The Native Reserves Order in Council (1898)created the infamous Native Reserves for blacks only. This was in the face of a systematic mass land expropriation by white settlers. To the whites, the Native Reserves were meant to prevent the extinction of the indigenous people while at the same time guaranteeing that settlers got the lion's share of fertile land. The result was that Native Reserves were set up haphazardly in low potential areas which subsequently became the present Communal areas.
Leander Starr Johnson encouraged the settlers to get as much land as they wanted. Major Sir John Willoughby was granted 600,000 acres in Mashonaland. He also bought some land rights that had been given to pioneers who went in search of gold. Willoughby’s Consolidated Company eventually had accumulated 1.3 million acres of land. Rhodes’s surveyor general, on accepting his post, was given 640,000 acres of land. These settlers were parcelling out land that belonged to either the Shona or Ndebele.
Why the order in council came into being
The Native Reserves Order in Council (1898) was deliberately meant to impoverish the blacks in order to force them to go and work for the whites in their farms, mines and factories. The British the government was requested by the settler government to stop the policy of allowing Africans to buy land adjacent to their farms. The white farmers and administrators used various methods to force indigenous people to work on their farms and projects for no payment. Administrators like the Native Commissioners found their free labour through the chiefs, who would select men from among their subjects to go and work at their instruction
Creation of Gwai and Shangani reserves
During the conquest of Matabeleland in 1893, Chief Native Commissioner Henry Colenbrander had simultaneously created locations to which the conquered Ndebele people subsequently returned to live as tenants supplying labour to newly-occupied white settler-farms and mines.
The Gwai and Shangani Native Reserves had become the first native reserves under provisions of the Matabeleland Order-In-Council of July 18, 1894, which required a similarly provided Land Commission to assign without delay, ‘to the natives, inhabiting Matabeleland land sufficient for their occupation, whether as tribes or portions of tribes, and suitable for their agricultural and pastoral requirements, including in all cases a fair and equitable proportion of springs or permanent water.
In 1896, the High Commissioner’s Proclamation stipulated that the Ndebele people were to be removed from ‘locations’ on white settler-farms, into designated ‘native reserves’, after a grace period of two years. The grace period allowed the Ndebele to continue living in ‘locations’ on white settler-farms without paying rent and free from arbitrary evictions. The imperial approval for the ‘native reserves’ was still outstanding even by October 20, 1898, when the Southern Rhodesia Order-in-Council of October 20, 1898, was published, reiterating the provision in Article 49 of the 1894 Matabeleland Order-in-Council. Article 81 of the Southern Rhodesia Order-In-Council of October 20, 1898, read:
The Company shall from time to time assign to the natives inhabiting Southern Rhodesia, land sufficient for their occupation, whether as tribes or portions of tribes and suitable for their agricultural and pastoral requirements, including in all cases, a fair and equitable proportion of springs or permanent water.
Matabeleland ultimately had a total of 16 ‘native reserves’ of which the Gwai and Shangani Reserves remained the largest with a combined land size of 5 420 640 acres out of 7 751 160 acres.
Earl Grey, who succeeded Leander Starr Jameson as Administrator of Rhodesia, admitted that the Ndebele regarded the Gwai and Shangani Native Reserves as ‘cemeteries’ not suitable for human habitation.