Brief History of Cadastral System in South Africa

Early Days

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 countries 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 means 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.

Modern Times

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.

The Surveyor in the Field

National Control Survey System

South Africa is fully covered by the National Control Survey System which is of high accuracy and which is marked by a network of trigonometric stations and town survey marks.

It is a legal requirement that all cadastral surveys are connected to this control network, ensuring that the position of every beacon and boundary is accurately known, and that property boundaries do not overlap, and that beacons that are lost or destroyed can be replaced with the minimum delay and expense.

The great majority of non-cadastral surveys, such as those for road construction, are also based on this national control network with tremendous benefits for orderly and cost-effective development in South Africa.

All cadastral and all other surveys that are referred to the National Control Survey System, are calculated in plane coordinates. The projection used is the Gauss Conform Projection (an adaptation of the Transverse Mercator projection), with central meridians at odd-numbered degrees of longitude and two-degree wide belts. The unit of measure of length is the International Metre.

As from 1 January 1999, the South African National Control Survey System has been based on the World Geodetic System 1984 (WGS 84) ellipsoid, with the position of the Hartebeeshoek Radio Astronomy Telescope as the origin of the system.

Survey Methods

Although the methods that may be used in cadastral surveying are not rigidly prescribed, it is a requirement that all work be adequately and carefully checked. All recognised methods, using modern accurate instruments, are acceptable. Special requirements are however laid down when surveys are undertaken, using GPS (Global Positioning System) or photogrammetric techniques. In South Africa most cadastral surveys are done using total stations and/or GPS.

The accuracies to which surveys must be carried out are prescribed in the Land Survey Act. There are three classes of survey, each with its specified accuracy limit:

Class A – Surveys for the determination of the positions of reference marks in urban surveys,

Class B – Surveys in urban and peri-urban areas and for mining titles in respect of precious stones and minerals,

Class C – Other surveys, including farm surveys and surveys for mining titles in respect of base minerals.

Beacons and Boundaries

South Africa is generally a large open country, with few natural or artificial features that are suitable for adoption as property boundaries. The boundaries of properties or land parcels are marked by permanent corner beacons joined, usually by imaginary straight lines, although the boundary lines between beacons may be curvilinear features in certain circumstances.

The types of beacon that may be used are prescribed by regulation, and new beacons must be iron pegs of specified dimensions. Well-constructed corner fence posts and corners of permanent buildings may also be adopted as beacons. Should rock or buildings prevent placing a beacon, a hole may be drilled to indicate the position.

Although the boundaries between beacons are usually straight lines, certain natural or artificial features that are permanent and clearly defined, may be adopted as curvilinear boundaries. The most common examples are the middle of a river and the top edge of a cliff.

Artificial features which are liable to be moved, such as fences, roads and railway lines, may not be adopted as new cadastral boundaries.

Original and Division Surveys

When an unregistered piece of land is granted, a so-called original survey is carried out and a diagram prepared by the land surveyor.

Before being approved by the Surveyor-General, this diagram is made available for inspection by the public to give all interested parties an opportunity to satisfy themselves that the land to be granted does not conflict with their property. Only after any objections have been resolved, is the diagram approved and bound with the deed of grant, which can then be registered in the name of the new owner or grantee. Original grants do not often occur now in South Africa.

Subsequent division and subdivisions do not require making diagrams available for public inspection before approval.

In undertaking a survey to subdivide an existing piece of land, the land surveyor has very specific responsibilities. He/she must:

  • Study all available information from previous surveys;
  • Where possible find and determine the positions of the original beacons; then
  • Determine the best agreement between the old and new surveys.

In the event of disagreement between the evidence on the ground and the data on the diagram, a 1924 High Court decision lays down that the lawful position of a property corner is that occupied by the original beacon itself and not the position according to the diagram. Such disagreement is only likely to occur when dealing with very old original surveys.

The permissible differences between old and new surveys are prescribed by regulation and, if these are exceeded, the land surveyor must obtain the agreement of all affected landowners to the position he has selected for the beacon or boundary. Once the relationship between old and new has been settled, the land surveyor proceeds to place the subdivisional beacons, so as to subdivide the land in accordance with the approval plan of subdivision. The subdivision can be a relatively simple matter, creating a small number of new properties, or it can be a highly complex township layout involving the “pegging out” of hundreds or even thousands of erven, public places and streets.

Office Work

Statutory Restrictions on Cadastral Surveys

There are many statutory restraints placed on landowners wishing to develop their land and, which the cadastral surveyor is bound to observe. Although this severely restricts an owner’s right to deal with his/her land as he/she wishes, the State has imposed these restrictions in the interest of orderly planning and development, and for the benefit of the community as a whole.

With few exceptions permission must be obtained before land can be subdivided. The list of laws and ordinances, which control the subdivision of land, is a long one and is subject to change, and no attempt will be made here to list them. In many cases permission to subdivide must be obtained from more than one authority.

As part of his/her function, a Surveyor-General must ensure that all applicable consents have been obtained before approving a subdivisional survey.

The Role of the Surveyor-General

There are four Surveyor-General’s offices in South Africa, each of which regulates cadastral surveys in the provinces for which it is responsible. Their principal functions briefly are to:

  • Examine and approve diagrams, general plans and sectional title plans prior to them being registered in a Deeds Registry.
  • Preserve and keep up-to-date all documents and records pertaining to cadastral surveys.
  • Prepare and keep up to date cadastral maps and plans, both in paper and digital form.
  • Supply copies of documents kept in the office in hard copy or digital form. The office also provides advice and information pertaining to the cadastre to all who ask.

The fact that the Surveyor-General’s office holds complete records of all cadastral surveys, ensures that there is virtually no possibility of properties overlapping and, once registered, little chance of conflicting claims to ownership.

Survey Documents

The diagram is the fundamental registerable document prepared by the land surveyor. The essential information shown on a diagram is:

  • The unique designation of the property.
  • An illustration depicting the property.
  • The boundary description listing the corner beacons and the details of any curvilinear boundary.
  • Descriptions of the corner beacons.
  • A table listing the numerical data of the boundaries.
  • The area of the property.

The Surveyor-General gives each diagram a unique reference number.

The most common type of diagram is a subdivisional diagram. This is framed for the purpose of cutting off a portion of a parent property. There are other types of diagram however, including:

  • Servitude diagrams for registering servitudes over an existing property;
  • Lease diagrams for registering long term leases over portions of properties;
  • Consolidation diagrams when it is required to consolidate several individual properties into one, taking out certificates of consolidated title;
  • Mineral diagrams to register mineral rights separately from the land rights; and
  • Mining title diagrams for registering the right to extract minerals from the land.

With the exception of mining title diagrams, which are registered with the Department of Minerals and Energy, these diagrams are registered together with their deeds in a deeds registry.

In the case of the subdivision of a piece of land into a number of pieces the land surveyor usually prepares a general plan instead of individual diagrams. This is a document showing the relative position of two or more pieces of land together with the same essential information in respect of each piece as is required on a diagram. It is also allocated a unique reference number by the Surveyor-General. It is compulsory to prepare a general plan for any subdivision into ten or more pieces of land and when required, in terms of any law, usually for township establishment or the amendment of an existing general plan. General plans may comprise many sheets and depict a very large number of erven (lots).

Survey Records

When submitting the diagrams and general plans framed from his/her survey, a land surveyor is obliged also to lodge the records of that survey with the Surveyor-General. These records are used to support the examination process and are then preserved in the Surveyor-General’s office. Land surveyors later refer to these records when relocating or replacing lost beacons and when extending the earlier survey. The principal records kept by the Surveyor-General are:

  • The field observations, which are the primary record of the survey,
  • A list of co-ordinates of the beacons and reference stations,
  • A working plan,
  • A plan on which is shown the comparison between the original and the new survey data, and
  • The land surveyor’s report.

These records are now being captured in the document imaging system (DIS) for easier access and to facilitate the supply of information to land surveyors.

The above is an article that was written by and appears on the website of the Chief Surveyor-General

This Content Originally Published by a land surveyor to Land Surveyors United Network

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