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  • Writer's pictureAjith Thiyagalingam

The Historical Injustices of Colonialism

Land Rights in South Africa

The majority of Canadians take their right to land and the enjoyment of property for granted. Canada is a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes that “everyone has the right to own property” and provides that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property”. The Canadian Bill of Rights protects a right to the “enjoyment of property, and the right not to be deprived thereof except by due process of law.” However, indigenous peoples in Canada—who were the original peoples here before any settlers arrived—are still fighting to have their land rights and their Aboriginal titles respected by the Canadian government; in addition to fighting wealthy corporations that seek to conduct mining operations on indigenous land, and thereby causing irreparable harm to the environment. Similarly, Black people in South Africa have been fighting for their land restitution, land tenure reform and land redistribution since the days of colonialism and apartheid.

The issue of land rights in South Africa dates all the way back to colonial times with the 1913 Natives Land Act. The Act forcibly removed thousands of black families from their land by the apartheid government. It restricted them from buying or occupying land. It began mass relocations of black people to poorer areas of the country where many people struggled to find work. The legacy of socio-economic injustice, poverty, and inequality that was inherited from this Act continues to impact the majority of Black South Africans. This is a common phenomenon we see all over the world today as a result of the historical injustices caused by colonialism. In Canada, the Indian Act of 1876 was created to control and assimilate indigenous peoples and their communities. It allowed the Canadian government to seize indigenous land and property and control many aspects of indigenous peoples’ lives, including the creation of the residential school system which amounted to cultural genocide.

Currently, there is an important class action suit that has been brought against Anglo American South Africa Limited in the Johannesburg High Court. This class action is alleging that Anglo American South Africa Limited failed to take adequate steps to prevent lead poisoning of local residents living near the Kabwe lead mine, including children, from 1925 to 1974. Another important matter that is being litigated at the High Court of South Africa relates to an amendment of the Divorce Act, which seeks to allow for the redistribution of property on divorce where there is an antenuptial contract in place.

Historically, it was not uncommon for a woman’s property to have been controlled by her father, and then after she was married, by her husband. Before the South African Matrimonial Property Act was enacted in 1984, the law entrenched a patriarchal system in which a man was legally entitled to control his wife and where women had a weak bargaining position. While these two issues of women’s land rights upon the dissolution of marriage and lead poisoning in the Kabwe mine might seem distinct, they are both a consequence of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa. During apartheid, Black women were repressed to a greater degree than anyone else and they held the lowest position in the social hierarchy. They became second-class citizens and were denied the right to own land, the right to custody of their children, and the right to be chief or elected as chief.

From 1904 to 1994, the Kabwe mine was operational and polluted the environment with extremely high levels of toxic lead, which continues to affect the Black families and farm workers living in the area. Anglo American South Africa Limited, which owned the Kabwe mine, was the largest and most powerful South African corporation during the twentieth century. It has been accused of profiting from its collaboration with apartheid-era South Africa. In addition to the lead poisoning in the Kabwe mine, the corporation was involved in the exploitation of black workers and using segregation to reduce labour costs, seizing property and plundering the country of its natural resources. Remediation, reclamation, and reconciliation are ongoing processes in South Africa to try and right the wrongs of colonialism and apartheid.

I am in a privileged position as I live in Canada, I am a man, and I have not had to personally concern myself with land and property rights. Canada’s laws regarding land rights and antenuptial contracts prior to a marriage are quite progressive compared to South Africa. I have not been exposed to lead poisoning from mining activities, which does have an impact on people in Canada, particularly those that are living in areas with increased mining activities including rural areas and indigenous land. However, I can identify with the impact that colonialism has had on marginalized communities and countries where colonial rule was present in the nineteenth and twentieth century.

My parents arrived in Canada fleeing persecution and genocide during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Tensions between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil groups worsened in Sri Lanka during the British imperial rule. After the British occupiers had left the island in 1948, the majority Sinhalese government passed discriminatory acts to effectively disenfranchise the Tamils. The Sinhala Only Act made Sinhala the only official language of Sri Lanka and created barriers for Tamil people trying to access government services or seeking public employment. A standardization policy was also created which required Tamil students to achieve much higher exam scores than Sinhalese students in order to be admitted to Sri Lankan universities. These two discriminatory policies were only the beginning of oppression and injustices committed against the Tamil people which eventually led to the Sri Lankan Civil War and the Tamil genocide.

One-third of Sri Lankan Tamils now live outside Sri Lanka and much of the culture has been lost with the younger generations becoming increasingly disconnected from their ancestral homeland. While I introspect on my Tamil heritage and the history of South Africa, I cannot help but think of the similarities between South Africa’s 1913 Natives Land Act on Black people and the Sri Lankan government’s discriminatory policies against the Tamil people, both of which were consequences of colonialism that have had a deep impact on these respective communities even today. As the past cannot be changed, we can only learn from it and remember the sacrifices that others have made to create a happier, better future for us.

"A bright future beckons. The onus is on us, through hard work, honesty and integrity, to reach for the stars."

- Nelson Mandela at the Freedom Day celebrations, Pretoria, South Africa, 27 April 1996


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