Egypt was probably the first place where early man took steps to become a food producer rather than a food gatherer. Until man had taken his first step in advancing from a nomadic to a more settled existence, he had no need for land measurement, nor did he have a need to record his claim to ownership of individual pieces of land. It is highly probable therefore, that Egypt saw the first use of a cadastral system and of cadastral surveying. Evidence from the contents of tombs indicates that there was indeed a form of public land registration and that the land courts would entertain no claim if the land were not registered.
There is also evidence that a simple but effective system of cadastral surveying was used to set out the boundaries of individual plots of arable land. Even more importantly, cadastral surveying was needed to recover the beacons and boundaries of these individual plots after they had been inundated during the annual flooding of the Nile. The corner beacons of the plots were set out or recovered by measuring from permanent markers above the flood line.
It is fascinating that the system used in Ancient Egypt all those years ago, exhibits the important characteristics of our own modern cadastral system, in that the properties were surveyed and that ownership was recorded in a public register. The importance of having the basic details of a property in an official register, where these could easily be consulted, was recognised from the beginning. It is complete contrast to the system in vogue in some countries, until very recently, where information relating to land ownership was not registered in a public office but in the offices of private conveyancers. From there this information could be obtained only with considerable difficulty.
In contrast to Egypt, in many countriese where there was a settled population, there was also an abundance of natural and cultural (artificial) features which, conveniently leant themselves to be used as boundaries. These included permanently flowing streams, hedges and stone walls. There was no need therefore, for corner beacons and so it came about that two basic systems of boundary demarcation developed – that of using natural and man-made features as boundaries, called the general boundary system, and that of relying on beaconed corners.
In South Africa, where natural and cultural features are few and far between, the only practical method of demarcating property is that of using beaconed corner points joined, with few exceptions, by straight line boundaries.
The Colonial Era in South Africa
The first land surveyor came to the Cape in 1657, some five years after Jan van Riebeeck had established the first European settlement at the southern tip of Africa. The first cadastral survey was the survey of a piece of land on the banks of the Liesbeeck River, in order to transfer this land to a released servant of the Dutch East India Company. Apart from the river, which conveniently formed one boundary, poles were erected to demarcate the other boundaries, which were straight lines.
This and other early cadastral surveys were however graphical, which was suitable for Europe with its many permanent features, but not at all suitable for a newly settled country. As the farming areas spread out from Cape Town, the farms became larger and graphical surveys became even more unsatisfactory as a menas of determining the position of corner beacons. However, graphical surveys were to persist for two centuries, until 1857, when the use of theodolites and the recording of numerical data on diagrams were made compulsory.
The British occupation of the Cape in 1806 had also brought about a tightening up of land registration procedures, and from 1813 no sale of land would be recognised unless that land had been properly surveyed and registered. The new office of the Surveyor-General was created in 1828 in order, amongst other duties, to register all grants of land. The examination of diagrams and the examination of surveyors themselves, were undertaken by the Surveyor-General from the 1830’s. When Natal became a separate district of the Cape Colony in 1845, a Surveyor-General was appointed there also and the Transvaal and Orange Free State followed suit in 1866 and 1876 respectively.
After Union in 1910, these four territories retained their individual legislation, controlling cadastral surveying until the commencement of the Land Survey Act 9 of 1927.
The Land Survey Act of 1927 put cadastral surveying in South Africa in the position it is today; it is one of the best and most reliable systems of defining the boundaries of properties, and the positions of rights affecting those properties anywhere in the world. The individual land surveyor’s field and office records were now examined and, after approval, were preserved in the Surveyor-General’s office as evidence for any future boundary relocation. All surveys also had to be connected to the national control survey system, as this was extended across the country. That this Act was a well thought-out document, based on sound experience, is evident as it was used with only minor amendments to it for sixty years until it was replaced by a new, but substantially similar, Land Survey Act 8 of 1997.
In 1971 the Sectional Title Act made it possible, for the first time in South Africa, for flats and other portions of buildings to be individually owned. The 1971 Act has since been replaced by Sectional Title Act 95 of 1986.