On the Land

Bourke-White traveled extensively in rural South Africa. She photographed farm life in a number of contexts: large-scale commercial agriculture in the fertile highveld of the northeastern Orange Free State; the wine farms of the Western Cape; and the notorious Transvaal croplands worked by prison labor in the Bethel District east of Johannesburg.

The legacy of the Natives’ Land Act of 1913 reserved 88 per cent of the country’s land for white ownership, restricting Blacks to the remaining designated “native reserves.” This land proved unable to sustain the Black population, requiring them to seek work on white farms, in the mines or as domestic workers for white urban families in order to survive.

Finance Minister, N.C. Havenga, told Bourke-White that Afrikaners’ “deepest satisfaction comes from the land.” But she was well aware of the systematic injustice of South African agriculture that rested on the dispossession of Africans. She had seen the consequences of similar unequal land distribution in the American South. As her story on “South Africa and Its Problem” in Life put it, “Whites Won the Land, the Blacks Work It.”

The photographs in this section show African tenants producing maize, the country’s staple crop; the debilitating “tot” system of payment in wine made to Coloured farmworkers in the scenic Western Cape region; and convict labor in the Afrikaner heartland of the Transvaal. Bourke-White had photographed chain gangs in the American South. In South Africa, she saw prisoners’ work as symptomatic of the entire labor system. “I couldn’t see much difference in being a laborer living in jail, or a laborer living in a compound (as miners, farmhands, and most other types of native contract labor do),” she wrote in her notes. “The life of the prisoner is a blueprint of the life of a free contract worker.”

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