Rural Women and Land Reform: When will we move beyond the rhetoric?

By Fazila Farouk · 4 Sep 2008

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Picture: gbaku
Picture: gbaku

Pick up the promotional brochure of any government, NGO or corporate social investment programme and you will read that poor women are an important beneficiary group – if not the most important target of social relief and investment programmes.

Many millions of Rand are raised and spent in the name of alleviating the plight of poor black women, particularly those living in rural South Africa.

For all the time, money and effort put into such programmes, one has to wonder why the results we see are always the opposite of the desired outcome.

As time marches on in the democratic South Africa, studies and reports repeatedly release fresh findings about an unchanging narrative.

The story of rural women in South Africa continues to be the story of female-headed households eking out a meagre existence on the margins of society, of growing poverty, of human rights abuses, of spiralling levels of violence against women, of a disproportionately high prevalence of HIV and of the lack of access to economic opportunities, public services and most importantly, the lack of access to land.

A 2008 Amnesty International report about HIV prevalence amongst South Africa’s rural women (where it is high) succinctly captures the defining characteristic of the women in its title: "I am at the lowest end of all." This is how rural women describe themselves in the South Africa of 2008.

That there can be such an uncoupling of outcomes between the vision of development practitioners and the reality on the ground, begs the question: Why, after 14 years of goal setting and programme development, are we still getting it so wrong?

Sizane Ngubane answers that there is no political will to solve the problems of rural women in South Africa. Ngubane is the director of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM), a movement of 50 000 women in South Africa, the majority of whom are poor landless rural women whose communities were forcibly evicted from their ancestral land by the apartheid system.

RWM works both with women in commercial farming areas such as Vryheid, Uitrecht and Colenso as well as those living on tribal land in the former homelands.

Ngubane tells the distressing story of a destitute woman she recently came across living in the greater Newcastle area who feeds clay, dug out from the ground, to her children because she simply has nothing else to offer them.

The wellbeing of rural women is inextricably tied to their dependence on land, which provides shelter and sustenance. Ngubane contends that a poor legislative framework, the propping up of traditional laws and patronage politics are failing South Africa’s rural women who are without both land and money.

In response to the South African government’s recent gift of 120 000 hectares of land to King Goodwill Zwelithini for his 60th birthday, Ngubane notes her disappointment with the South African government that has managed to find the necessary means to procure this piece of land for the king, but is unable to help the 50 000 women that belong to the RWM, nor the tens of thousands of others outside of the movement.

Unconvinced that the king's gift will make much difference to the lives of ordinary rural women, she asks, "How many local women are going to get access to that land?"

Ngubane contends that traditional laws maintain male dominance in our strongly patriarchal rural communities. She would rather see a stronger move towards realising the constitutional rights of women in rural South Africa because of their emphasis on gender equality. But the South African government's vague stance on enforcing our constitutional democracy in former homeland areas continues to undermine women's rights.

Similarly Ashley Westaway of the Border Rural Committee argues, "The South African government does not encourage participatory democracy in the rural areas; instead it upholds undemocratic forms of governance there, in the name of tradition."

If rural women are ever to be freed from socio-economic marginalisation, we will need "laws that bite", says Ngubane. She is extremely disappointed by the recent suspension of the Expropriation Bill of 2008, which she contends, is being shelved to placate elite group voters in the run up to the 2009 elections.

Land rights activists across the board believed that finally our government was doing some good when it introduced the Expropriation Bill, which sought to align land legislation to the constitution. With the introduction of this bill, no longer would the state have had to depend solely on the market to retrieve land from white farmers.

Land ownership disparities and statistics are well known: 96 percent of arable farming land is still in the hands of white farmers. The Land Claims Commission remains way off target to achieve its mandate of transferring 30 percent of commercial farming land to black beneficiaries by 2014. The sticky point being the "willing buyer-willing seller" principle that resulted in white farmers stubbornly demanding excessive prices for their farms and which eventually led to the government introducing the Expropriation Bill of 2008.

Not that the bill paved the way for Zimbabwean style land grabs. However, it did provide a framework for considering a wide range of factors to determine the value of land by introducing mechanisms to consider the historical antecedents to the development of white commercial farms – including factoring in whether or not the land on which the farms were built, was forcibly taken away from its original occupants.

The bill was largely opposed by organisations promoting the interests of commercial farmers and property developers. These are people who are oblivious to the fact that ravaged by HIV, unable to feed their children - and thanks to the legacy of apartheid, also robbed of the opportunity to develop to their full potential, rural women will never be able to compete on the open market for land.

Regardless, our government has put the development of South Africa's rural women in jeopardy by surrendering to the selfish demands of a minority elite group.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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