“When images of the world’s disasters flash across television screens,” wrote Jan Egeland (2005:1) in the foreword to Broken Bodies, Broken Dreams: Violence Against Women Exposed, “more often than not, we are presented with a rough sketch of the humanitarian crisis. Rarely do the cameras venture beneath the surface to look at the hidden impact of a humanitarian crisis on affected communities. If they did they would find that virtually without exception, it is women and children who are the most vulnerable.” So it is with the twin crises facing South Africa today: poverty, particularly due to lack of access to land and environmental degradation and gender based violence. The legacies of colonisation and apartheid, and in particular, land dispossession, were predicated on violence against indigenous communities, with the most serious impacts being on women. In the post-apartheid dispensation, mining, fracking, state enterprises like dam building, etc represent continuities of this herstorical violence.
Further, researchers and activists have often argued that the land distribution programme tends to ignore the needs of women, particularly those whose livelihoods is dependent on the land, and that when women are taken into consideration, the unequal gender norms that expose them to violence in their homes and communities are largely ignored. It is for this reason that indigenous knowledge systems across the globe are premised on the belief that “for indigenous communities…, the links between land and body create a powerful intersection – one that, when overlooked or discounted, can threaten their very existence” (Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network, n.d.:2). This means that any form of violence on the land (for example, through environmental degradation) or poor access to land is inextricably linked to violence on people’s bodies, particularly women’s bodies (through environmental racism, gender based violence and other forms of violence). How, for example, can we take seriously, and address the marginalisation of women in the land distribution programme in rural communities? How might we integrate the needs of women into research and interventions related to land and mining rights and extraction of minerals?
These and other questions were debated at the feminist dialogue organised by Agenda Feminist Media on 31st May 2017, held at Diakonia Centre, Durban. The dialogue brought together feminist academics, activists and practitioners to not only work towards understanding the intersections between lack of access to land/land degradation and gender based violence, but to also debate ameliorative strategies for social change. Speakers offered different perspectives on women’s relationship to land, sovereignty over their bodies and violence against women.
The first speaker, Nomboniso Gasa, researcher and analyst and writer on gender, political and cultural issues, discussed the relationship between violence on the land and violence through the land and how it affects women at large as the situating of the memory of disruption and dispossession in the present contestations around land in the post-apartheid era.
Gasa said that the understanding of customary law as it was incorporated by the government in the Traditional Courts bill which was shelved as a result of objections by rural women, speaks to both the violence through and on the land and violence against women. Violence, she believed, was informed by narratives from the past on land and her research on land and memory led her to understand that memory is mostly of violent dispossession. She said that what was lost was not quantifiable nor was it possible to pin down where dispossession began and ended. “There is a lot we do not talk about”, she said, citing as an example, the time prior to 1913 when the Native Land Act gave power to colonialists to disposses indigenous African people of the land which belonged to them. She said dispossession had taken place before then and after 1913. Gasa said identities were formed and lost, consequently there is contestation around land and identities. Her research in the Eastern Cape on land and dispossession showed memory as narratives of resistance and opposition to the apartheid homelands and stooge chiefs. She described the pain and horror of the massacre of POQO men who took up arms to resist. There were many widows who were left to fend for their families alone, as a result of the brutal system. The privileges given to chiefs under apartheid under so-called custom evoked the memory of violence on the land and women’s bodies. She noted that post-apartheid law on traditional authority governance has reproduced the previous Bantustan borders and these continue to leave scars on rural women: the rights to the land, resources and justice cannot be considered uncontested.
Gasa said that identities were imposed – Africans ‘did not exist’ under apartheid. This was important in retrieving memory and she continued, law has been premised on these distorted identities. It is incorrectly assumed that traditional leaders define and are therefore caretakers of customary law and custom. However she said it was rather vested in the people and practices at the household level. She said she believed that the idea of traditional courts as envisaged in law were not the answer and highly problematic. Mobile courts which were integrated into one system would be an effective answer and ensure customary law is integrated into common law so that it is possible for customary matters to be addressed.
Gasa said land holds power as memory and heritage. The abuse that was visited on people though land dispossession is reproduced in cycles and over generations of women. In conclusion, she stated she believed there is a need to move away from understanding the land through the law as the law is in itself violent.
The second speaker Sizani Ngubane, the founder of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM) said that the RWM grew out of the idea of the emancipation of women in the rural areas and this entails their ability to acquire land to ensure their security.
Ngubane stated in opening that she agreed that the law is experienced as violent by rural women. The Traditional Governance and Framework Act of 2003 included provision for 30% of women to be represented in traditional courts. She had questioned whether the quota was put into effect. Women had not been trained or empowered and therefore it needed to be questioned how women have participated in the courts and traditional councils. Her questions to traditional leader/s elicited the reply that women “were lazy” or “stupid” to explain their absence as councillors in the KwaDlangezwa Court in KwaZulu-Natal. She was told that as women’s physiognomy is different to men, they were inferior. These attitudes are due to gender insensitivity and patriarchy where women are portrayed as unequal and subordinated to men. She said she believed the women’s participation quota had not worked, it was not implemented or given weight as a legal right. She said that these attitudes were symptomatic of the wider neglect of women’s land rights.
The RWM had witnessed cases where a woman who went to the Traditional Court to resolve the problem of unwanted grazing on her land was told she needed to be represented by a male relative before her case would be heard. Women were thus denied locus standi/ the right to represent themselves in the court. Men who had the same problem were heard and were compensated by the court. In another example, she said that the RWM had witnessed women losing their legitimate right to inherit or own land, and they thus had faced eviction, through the collusion of the courts and traditional leaders. Ngubane continued that there have been situations where land which rightly belonged to women has been sold to developers or companies as a result of collusion by traditional leaders and courts. She said that the RWM believed that traditional leaders and courts need to be held accountable for their actions.
Ngubane said that In KwaZulu-Natal the courts practise injustice to women by making the male relative rule a requirement. The practice is illegal and is reminiscent of apartheid where African women were treated as ‘perpetual minors’ in Natal. Since 1998 the RWM has struggled to prevent and stop the eviction of women from the land and to assert the equal right to inheritance in the law. Women have been evicted from the their land without legitimate grounds by traditional courts.
She said that RWM has seen women denied land due to land transfer corruption in the process of land redistribution. There is a need for society to rectify discrimination on the rights to land which women experience as well as customs that perpetuate violence against girls and women. Ukuthwala (bride seizure) and Unkungena (a custom that is practised when a man dies without a male heir. The widow is then required to marry a male relative of her late husband, forcing her into unwanted marriage) are two customs which are a serious concern and result in women and girls being coerced and raped. Very little if nothing is done to protect girls and women, she said, and the RWM has tried to defend women against sexual violation.
Ngubane concluded by saying that it is well established that rural women in Africa are the major food producers and their access to the land is critical for family and community food security.
Maureen Tong, the third speaker, said that her background was in human rights law.. She said her experience made her concur with the previous speakers that the law is violent to women. However, she believed the law is also an enabler for women. Tong said that as we have a constitutional democracy in South Africa, courts have the power to ensure the constitutional rights of women are upheld. However, she emphasised that the history of land dispossession was very violent: as a society we have not been able to move away from the history of violence.
Tong said that post-1994 targets for land repossession have not been reached and only 10% of the land has been has been repossessed. Specifically on gender, women form only 5% of beneficiaries. As a result gender inequality and violence is being perpetuated, she said. Tong, continued that she believed that to correct this imbalance it is unrealistic to assume that the willing buyer, willing seller system is an appropriate way to redistribute land given the poverty of the dispossessed. Further, she said she did not believe that customary law in South Africa was either ‘customary’ or ‘law’. Custom was dynamic and fluid and responsive to people’s needs. The role of traditional leaders in deciding rights and roles in land access and management have greater effect on women than men.
She added that the Labour Tenants Act 1996 and the Extension of Security of Tenure Act, 1997 were examples of laws that had set out to defend the rights of vulnerable groups but had not succeeded. Law designed to protect land tenants’ rights against eviction had resulted in many more farm workers being evicted than should have been the case. The protection of farm workers’ rights had proved to be more difficult, in spite of the law.
Women’s participation in decisions around the land are very important but have been peripheralised, Tong said. As result of the household division of labour women carry responsibility for care of families, household energy and food needs. Their participation in decision-making forums was constrained by the time spent on the reproductive labour that they perform to meet their survival needs. Rural women were often not aware of their rights in the land claims process and many believed they could not submit claims or forms, or that this was the role of the male relative. As a result of women’s lack of information the Land Claims Court heard a complaint and made a formal ruling that women could submit land claim forms. She said that women’s participation in the process of land restitution has been peripherised. The process could have prioritised their interests as women, recognising their dispossession and rights as beneficiaries.
Tong said she believed that the land restitution process had therefore perpetuated gender discrimination. There was a need for court judgments to be acted upon so that women were well enough informed to exercise their equal rights in land claims and land restitution.
Samantha Hargreaves and Nicky LeRoux representing WoMin African Gender and Extractives Alliance, an organisation which is building alliances in several countries to organise women against destructive resource extraction, were the last speakers of the dialogue.
Samantha Hargreaves said WoMiN was launched in 2013 in recognition of the scale of violence and exploitation resulting from mining and extractive industries and its impacts on women and communities. She said the role of mining in dispossession is historically documented and involved the collusion of homeland and traditional leaders with mining capital in forcing black men into a deeply exploitative migrant labour system. Mining laws in South Africa have been centred around men. They do not consider the rights of women miners, even though women have been working underground for several years. She said it was problematic that women’s vulnerability to gender-specific exploitation in mining is overlooked.
Hargreaves said that WoMiN holds an ecofeminist perspective on how women’s bodies and communities are impacted when the core economic activity is linked to fuel/minerals/mining or destructive resource extraction. She continued that it is a sector which has exercised considerable power around social relations and control of resources: in the extractavist economic model how societies are structured is unequal and deeply violent. She said that WoMiN opposes this model and identifies four forms of violence.
One, the damage to the eco-system resulting from extractavist industries cannot be mitigated. Two, it is contingent on a deeply racialised system of labour exploitation, as witnessed in the Marikana miners tragedy where violence against mineworkers by the mining company was supported by the state. Third, it has led to widespread displacement from the land. Traditional leaders/traditional councils exert hierarchical power in which rights to the land are not recognised, resulting in violence and dispossession. Fourth, there is violence to the planet as evidenced in coal mining communities in KwaZulu-Natal where river systems have dried up as result of mining and poor rural families have to buy water. Rights to water are involved, and directly impact women’s burden of household labour. Women’s lives are impacted as they are responsible for caring for the sick and meeting household daily survival needs. WoMiN sees women’s higher burden of unpaid labour as one which must be counted in the damage done by mining industries. Women in the communities have tried to engage with community leaders such as councillors and traditional leaders (indunas) over access to water but have met resistance along the way. Some of the indunas do not take women’s demands seriously and see the women’s organisations as a ‘challenge’ to authority. Consequently, there is a need for women to raise their voices and use their collective power to push the government, local leadership and corporate interests to listen.
Hargreaves said that the militarisation and securitisation of extractive industries, evidenced by the deployment of force against miners and communities, impacts on women in many ways. Women experience violence, precarity and vulnerability. It is important that women in mining communities are heard. She said that in Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa military force has been used to keep mines operating, with reports of many women violated and raped in the terrorisation of communities who resist.
Nicky Le Roux spoke about the WoMin African Gender and Extractive Alliance programmes. She said that women on the fringes of mines lived precariously and were often displaced. Forced marriage and abduction/trafficking as well as rape are among the problems reported to WoMiN. WoMiN is working to build the capacity of organisations to address the situation through building alliances and networks. She emphasised that interventions have to be women-led and centred. A human rights perspective is necessary, but absent, in holding governments accountable.
Le Roux said that research on mining/extractivism and the impact on women and the forms of violence that accompany such industries are needed. WoMiN proposes an alternative development paradigm as it does not see reform or mitigation of the damage that is done by extractive industries as possible from an ecofeminist perspective. In conclusion, she said that there is a need to build the solidarity networks and alliances among women in Africa and unite against destructive resource extraction.
During the discussion, speakers said there was collusion between traditional leaders and churches and that land owned by the church should be an area of study. Gasa said that inheritance and its application as a Roman-Dutch law concept made it a difficult and complicated issue, especially for African families. Families fight over wills – land becomes a proxy for something: power and domination. She also said we need to think differently, beyond s25 of the Constitution around the land question. Land is owned by people in very few countries: other ways of creating land access exist. She said that for her the security around land ownership in the suburbs was “most oppressive” where entry to gated communities requires documents much like the old ‘dompas’ of the apartheid era.
Gasa mentioned the need to create a platform for activists to deal with traditional leaders. She said that the Communal Land Rights (CLARA) Act 11 of 2004, intended to regulate control of occupation, use and administration of communal land, and which had been contested, is making a return through the Communal Land Tenure Bill. She believed that traditional leaders want to use the bill to ensure responsibility for communal land is given over to traditional councils.
Hargreaves said the extractivist industry represented an exploitative system which was about profits for corporates and a small elite. The violence of the system to communities in lost resource wealth, social and environmental degradation and entrenchment of gender inequality, could not be improved through regulation: it had to be stopped. African feminists concerned with violence against women have a responsibility to defend the right to land and body sovereignty and support women impacted by extractivist industries, WoMIN recognised that engaging governments and human rights organisations to work with the alliance to stop the violence that is taking place was a necessary part of the process.
Egeland J (2005) Broken Bodies, Broken Dreams: Violence Against Women Exposed, New York: OCHA/IRIN.
Women’s Earth Alliance and Native Youth Sexual Health Network (n.d.) Violence on the Land , Violence on our Bodies: Building an Indigenous Response to Environmental Violence, available at: http://landbodydefense.org/uploads/files/VLVBReportToolkit2016.pdf, site accessed 30 July 2017.