For the mass of people the worst effects of the removal of the right to own and work on the land was the destruction of families and communities which we still confront today 100 years after the 1913 Land Act, said Susan Nkomo at the Agenda Feminist Dialogue on ‘Women and Land’ held on 30th August at Diakonia Centre, Durban.

Nkomo, researcher and consultant, speaking about the effects of the Land Act on women said that the fate of the majority of dispossessed women is not known. Many disappeared, with nowhere to go, most often destitute as they had no longer had rights to work on the land on which they had supported themselves productively before. She said that most narratives of the time by writers, for example Sol Plaatje who collected stories about the hardships that resulted for African people, highlighted men. Nkomo said that women were vulnerable to the violence of the land owners who forced them off the land and to the police when they resisted. The resistance of the women of Bloemfontein against the carrying of pass laws in 1913 must also be remembered. Women filled up the prison cells in defiance against a law targeting women that would enable police to search them at any time, and prevent them from being in the urban areas, further breaking apart their families.

Sizani Ngubane, chairperson of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM), speaking on the subject of the Traditional Courts Bill and its effects on rural women and access to land, said that the effects of the 1913 Land Act left deep long-term effects on the lives of African women. Fifty percent of the RWM’s members are illiterate, many started working on white-owned farms as young as six years-old and had never received formal education. She said that there was no remedy in law – neither customary nor formal law which could mend the problems of women and land rights that are created by the Traditional Courts Bill. Many rural women live on land that is administered by 300 chiefs in KwaZulu-Natal province. In terms of the Bill chiefs will be granted questionable power in the Traditional Courts which they will exercise without having to be accountable to Magistrates. Ngubane said that there are many women who have been given land in the land restitution process who have had their land rights removed without explanation by chiefs. In terms of the Bill women will not be allowed to question these decisions in their own right in the Traditional Courts as they would have to be represented by a male relative. She said of the 80% of the land appropriated in 1913 only only 4% has been redistributed in the land redistribution process so far. The mass of African people are still squeezed on to a small portion of the land, much of which is not arable and very little of this is allocated to African women.

Joyce Chitja, University of KwaZulu-Natal, speaking about food security and women’s struggle for sustainable rural livelihoods, said that the problem of the brokenness of families and communities and their lives and livelihoods were one of the more intractable problems that had to be overcome when talking about trying to build sustainable rural livelihoods 100 years after the Land Act. She said that women contribute to 80% of agricultural labour but own less than 1% of land in Africa and that most rural women live in poverty. The importance of women in subsistence farming is often not noted because it does not contribute much to the Gross Domestic Product but its importance in contributing to household food security is gaining attention in rural poverty alleviation programmes. She said the attempts to extend women small scale farmers’ access to land, rural extension programmes and to markets will build income earning capacity of women small scale farmers and reduce their vulnerability to poverty.

The final speaker Wallace Mgoqi, Commission of Gender Equality (CGE) Commissioner, outlined the rational behind the One Woman, One Hectare of Land Campaign as a lobbying initiative to promote gender equity. It’s objective is to persuade the State to grant “by law, access to, control over and ownership of land to women”, especially in rural areas. The CGE aims to promote the Campaign and to win the support of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) as well as stakeholders in the private and public sector. Mgoqi said the Campaign has been supported by the Ministry of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, but not yet the Department of Land Affairs. The Campaign aims to build the economic, social and political participation of women and rectify the skewed allocation of land resources to poor women.

The Feminist Dialogue concluded with the launch of the latest issue of Agenda ‘Love: Gender, power and sexuality’ guest edited by Deevia Bhana. Thabo Msibi and Ronicka Mudaly, both contributors to this edition of Agenda, discussed their research on this theme. Love as a concept has been much neglected in research in Africa in the emphasis on surveillance and monitoring, overshadowing the centrality of the affective in people’s lives and in achieving gender equality.

A full report on the Feminist Dialogue will published in Agenda and posted on the Agenda website.