resolved.

Furthermore, and as was the case throughout the country, the authorities had to deal with the fundamental contradiction of the growing demand for a stable labour force required by industry and the ideologues desire to limit the presence of Africans in cities. In the Vaal, this manifested itself in the divergent responses of different parts of the state to the phenomenon of squatters. The labour department far more amenable to finding solutions aimed at stabilising the workforce, whereas local NAD officials tended to emphasise control and removal of ‘unwanted natives’ from the region. Crucially, the absence of adequate locations to house the new workforce, at least until the early 1950s, compromised the state’s ability decisively to deal with squatters.

Urban Conundrum
From the mid-1930s the South African economy experienced an industrial revolution, so that at the end of the war secondary industry had eclipsed mining as the main contributor to the national economy.6 As the demand for labour surged, so too did the influx of Africans into the urban areas. Between 1936 and 1946 the African urban population increased by a huge 50% from 1 141 642 to 1 794 212, with women featuring prominently as their numbers in the urban areas nearly doubled from about 350 000 to 650 000.7 The state failed throughout this period to provide anywhere close to enough houses to meet the rapidly increasing labour supply congregating in the urban areas, especially in the PWV, but also Durban, the Cape Peninsula and to a lesser extent in smaller urban areas across the country. At the height of the influx of African workers to the cities in 1944, the state hardly built any houses for Africans,8 causing a severe national housing crisis that was most concentrated on the Reef. The number of African families living without accommodation outside locations more than doubled between 1936 and 1951, from 86 000 to 176 000 and in 1947 it was estimated that more than 150 000 family houses and 106 877 units for single male workers were required in the urban areas.9 As a consequence the number of sub-tenants and lodgers exploded in the existing locations. Payneville location in Springs had a population of 5500 in the early 1930s, but by 1952 that figure had increased to 33 000, a staggering increase of 600% in just under two decades.10 In Alexandra township at the end of the war 45 000 people were crammed onto around 4400 plots, meaning an average of nearly 100 people lived on one stand. Orlando, established in 1931 amidst considerable fanfare and international recognition as a ‘model location’ to house Johannesburg’s African population, experienced exponential growth of its official housing waiting list: in 1939 the list contained a modest 143 names, but two years later that figure had rocketed to 4 500 and by the end of the war to a staggering 16 000.11 The housing crisis was most graphically revealed in the eruption of squatter movements, led by ‘grassroots community leaders’ in the post-war years. The most well-known of these was Mpanza’s movement in Orlando.

It is important to note, as Bonner has explained, that the squatter phenomenon of this period was not restricted to organised movements, such as that led by James Mpanza in Orlando, Harry Mabuya in Benoni, Abel Ntoi in Pimville, Oriel Monongoaha in Orlando East and Schreiner Bhaduza in Alexandra.12 Nationally, tens of thousands new immigrants were unable to find accommodation (or chose not to live) in existing locations and established informal and often illegal settlements, ranging from individual shacks to relatively large groups in peri-urban. Almost every town in the PWV experienced squatting. According to Bonner, “close to 100 000 people lived on the urban outskirts by the later stages of World War II, which probably grew rather than diminished up to 1950.”13 In Durban there was also a proliferation of the squatter population. According to Maylam, in 1946 there were approximately 5 000 shacks occupied by Africans in the city. In 1949, a third of the 90 000 registered African male workers did not have formal accommodation.14 In Cape Town in 1950, an estimated 25 000 African men and a further 5 000 African families were living in about 30 squatter camps dotted around the peninsula.15 Collectively the illegal occupation of various urban spaces reflected the failure of the state to contain urban Africans in designated and the controlled spaces.

War-time production and state investment in the development of Vanderbijlpark generated considerable growth of the Vaal region’s industrial sector. The demand for labour and the resultant growth of Vereeniging were reflected in the sharp increases in town’s population. In 1936, the local white population stood at a lowly 4720 but nearly quadrupled over the next eight years to reach 18 000 in 1944. During the same period the African population increased from 38 315 to approximately 68 000.16 By 1951, the white population had again registered a significant jump to 42 470, whereas the African increased by slightly more than 50% to reach a total of 107103.17 Vanderbijlpark was only five years old at the time of the 1951 census, but already had a white population of 2106 and African population of 23 000. The state’s decision to establish an Iscor plant along the Vaal River transformed the region and led to the creation of Vanderbijlpark. In 1941 40 square miles were acquired for the building of the steelworks and in 1944 the Vanderbijlpark Estate Company (Vesco) was registered ‘to co-ordinate the growth of the town along the lines of modern garden city and a modern industrial town.’18

Under the circumstances the Vaal became a magnet for work-seekers. In January 1942 Vereeniging Town Councillors expressed grave concerns about the uncontrolled and continuous influx of unemployed Africans into the municipal location and the town causing, in their view, a “menace to our security and peace”. According to the chairman of the Native Affairs Committee, “natives from all parts of the country seemed to be flocking to Vereeniging. Since they had neither employment nor abodes to come to, they congregated in large groups near the industries, which were being pestered daily by the vagrants… Hundreds of these natives apply for accommodation in the location every day, [they are] a grave menace to our peace and security.”’19 In the decade after 1942 the Vaal became a site of multiple and varied squatter activities involving several thousand people (mainly families, but often single men) who occupied pieces of land (overwhelmingly privately owned) for periods ranging from one day to six years.

Quiet encroachment
At the end of the war there were only two African locations regarded as primary suppliers of labour to Vereeniging, namely, Top Location and the newly created Sharpeville. Although Evaton was formally part of the Vereeniging magisterial district its peculiar freehold character, distance from Vereeniging and a widespread official perception that its inhabitants were ‘unreliable’ and ‘agitative’ effectively excluded it as a source of labour until the early 1950s. Bophelong was only proclaimed in 1949 and Boipatong in the mid-1950s, which meant that throughout the 1940s the growing African population of Vanderbijlpark had no formal residential areas. Squatting was therefore inevitable. The first category of squatters who made their presence felt in the emerging industrial complex of Iscor consisted of young men who officials referred to as ‘Natives living under the blue sky’. Numbering more than 1000 at one point, these young men adopted the very basic strategy of sleeping in the veld surrounding the new industries in order daily to search for work. Living in one of the existing locations, they must have figured, placed them at a disadvantage in the intense competition for jobs. This was unacceptable to the authorities, who defined them as ‘unemployed vagrants’ who were not only perceived as a social menace but also as unsettling the desired orderly supply of labour. They were determined to stamp out this practice and over the course of a few months forced these work-seekers either to find accommodation in one of the locations or to return to the rural areas.

A more significant and durable category of squatters comprised those who, during the course of the war, strategically settled on farms adjacent to the new industries. An investigation undertaken by state officials in December 1944 found between 400 and 500 squatters occupying about 8 farms in the area. Most of these farms were owned by Iscor for the purpose of developing a ‘big industrial centre, with adequate residential housing and business areas’.20 A crucial finding of the investigation was that entire families had chosen to relocate to the Vanderbijlpark area. Although the vast majority (approximately 87%) had settled in the area during the course of the war many claimed to have lived in urban areas much longer. More than half of them claimed to have moved from another farm in the region.21 Nearly 21% said the Orange Free State was their original place of origin, while several others had moved from Top Location and Evaton.

What was also striking about these families is that they entered into agreements with the farm owners or managers that gave them legal occupancy. All of them had permission to live there and were therefore technically not illegal occupiers. They also served as a source of cheap farm labour (nearly all families had at least one member employed on the farms either as general labourers or domestic workers) and rent. Living conditions were mostly insalubrious: the Inspector of Urban Locations, S.J. Parsons, reported that, ‘The housing and sanitary conditions under which the squatters generally are living are very unsatisfactory’ and noted the ‘absence of proper water supplies, the lack of provision of sanitation [and] the tendency in some quarters to building dwellings close together in groups and the poor quality of many of the huts’22 While these arrangements gave African families access to rudimentary places of abode, they were able to seek employment in the adjoining industries. Of the 57 household heads surveyed, 26 worked on the farms and 24 in factories.23

The aforementioned investigation was prompted by concern among local officials that the ‘squatter problem’ was getting out of hand in the region, in a context in which urban centres all over the PWV were confronted with a similar dilemma. Their main objective was to find a solution to what was variously described as a problem of squatting, vagrancy or illegal land occupation. On the one hand, the authorities lamented the fact that these farms were occupied because they were cheaper and offered ‘comparative freedom from control on the farms as compared with the urban locations’. On the other hand, they acknowledged that the existing locations were terribly overcrowded and could not cope with influx of work-seekers 24. Parsons concluded his report with a critique of any proposal to deal with the ‘question of native squatters’ in a piecemeal fashion. Instead, he urged, ‘the peri-urban areas of Vereeniging should be considered as a whole’ and because most adult males were employed in Vereeniging and

Vanderbijlpark, ‘[t]he solution to the squatter problem there seems to lie basically in the provision of more accommodation for them.’25 However, neither the state nor capital imagined the right to housing should be extended to all Africans. Parson and the administrative secretary of Iscor, Mr Woods, thus sought to remove ‘undesirable Native elements’, namely, those who were not employed on the farms and industries of the Vaal, from the farms. In pursuit of this objective the authorities decided to prosecute those farmers on whose land there appeared to be extensive illegal squatting and where living conditions were deemed to pose a health risk. H.S Steyn and Kajee Omar found their farms routinely raided for ‘illicit Native concoctions and trespassers’ and were eventually prosecuted for having Africans on their land.26 Moosa Choonara whose workers were employed in Johannesburg also felt the brunt of the law.27 Faced by resistance from both farmers and squatters, the local Native Commissioner suggested that farms affected by squatting be declared a proclaimed area under Section 23 of the 1945 Native Urban Areas Consolidation Act and proclaimed a Labour Area under Act 15 of 1911, which would empower the authorities to separate those who legally employed from those ‘who are unattached and squatting illegally’.28 Prominent businessman and local political, Colonel Rood, encouraged local industrialists to create a public utility company to establish a ‘native township for industrial workers’. In his view, it was ‘imperative that the workers should be strong and healthy… and it is therefore necessary for the industries to exercise some control over the health and general conduct of the inhabitants of the township.’ But, insisted Rood, ‘since it is in the interests of industry to have at its command a stable labour force, only industrial workers and their families would be permitted to live in the township established by the public utility company.’29

However, the role of local firms in the provision of accommodation for their workers was controversial. In the absence of formal locations, companies established ad hoc locations or compounds. The most notorious of these was the Houtkop brickworks compound/location. Approximately 140 male workers employed at the brickworkds, and a growing number of women and children, were squeezed into an area of about 100 x 40 yards. An official inspection of the site was terminated because ‘[i]n this area stood so many hovels of brick, mud, old iron, sacks and grass that would have required a long time to count them.’ Parsons’ report painted a vivid picture of the prevailing conditions: ‘The way the structures were crowded together must be left to the imagination… There was practically no ventilation or proper lighting and no provision of sanitation. The spaces between the dwellings and the adjoining ground were littered with ash and refuse… Many women were seen about this ‘location’ but it was understood that they were unauthorised to be there.”30

The suggestion emanating from state officials and endorsed by local industrialists to distinguish between ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ Africans and only to provide accommodation to the former undergirded emerging state policy pertaining to the presence of Africans in urban areas. But in the absence of alternative accommodation the local authorities concluded it would be appropriate to tolerate the status quo.31 Furthermore, it also proved costly and time-consuming to prosecute private farmers suspected of permitting ‘illegal’ squatting. The local state also appeared not to have the capacity to pursue the matter. Finally, when compared to the scale of squatting in Johannesburg and the political problems raised by organised occupations in the region, the presence of a few hundred squatters on farms seemed less troublesome.

However, after the war the authorities’ position towards squatters on farms underwent a discernible shift. As the number of people occupying sites continued to increase, the Native Commissioner’s office and district police moved decisively to evict them and attempted to remove those who were not employed in the area. The squatters invariably refused to move for the simple reason that they had nowhere else to live. In the ensuing stand-off between the state and squatters, the former resorted to forcible removals and demolition of shacks. Thus in early 1947 when the owner of a farm, Staalrus in Vanderbijlpark complained of the presence of 350 African squatters who had built huts and shacks, the police immediately ordered them to leave the property.32 But the squatters refused to move, insisting ‘that they had done everything possible to find other accommodation but without success. They had not left the shanty town because they had nowhere to go.’ I.P. O’Driscoll, the local Native Commissioner was acutely aware of the ‘spotlight … on native disturbances at the moment’ and believed the eviction of the families was the only way to ensure the restoration of order.33 The squatters ignored repeated threats of removal made during June and July. In August, Captain AS Cornelius, District Commandant of the Police, led a group of ‘native constable’ to destroy the shacks and remove to various places, including Evaton.34 Nearly two hundred men employed in Vanderbijlpark were told they would be accommodated in single sex hostels and their families would be forced to return to Basutoland.35

Guerrilla squatters
One of the most effective tactics employed by the squatter movements led by Mpanza and Mabuya was the occupation of municipal land to force the authorities to respond to their demands for public housing. Both posed direct challenges to their respective local authorities. Thousands of lodgers and subtenants were mobilised in establishing alternative locations (Masakhane & Tent Town) under the control of charismatic leaders who astutely exploited the state’s vacillation on how to deal with squatters, and its continuous shifting between high-handedness and dithering that rendered efforts to undermine these movements utterly ineffectual. Similar attempts to mobilise occupations of municipal land in the Vaal were swiftly halted by the state. None of the squatter movements in the region generated either a critical mass or charismatic leader that characterised such struggles elsewhere. They were not afforded the time to establish organised and semi-autonomous ‘tent towns’ to sustain the communities and to engage the authorities.

When construction of the first housing project commenced in Sharp Location (Sharpeville) in 1944 a group of lodgers from the old location (Top Location) erected shanties, consisting of ‘rusted and perforated corrugated iron sheets and strips of sacking held together by sub-soil and ant-heap gathered from the veld.’ About 60 structures occupied by more than 100 hundred people quickly appeared on the desolate grounds of the new location.36 But, unlike Mpanza and Mabuya’s movements, this occupation failed to mobilise any further support, partly due to the considerable distance between the two locations. On the contrary, it appears as if the numbers declined as families were exposed to the harsh winter nights. Those that remained appeared determined to stand their ground, which the state interpreted as a sign that they were ‘under the influence of the same agitators who were responsible for disturbances in Johannesburg.’37 Within days however the state charged the occupiers with contravening War Measure 76 of 1944. All forty-seven members of the Sharp Location ‘Shanty Town’ were found guilty and sentenced to two months imprisonment, which was suspended on condition they vacate the site.38 Thus ended the first attempt to emulate the squatter movements ion Johannesburg. Three years later the authorities were again confronted by an organised occupation, this time several kilometres north of Sharpeville.

In early September 1948 several farmers from the Henley-on-Klip region convened an urgent meeting to discuss the problem of squatters in their area. Mr P Gray gave his neighbours a vivid account of what transpired on his farm the previous week. ‘At sundown on Saturday, August 28’, he recounted, ‘two lorries packed with natives and their belongings arrived at [my] farm and families and goods were offloaded. I ordered them to leave immediately but they just ignored me. I immediately informed the police, who arrived on Sunday. The sergeant ordered the squatters to leave, but they replied that it would be better for him to shoot them and put them out of their misery.’ Despite warnings from various officials, more trucks arrived with squatters on the Sunday and the following days. Another farmer, Tom Hunter, told the meeting he was ‘constantly pestered by natives who wanted to live on his farm. One factory employed 600 natives, but provided no accommodation for them, with the result that they were homeless. He has seen as many as 40 native huts rise up in three weeks.’39 Within a week there were about 100 shanties occupied by 300 squatters on Gray’s farm. Panic ensued and the farmers demanded immediate action from the state. Within two days patrols were stationed along the roads leading to the camp to impose pass restrictions on all male adults. Further plans were mooted to destroy the camp within a week.

The reason behind the decision to occupy this particular farm only became apparent when the authorities met the squatters a week after the occupation. On the afternoon of 8 September 1948 state officials, led by the Director of Native Labour, called a meeting with the residents of the camp. The transcript of the discussion that took place there provides important insights into some of the underlying causes for the land occupation, as well as the intransigence of the state:

Director of Native Labour (DNL): You have committed a serious crime. I do not know who instigated you. If it is a man like Mahlatse I am surprised you are being misled by him. [Reads the law to the meeting.] If you wish to go to gaol it is your own choice… The Police warned you on Sunday to leave. I wish to repeat this warning – get out of here from tonight onwards. Don’t waste any time if you wish to avoid trouble – don’t ask me where you are to go – take my advice and go.”

Jacob Magele (ex Shantytown, Evaton): “I work at the Wire Works, Vereeniging. I am glad you came. I shall be glad if you will take our grievances into consideration. We have heard your words – we have nowhere to reside. That is the reason why we have put up these shanties.”

DNL: “I have heard all this. This does not permit you to go and steal another man’s land.”

Jacob Magele: “We are in difficulties.”

DNL “The Native Commissioner… did find a place for you to reside on in Evaton. I don’t wish to hear any further.”

Mahlatse: “I do not think anyone will say anything further as you will not accept what we have to say.”

DNL: “I cannot speak to people who are in the wrong and thieves of land… The law will be strictly enforced – particularly against you. You have a place on which to reside in Meyerton and you bring people here and help them into trouble. You have a house and also a shop – what sort of leader are you?”

Elias Masilo (ex Alberton): “I thank you. I want to say a few words. There is something that brought us here. The residents of the shantytown are not all present. We have no place to live. I originally came from Alberton town – my family is now here. Both my wife and I worked for Dorman Long… I came from Viljoensdrift and I left there because I had no accommodation.

DNL: “I sympathise with your position. The Government is trying its best to provide houses… You put yourselves in the wrong and you must not cry if the law is put into force. After the experience of the last shanty town the Government decided that it would not permit similar happenings and that people would be dealt with very severely. You will lose your job and your houses will be broken down.”

Elias Masilo: “I have been on the Reef for 12 years and have no accommodation for my children. That is why we came here to the farms.”

Jacob Magele: “While I resided at Evaton Shanty Town I was instructed to return to where I had come from. I was brought up in these parts – I found a shanty town had started here and felt I was also entitled to come here. Now I don’t know where to go – I grew up here in the Kliprivier area.40
From the transcripts, it is evident that the authorities blamed Mahlatsi for the occupation. According to the Native Commissioner, Mahlatsi was a shopkeeper from Meyerton and a local leader of the ‘African National Committee’ (sic). More seriously, the Commissioner believed him to be a member of the Communist Party.41 Mahlatsi had apparently admitted to mobilising people from Kempton Park, Germiston, Evaton, Alberton, Meyerton, Vereeniging and Heidelberg to join this movement. The organisers of the occupation knew Mr Gray as the Special Justice of Peace for the area and believed him to be the equivalent of a local Magistrate who they imagined had the authority to arrange accommodation for them in the area.42 News of the original occupation spread very quickly and many more joined in the hope their action would prompt the authorities to provide them with accommodation on state land. In this they were either seriously mistaken or misled. Two week after the occupation started the authorities moved decisively to destroy the camp. Two hundred police surrounded the area from 2.30 am and ordered residents to destroy their shacks. Within hours the first group of squatters were driven by lorry to Daleside station where a special train was arranged relocate them to Hammanskraal, 150 km away. The forced relocations to Hammanskraal signalled an important shift in the state’s attitude towards squatters in the region. Whereas as before there was a degree of tolerance of squatting, now the default position was to remove squatters from the region and to relocate them to Hammanskraal, which became a site of ‘orderly squatting’. In so doing, the authorities also believed they had resolved the thorny problem of having to provide alternative accommodation to people evicted from the area.S
Leihlo la Motse - Eye of the City
Evaton is one of oldest surviving African locations in the country, located about 20km from the Vereeniging and nearly 50km from Johannesburg. The piece of land on which the area developed was owned by Easton Adams Company, which in 1905 divided the area into 2633 allotments, of which 833 (229 acres) were reserved for whites and the rest for Africans (1800 allotments or 1066 acres).43 Although the area was racially segregated it was legally treated as a single township, with only a road separating the two sections. A further 100 morgen (approximately 200 acres) were set aside for grazing of animals owned by African inhabitants of the area. At the outset, therefore, Evaton was peculiar, containing features of urban location tenure (freehold), formally included Africans and whites in the same township (albeit segregated) and rural farming practices (grazing land).

Interestingly, and unlike Alexandra, Evaton was established several years before the promulgation of the Land Act of 1913 and its creation appeared not to be a pre-emptive move by Easton Adams Company to avoid the restrictions on African land ownership in white urban areas. Nonetheless, after 1913 Africans could not acquire land in Evaton without the permission of the Governor General. Between 1915 and 1918 the aforementioned preconditioned was relaxed and then reinstated and from 1918 ‘applications for the Governor General’s consent for the acquisition by Natives of property in the Township was granted as a rule rather than as exception.’44 As a result, between the 1920s and late 1940s the purchase of properties by Africans continued unabated, entrenching property ownership as an emblematic aspect of the location’s character. Evaton’s population remained modest for the first 35 years of its existence: in 1918 it consisted ‘of some 4000 souls’ and by 1936 that figure increased to only 10 000, but thereafter began to experience a faster rate of growth commensurate with increases in the urban African population across the country, so that by 1941 the population of the area was estimated to be 16 000. Six years later, however, the population had nearly doubled to about 30 000 mainly as a result of the influx of new immigrants.45 Although the location did not experience the same degree of overcrowding as freehold and municipal locations on the Witwatersrand, there was nevertheless a relatively strong increase in the demand for land and housing.

It was under these circumstances that the most significant squatter settlement in the Vaal existed between 1946 and 1951. The cast of characters involved in this drama included two ageing widows, white land speculators, a law firm that today claims to be Africa’s largest, every tier of the judiciary from the local magistrate to a full bench of the Appeals Court, aspirant African landowners, an organization called ‘Eye of the City’ and of course various local and national officials from the Department of Native Affairs. Notably absent were the formal political organizations of African resistance, the ANC and CPSA, despite local officials sometimes wondering whether Evaton was part of a broader communist conspiracy. However, there is some evidence of both Xuma and Skota making speeches in support of the squatters.

The steady sale of land in Evaton made it a relatively lucrative source of income for the widows of the original owners of the Easton Adams Company. As the demand for new land began to increase they decided to sell the rest of their land to Africans, the transactions for which were handled by the law firm, Edward Nathan Friedland (now Sonnenberg), which had been involved in land deals in the area since at least 1912. At the time, the sale of land was obviously welcomed by Evaton’s African residents and hardly caused a stir among officials. In fact, the state approved the deal in 1941 and the land (Evaton extension or Eastonville) was transferred to ENF, subject to various conditions, including that plots of one acre in size could not be sold for more £50. At this point, the main parties involved expected the official incorporation of the new area into Evaton. However, the state delayed the formal promulgation of the area as a ‘Native Township’, which created a conundrum: as the land was privately owned, ENF could sell plots to Africans, but they were not allowed to build or occupy houses until the declaration of a Township. It was precisely at this point that Evaton’s population experienced a sharp increase and the demand for land soared.

Inevitably the price of properties began to rise. In Evaton plots were being sold for between £150 and £350, at least three times more than the standard price. ENF tried to increase its profit margins: the law firm and a land speculator, I.E. Judes, who acted on their behalf, made various submissions for the amendments of the conditions, including, to add £10 to the purchase price of £50 to cover the levy by the Administrator, to provide only one borehole, instead of two, to increase the price per plot from £50 to £112 and to be allowed to sell plots to the south of Union Rd, which would increase the number of plots available for sale from 151 to 193.46

It was clearly a sellers’ market and in a region with large tracts of privately owned land, presented ideal conditions for land speculation. The main figure here was a Mr. H.H. Gluckman, associate of ENF (but not a lawyer, although he claimed to be) and a joint owner of farms in close proximity to Evaton (which he inherited from his father). Taking advantage of the hiatus in the process of concluding the status of the extension to Evaton, Gluckman in 1942 took deposits from more than 100 African residents for plots in an undisclosed area (although he implied it was the same piece of land owned by ENF), promising them ownership of these plots as soon as the township was declared. But the state’s dithering over the proclamation and the depositors’ mounting impatience forced Gluckman’s hand and he attempted to repay the deposits (which had been sitting in his private account for 3-4 years!).

At this point the depositors, led by their organization, Leihlo la Motse (Eye of the City), decided to refuse the reimbursement, to occupy the nearest land (Eastonville) and to assert their perceived right as owners of plots. Events now unfolded at a rapid pace: by the 1 August 1946, 120 shanties made from sacks were erected on the ground intended for the development of Eastonville (Evaton Extension No.1),47 and a week later officials counted between 500 – 600 persons living in the camp.48 By the following March the camp had grown to 400 shacks and over 2000 people.49 A detailed survey revealed that people came from Evaton, other parts of Vereeniging, but also from Johannesburg, the East Rand, Orange Free State and Natal.

The camp was well-organised and co-ordinated by a committee of 11 members, (with Elias Ndhlebe as Chairman), which collected £2 entry fee and a monthly subscription to provide sanitation and health services, wells for water and to meet the wages of its local police. The authorities acknowledged there was ‘a better class of natives’ living there, that the informal dwellings were erected in clearly demarcated spaces and in neat rows, and that latrines and water were being provided. The regulations issued by the committee provide a clear sense of how it imagined the character of the place:

Dwellers in this village are here on request that they be allotted plots on which to build their homes. They are therefore asked to keep the regulations of this place, and they are as follows:

  1. NO Beer-making of any kind is allowed neither for free drinking nor selling.

  2. No fights are wanted, those found fighting are liable to expulsion.

  3. Members of this place must be prepared to assist one another in all undertakings that need to be undergone.

  4. By no means should any persons African or European enter for trading purposes. People of this village may work peacefully among themselves. Anybody involved in trouble in this shall be fully responsible.

  5. People must see that they co-operate with the police.

  6. People allowed here are those here on the purpose of buying land and not otherwise.50

There is much in common here with Mpanza’s masakhane camp, including the emphasis on internal and autonomous organisation, on adherence to regulations and the imposition thereof both by an internally constituted law enforcement group and the official police force and on the creation of a moral order. Here Leihle la Motse performed the role of a vigilance association. The occupation, refusal to move and establishment of quasi-autonomous local structures clearly presented a challenge to the authorities, and were interpreted as such by the local state. But, it may be argued, Leihle la Motse also intended to make its actions visible to the state, to demonstrate its commitment to order, and thus suitability to be incorporated into the modernist city. Critically, is the assertion that the camp was an extension of the existing location, namely, as a place for property owners. Evaton’s squatters were primarily aspirant bommastandi, at least the initial core group organized by Leihle la Motse. In this sense they differed from the movements of lodgers and tenants that demanded municipal housing. They were not, it appears, interested in being lured either to live as tenants in the old location or to the existing municipal locations. The state, however, remained determined to deal with the presence of Africans in urban areas on its own political terms. In the late 1940s this meant bringing under control or excising from the landscape any troublesome ‘black spots’.
Evictions and the law
Evaton’s white residents were perturbed by the rapidly growing squatter camp adjacent to their section. Numerous letters of complaint about the encroachment on their properties and of the supposed threat posed by squatters were sent to the government and a petition demanding the removal of the camp generated widespread support. The local state supported the call for evictions but was unable to act against the squatters without the permission of ENF, the owners of the land. Initially, the law firm attempted to use the presence of the squatters to persuade the state to promulgate the area as a township. When this tactic failed it sought to shift the financial and political responsibility for the removals onto the state. For its part the state also denied that it was obliged to provide alternative accommodation for the squatters if removals were effected. This impasse was eventually resolved in 1948 when ENF agreed to issue the squatters with a letter declaring their occupation illegal and demanding an end to the occupation. Simultaneously, the authorities invoked War Measure 31 (as amended until 1948), which gave magistrates the authority to order the immediate removal of people occupying land without the permission of the owner and if health conditions on that land posed a danger to them and others.51 This move opened a new chapter in the struggle between the squatters and the state, and tested the limits of the law on evictions.

On 2 February 1949 the Acting Magistrate, Vereeniging, issued an order for the eviction of the squatters. Despite a short delay caused by a sworn statement on the health conditions in the camp being signed by the wrong person, the authorities began preparations for the removals. However, on 4 February George Mofokeng, a resident of the camp, obtained an interdict against the Minister and Native Commissioner, ‘restraining them from removing him from the squatter camp pending the hearing of the main application on the 24th February 1949.’52 The main point of contention centred on the obligation of the Magistrate to consult residents about the findings of the medical officer, whose sworn statement about the health conditions at the camp was used as the basis to invoke the War Measure. In the judge’s opinion, ‘apart from special circumstances, a duty of giving to any person affected a fair opportunity to make any relevant statement which he may desire to bring forward and a fair opportunity to correct or controvert any relevant statement brought forward to his prejudice.’ In granting the application he ruled that the magistrate had to hold an inquiry and if ‘satisfied that the people must be removed ‘without delay’ he is empowered to order their ‘immediate removal’ and the ‘immediate demolition’ of their dwellings.’53

The local enquiry was convened before Magistrate W. van Niekerk on 27 October 1949. State officials presented their case for the removal premised mainly on the supposed unhealthy conditions prevailing in the area. Residents countered this claim. Solomon Nsibanyoni, who arrived at the camp in 1946, gave evidence on behalf of the main group representing the squatters:

We settled there and built originally huts with sacking… In course of time we have improved our homes there. Today houses are constructed of mud and iron roofs… Our huts are the same as those on farms… We have built these houses because we are on the veldt, we are not on the ground. Where we have permission to built good houses. Our houses are very good for the health. They are satisfactory very. They are permanent. Can stand the storms. Our houses are built in rows. Our houses are kept clean inside… The committee, as a body, has established lavatories latrines. At present their(sic) are 5 latrines in the camp. We have set aside separate latrines for males and females. At the squatter camp the latrines are pits surrounded by iron. I have seen latrines in Evaton similar to that… I have not seen or had any inspectors or any official complaining about latrines… Nobody has ever complained about the general health conditions of the camp… There has not been any epidemic of any kind since 1946.54

Despite the evidence of the relatively successful efforts to create a functioning community with due care given to sanitary and health, the state remained adamant about its position. On 5 November 1949, the magistrate granted permission for the removal but granted residents two months to find alternative accommodation. At this point the Native Commissioner offered residents rental accommodation.55 It is unclear whether anyone accepted the offer, but a significant number rejected it, choosing instead to challenge the legality of the magistrate’s order. Solomon Nsibanyoni on behalf of the residents registered an appeal against the order on 22 December 1949, which application was heard in the Supreme Court and dismissed 6 April 1950. A further appeal was lodged against this judgement, which was due to be heard by the Appeals Court on 10 October 1950. On 11 December Judge J.A. Fagan dismissed the appeal. With all legal options exhausted the residents made one last effort by appealing to the Minister of Native Affairs to undertake an in loco inspection of the area but he was advised against this by the Secretary of Native Affairs, W.W.M. Eiselen.56 In March the Evaton camp was demolished and hundreds of residents relocated to Hammanskraal.


1 Bonner, Adler, Maylam, Kondlo, Muthien

2 Bonner and Pithouse, Abm

3 Robert Kaplan, ‘The Coming Anarchy’, The Atlantic, February 1994

4 Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, Verso, London, 2006 p.19

5 Ibid

6 N. Nattrass, ‘Economic Aspects of the Construction of Apartheid’, in P. Bonner, P. Delius and D. Posel (eds) Apartheid’s Genesis, Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1993, p.43; T. Lodge, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945, Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1983, p.11; GP, Union Statistics for Fifty Years, p. A-33

7 R. Fine and D. Davis, Beyond Apartheid, Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1991, pp. 14 & 156

8 K. Beavon, Johannesburg, p.123

9 D.Hindson, Pass Controls, Full Details, p.56

10. N. Nieftagodien, PhD Thesis: CAD, MSP 1/3/5/1/39, Minutes of the Public Health and Non-European Committee of 4/7/57.

11 P. Bonner & L. Segal, Soweto, p.19

12 P. Bonner

13. P. Bonner, ‘Black Squatter Movements’, p. 92.

14 P. Maylam, ‘The "Black Belt": African Squatters in Durban 1935-1950’, Canadian Journal of African Studies , Vol. 17, No. 3, Special Issue: South Africa, 1983, pp. 414-417

15 K. Kondlo, ‘Miserable Hovels and Shanties on waterlogged wasteland: Political economy of peri-urban squatting around Greater Cape Town, circa 1945-1960’, MA Thesis, UCT, p.100

16 Vereeniging News, 23 February 1945; Vereeniging News, 11 January 1946

17 Vereeniging News, 29 June 1951

18 Vanderbijlpark Publicity Association, Vanderbijlpark – 21 Years of Progress, 1966, p.14

19 Vereeniging News, 30 January 1942

20 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, ‘Native squatters near Iscor Steelworks, Vereeniging’, Report by S.J Parsons, Inspector of Urban Locations, 7 July 1945

21 Of the 57 heads of households for which full details were recorded, the following trends may be discerned. 27 were on the current farms for less than a year, 25 for between 1 and 5 years and only 5 for longer than five years, although this included one person who had lived and worked on the same farm for thirty years and another for 10 years.

22 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, ‘Native squatters near Iscor Steelworks, Vereeniging’, Report by S.J Parsons, Inspector of Urban Locations, 7 July 1945

23 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, ‘Native squatters near Iscor Steelworks, Vereeniging’, Report by S.J Parsons, Inspector of Urban Locations, 7 July 1945

24 Ibid

25 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, ‘Native squatters near Iscor Steelworks, Vereeniging’, Report by S.J Parsons, Inspector of Urban Locations, 7 July 1945

26 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Witwatersrand Division to The Director of Native Labour, Johannesburg, 15 December 1945

27 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, Additional Native Commissioner to The Director of Native Labour, 7 November 1945

28 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, Additional Native Commissioner to The Director of Native Labour, 7 February 1946

29 Vereeniging News, 5 September 1947

30 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, ‘Native squatters near Iscor Steelworks, Vereeniging’, Report by S.J Parsons, Inspector of Urban Locations, 7 July 1945

31 NA, KJB 507, N9/21/3, ‘Alleged Native Squatting near Iscor Steel Works, Vereeniging’, Report submitted by S.J. Parsons, 22 December 1944

32 Vereeniging News, 7 February 1947

33 Vereeniging News, 4 July 1947

34 Vereeniging News, 8 August 1947

35 Vereeniging News, 27 June 1947

36 The figures are disputed. One report states ‘a few hundred’ but another indicates that less than fifty were prosecuted.

37 Vereeniging News, 7 July 1944

38 Vereeniging News, 14 July 1944

39 Vereeniging News, 11 September 1948

40 ‘Notes of address by the Department of Native Labour to Native squatters on Witkoppie, Vereeniging, on the 8th Septmeber 1948, at 3.30pm’

41 Department of Native Affairs, Squatters on Witkop, 58, District of Vereeniging, 9 September 1948

42 Native Commissioner, Vereeniging, ‘Squatters on Witkop, 58, District of Vereeniging, 8 September 1948

43 NA, NTS 361, 2/56, ‘Report of investigation into conditions in Evaton, 27 May 1947

44 NA, NTS 361, 2/56, Untitled and undated report on Evaton

45 NA, NTS 361, 2/56, ‘Secretary for Native Affairs to Native Commissioner, 14 March 1932’

46 NA, NTS 361, 2/56,’ Native Affairs Commission Report’, 27 May 1947

47 NA, NTS 361, 2/56, Additional Native Commissioner (I.P. O’Driscoll) to The Director of Native Labour, 1 August 1946

48 NA, NTS 361, 2/56, Additional Native Commissioner (I.P. O’Driscoll) to The Director of Native Labour, 10 August 1946

49 NA, NTS 361, 2/56,’ Native Affairs Commission Report’, 27 May 1947

50 Evaton The Eye of the City Society, Regulations Shanty Evaton (undated)

51 ?

52 Supreme Court of South Africa (Transvaal Provincial Division), George Mofokeng (Applicant) vs The Minister of Native Affairs (first respondent), The Native Commissioner, Vereeniging, (2nd respondent), The Acting Magistrate for the District of Vereeniging (3rd respondent). Judgement (by J. Ramsbottom), 10 March 1949

53 Ibid

54 Enquiry held before Magistrate W. Van Niekerk, 27 October 1949

55 Native Commissioner (O’Driscoll), Squatters at Evaton, 5 December 1949

56 W.W.M. Eiselen to Minister of Native Affairs, 6 February 1951

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