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The Flowing Eye: Water Management in the Upper Kuruman Valley, South Africa, c. 1800–1962*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Nancy Jacobs
Carleton College, Minnesota


This paper considers the intensification of agriculture along racial lines in South Africa by looking at the history of one spring and nine miles of river valley. It illustrates how racial conflict included struggles over nature, and how whites and blacks had different perceptions and abilities regarding its exploitation.

The ‘Eye’ of Kuruman is a large spring in a semi-arid region. Tswana herders originally used it as a water hole. Their food production system was extensive, making use of wide areas rather than increasing output in a limited area. Pastoralism was more important than agriculture. Irrigation, introduced by representatives of the London Missionary Society, was not widely practiced away from the missions until a subsistence crisis during the 1850s. It continued after the crisis passed. However, households continued to operate with the logic of extensive production, fitting irrigation into the pre-existing system.

In 1885, tne British annexed the region as part of the Crown Colony of British Bechuanaland. They demarcated African reserves at springs and in river valleys, and grazing lands were opened for white settlement. The upper Kuruman valley was designated a Crown reserve and the Eye became a town site. Downstream were Tswana households which cultivated with less security than on a native reserve. Land alienation with rinderpest devastated stock keeping and caused a widespread famine at the turn of the century, yet Tswana cultivators did not greatly intensify their use of irrigable lands. More extensive methods endured and wage labor became the basis of support.

In the twentieth century under Union government, use of the Eye intensified, and access to the valley became segregated by race. After 1918 the municipality of Kuruman operated a modern irrigation project, and in 1919, evicted black cultivators living at the Eye. Blacks continued to live and garden at Seodin, five miles downstream, but suffered water shortages which made even their casual irrigation impossible. Political expediency dictated against their pressing for water rights. In the 1940s the Department of Native Affairs drilled boreholes, but these were not sufficient to sustain cultivation. In 1962, the policy of Apartheid mandated the removal of blacks from Seodin. Despite state aid, the whites-only irrigation project never developed into a commercial success.

New Perspectives on Southern African History
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1996

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30 Mackenzie, , Ten Years, 92.Google Scholar Missionaries report that in the earliest years, ‘impossible things’ included trying to run water uphill. Philip, John, Researches in South Africa (2 vols.) (London, 1828; reprinted New York, 1969), ii. 113;Google ScholarLivingstone, David, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (London, 1857; reprinted Freeport, NY, 1972), 125.Google Scholar

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46 CAD BCC, 116, Resident Magistrate to Colonial Secretary, 29 10 1894;Google Scholar CAD BCC, 116, report on Crown Reserve, Matthews Commission, 8 03 1895.Google Scholar

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48 CPP G 42 – '98, 66. Mortality rates among Kuruman herds are unrecorded. A few small reserves seem to have escaped infection, but losses in stricken areas probably exceeded 90 per cent. A general account of rinderpest is found in CPP G 33 – '97, Special Report on Rinderpest in South Africa by the Colonial Veterinary Surgeon, March 1896–Feburary 1897. On the Langeberg War see Shillington, , Southern Tswana, 215–40;Google ScholarSaker, Harry and Aldridge, J., ‘The origins of the Langeberg rebellion’, J. Afr. Hist. XII (1971), 299317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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59 SAD Land Office Series [hereafter LND] 1/710, Surveyor General to Under Secretary of Agriculture, 7 Dec. 1908.

60 CAD 1/KMN to/4, Resident Magistrate to Law Department Secretary, 29 June 1903. CAD LND 1/730, Native Affairs Assistant Secretary to Under Secretary for Agriculture, 21 Jan. 1902.

61 LMS Box 64, Brown, J. Tom, 4 04 1904 and 10 08 1904;Google Scholar CAD Public Works Department [hereafter PWD] 1/5–28 644 Annexure J, n.d. 1905; SAD LND 1/710, Surveyor General to Under Secretary for Agriculture, 7 Dec. 1908; SAD NTS 4368 268/313, Report on the Kuruman Crown Reserve, M. C. Vos, 26 Aug. 1911; CAD Irrigation Department Series [hereafter IRR], 801/08, map ‘Kuruman River Irrigation’, 2 Feb. 1917; Snyman, , Kuruman, 87–18.Google Scholar

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63 LMS Box 139, Brown, J. Tom, 14 03 1910 and 1 09 1910;Google Scholar LMS Box 140, Brown, J. Tom, 10 10 1910.Google Scholar

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71 SAD NTS 4368 268/313, M. C. Vos, 26 Aug. 1911; see also SAD NTS 6318 23/218, Superintendent of Natives, Kuruman, to Native Commissioner, Kuruman, 10 04 1928.Google Scholar

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73 Snyman, P. H. R., ‘Safety and health in the northern Cape blue asbestos belt’, Historia, XXXIII (1988), 3152Google Scholar and ‘The northern Cape manganese fields: development and effect on the surrounding agrarian community, 1922–1948’, South African Journal of Economic History, III (1988), 7188.Google Scholar

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76 SAD NTS 4368 268/313, M. C. Vos to Minister of Lands, 15 July 1921. See I Kings 21. When the Israelite King Ahab desired a beautiful vineyard, Naboth, its owner, refused to sell. Queen Jezebel arranged to have Naboth killed and Ahab then took possession.

77 MMT, M. C. Vos to A.E.Jennings, 13 July 1921. Jennings responded that his lawyer had been in favor of rejecting the settlement, because it did not provide a permanent settlement, but that Vos's assurances convinced him to sign. MMT, A. E. Jennings to M. C. Vos, 21 Sep. 1921.

78 SAD NTS 4368 268/313, M. C. Vos to Minister of Lands, 15 July 1921.

79 Ibid, undated memo to the Prime Minister (probably late 1920s). The municipality attempted to purchase the northern portion of the reserve in 1925, and the unsuccessful 1927 Natives Land (Amendment) Bill defined it as a white area. Despite these attempts to reverse Vos's decision, his line has remained the border between whites and blacks, in 1977 becoming the boundary of the homeland Bophutatsvvana, and in 1994 it divided the Northwest and Northern Cape provinces of the new South Africa.

80 An 1897 report claimed water from the Eye flowed for 40 miles downstream. CAB KMN 10/1, Annual Health Report D. G. Beare, District Surgeon of Kuruman, 16 Feb. 1897. In contrast, the missionary Brown reported that one year he had to water his garden by night. LMS Box 58, J. Tom Brown, 18 Sep. 1900.

81 CAD IRR 801/08, map, 2 Feb. 1917.

82 SAD NTS 6882 165/337, Galeboe's testimony to Native Affairs Commission, 16 May 1941. The mission he is referring to was a small portion of the original estate which the LMS retained after the sale consisting of missionary houses, the school and the church.

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86 SAD NTS 4638 268/3/3, Director of Irrigation to Native Affairs Secretary, 19 June 1924.

87 SAD NTS 6882 165/337, Jennings to Superintendent of Natives, 1 Sep. 1924.

88 Ibid. Director of Irrigation to Native Affairs Secretary, 30 Jan. 1925; ibid. Native Affairs Secretary to Secretary of Lands, 19 Mar. 1925; ibid, report from Minister of Lands to the Lands Department, 29 Mar. 1925.

89 Ibid, report by Native Affairs Acting Under Secretary, 27 May 1931. CAD PAS 2/747 Ls2 C4, Cape Provincial Secretary to Town Clerk, 23 June 1924.

90 SAD NTS 6882 165/337, Native Affairs Secretary to Town Clerk, 18 Oct. 1939.

91 MMT 1939 report for Kuruman to LMS directors by H. C. Thompson; SAD NTS 6882 165/337, H. C. Thompson to S. J. Botha, 25 Jan. 1940.

92 SAD NTS 6882 165/337, Native Commissioner, Northern Areas to Native Affairs Secretary, 26 Mar. 1940.

93 Ibid. Galeboe's testimony to Native Affairs Commission, 16 May 1941.

94 SAD NTS 1945 256/278, annual agricultural report, 20 June 1947; SAD NTS 6882 165/337, aantekenige van bespreking tussen di naturelle-sake-kommissie en die munisipaliteit van Kuruman, Testimony of P. J. Robinson of Landbou-Unie, 9 Dec. 1948.

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