Agenda’s 5th Feminist Dialogue, held on 30 August 2013 at Diakonia Centre, Durban, addressed the implications of land dispossession on women and families and some of the long-term consequences of the 1913 Native Land Act. Through this unjust colonial law, Africans were allocated 7% of land in reserves. In effect, buying or selling land across the colour line or outside the native reserves was made illegal. Land ownership was based on segregation and it became an offence for Africans to work or live on land outside the reserves. Hundreds of thousands of small scale farmers and tenant farmers who had worked on the land, now found it illegal to do so and were forced to become farm workers on white-owned land. One of the main effects of the Act was that Africans now became wanderers and indigents, driven off 93% of the land. A significant effect of the impoverishment of the rural peasantry was that men were forced into the migrant labour system as wage labourers in a process that led to social fragmentation, laying the foundation for deep economic, social and political inequalities and poverty. Without doubt the Land Act of 1913 was one of the most significant acts to remove rights from the African majority by the white settler government. African women and children carried the social and economic burden of racial capitalism as they struggled to maintain homesteads and feed their families in the so-called reserves.


Agenda chair, Janine Hicks, said that as we observe 100 years since the passing of the law it was important for feminists to critically reflect on its social and economic implications and how the effects of landlessness continue to be felt today in women’s skewed access to land and their struggles to build sustainable rural livelihoods. Women’s right to equal access to land – as a critically important resource – and a fundamental right, while contained in law and policy is often not enforced or ignored and the Feminist Dialogue’s intention was to focus on gender equity, women and land.


Hicks said that Agenda Feminist Media (AFM), as the longest standing women’s publishing initiative in South Africa, provided a means for critical thinking and a platform to speak about issues of shared importance to women in advancing gender equality. Agenda’s flagship product is the publication of the Agenda journal. AFM aims to combine feminist dialogue with gender policy activism, and produces podcasts for community media to reach larger audiences on issues that affect them. Agenda will be publishing its 100th issue next year.


The programme of the Feminist Dialogue included both the gender impact of the 1913 Land Act on women as well as the current implications of the law as a major issue of concern that had affected the lives of the majority of South Africans. In the first session, chaired by Lee Stone (Agenda Board member), presentations were made by Susan Nkomo on the aftermath and legacy of the 1913 Land Act for African women, Sizani Ngubane (Rural Women’s Movement) on the Traditional Courts Bill and rural women’s access to land, Joyce Chitja (University of KwaZulu-Natal) on food security and rural women’s sustainable livelihoods and Wallace Mgoqi, Commissioner for the Commission of Gender Equality (CGE)  on the CGE’s campaign One women, One Hectare of Land. The programme concluded with the launch of the latest issue of Agenda, ‘Love: gender, sexuality and power’ guest edited by Deevia Bhana, which was chaired by Asha Moodley (Agenda Board and Editorial collective member).



1913 Land Act: Dispossession and breakdown of family life

Susan Nkomo, introducing herself to those present, said that in reflection on women’s land dispossession in 1913, she noted how the celebration of Women’s Month is about remembering black women’s past struggles for rights as a discourse of pain and oppression.  She said it was important how we remember in order that Women’s Month events do not become a meaningless ritual. South Africans, she continued, have selective memories when it comes to the stories of women’s  resistance to colonial oppression and their contributions to the struggle and while the core narrative of Women’s Month is women’s resistance to passes in 1956, this in itself has become a platform for those in power to speak. The majority of women still have paper rights and women’s current struggle for legitimacy and rights is often trivialised. Turning to the present, she said that while many people view proportional representation as allowing more women to be in government structures, she believed that this leadership can become disconnected from vulnerable constituencies of women, as women in power do not have to be accountable to women when their guarantee of leadership very often rests on a man appointing them or political patronage.

Nkomo said her research on the effects on women of the Land Act had forced her to see this not just as a question of the Land Affairs Department giving land back to those who have been dispossessed. The past revealed a horrific landscape in which the law effectively decimated families, and  separated women from their husbands and husbands from children and wives. She said it is often forgotten that women were forced to carry passes in 1913 as part of an attempt to enforce the regulation of the movement of African women in urban areas. The organisation of collective resistance by the women of Bloemfontein against the imposition of a law that forced them to carry passes must be remembered alongside the later resistance by the ANC Women’s League in 1956, commemorated as Women’s Day. When the women protested in 1913 they were arrested and jailed for protesting and their hands were bound and they were dragged by police on horseback in the main street. Their resistance was against a further erosion of their family life and the entrenchment of another unjust law- what was later to become influx control under apartheid. Women had to confront dispossession inherent in the Land Act and they refused in 1913 to succumb to a law where they would be searched at any time by police and put in jail for not having a pass.


The Land Act, in expelling people from the land was one of the means to force Africans to become exploited migrant labourers, destroying family life. The husband would leave the household and migrate to the urban areas to find work in order to provide for his family. In his absence, a woman had to maintain the family and assume the role of both mother and father to her children.
Talking about the writer Sol Plaatje’s writings, particularly Native Life in South Africa which strongly denounced and publicly lamented the injustices that arose out the 1913 Land Act for Africans, she said he had mostly focused on the impact of the law on the lives of men. The exception was a woman named Maria. A widow without a surname, she had 3 young children. After her husband died she had carried on working on the land and supported herself and her family. So when the farmer told Maria that because of the new law he now owned everything she had, she was forced to take her children and her livestock and like many others disappeared into a bleak world where many women would face destitution. Nkomo said that the search for women like Maria described by Plaatje is a powerful metaphor for what happened to the African women who  were turned into indigents facing destitution and homelessness, as women often had nowhere to go, separated from their loved ones. As Plaatje wrote, many were never heard of again. In conclusion, Nkomo said we need to remember the stories of courage so that we can learn from them and understand the present disconnection from the history of African women’s rightlessness under colonialism and apartheid and how this often relates to the current post-apartheid demands by women for rights.


Rural women and the Traditional Courts Bill  

Sizani Ngubane, chair of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM), an organisation working for the land rights of rural women, said that the legacy of the Land Act and other related colonial and apartheid laws and policies have left women’s rights to land in rural areas precarious, placing women in difficult situations where no solutions exist in law or practice. Rural women live on land that is ruled by traditional authorities – so land ownership and its allocation is a complex issue, complicated even further by the role of chiefs, some of whom claim complete control over the land, without considering the Constitution that protects women’s rights to equality.


The first attempt to give effect to the unfettered powers of traditional leaders over land was in the provisions of the Communal Land Rights Act, No 11 of 2004, (CLRA) which was struck down by the Constitutional Court on May 10, 2010. Rather than rectifying the power imbalance that typifies control of communally held land by traditional leaders, the law gave leeway to chiefs to act as a law unto themselves. Ngubane said that despite assurance to the Court by the Minister that new, constitutionally sound, legislation would soon replace the CLRA, there has been no progress in this regard to date. With an absence of law to govern the matter, access to land in rural areas depends on unmediated local power relations. Single women, particularly those without male family members, are accorded little or no legal status by most traditional leaders and structures.


An example is the case of a single woman, who has struggled for decades to gain access to land left to her by her father in a will. Her right to inherit land has been denied by her half-brother and the local chief who act in collusion because they ‘do not understand’ why her father would leave land to a woman when he has a son. Once a fertile sugarcane farm, her land has reportedly been rented to people who have built an informal settlement on it. Meanwhile, she lives alone in Krugersdorp, where she is unable to work due to the car accident that she suffered and she depends on the charity of others. She has no mechanism in law to access the land.


Traditional leaders exercise their authority without care for the wellbeing of women, said Ngubane. An 85-year-old widow and member of RWM is unable to enforce her rights against her neighbours who drive their cattle on to her land to graze. The land around her home was once a productive garden that fed her and at times made her income to support herself and her family. She took the matter to the traditional council in the area of the cattle-owner. Her complaint was not heard because she is a woman even though she brought a member of the local traditional council from her area with her to the council. Receiving inadequate representation, she was awarded no compensation and the cattle continue to graze on her land.


She said that the Traditional Courts Bill has been widely opposed by rural women because it takes away rural women’s basic human rights. One such right is to represent yourself in a traditional court hearing. Ngubane said the law proposes that if one is a woman, one may not represent oneself in the court or witness box; a male relative must represent a woman. Rural women opposed to the Bill see this as being is in conflict with the human rights granted in the Constitution that has been fought for.


She said that further abuses have been raised on the issue of obligatory payments that need to be made to some chiefs when one has a dispute, or a customary practice is conducted, or even when a crime takes place. For example, widows performing a cleansing ritual are required by some chiefs to pay for this or can be fined. Ngubane said 60% of all appointed members of the traditional council will be made up of those chosen by chiefs while the 40% must be elected by the community, and 30% of these must be women. However the representation of women does not prevent the abuse of power from taking place. She said that in the end very little land had been redistributed by the government (less than 7%): the majority of African people are still squeezed onto a tiny portion of the land and among those few who have benefitted, a mere handful are women.



Gendered rural livelihoods and food security

Joyce Chitja, a researcher on food security and women’s sustainable livelihoods at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, said that 70% of the world’s poor are women and in South Africa, recognised as one of the world’s most unequal societies; the majority of the poor earn a living in the “second economy” and experience  high levels of poverty. She said that it was important to recognise that men and women experience vulnerability to poverty in gender-specific ways.

In South Africa, subsistence agriculture is important for the very poor, and women engage in small-scale farming for extra food. Access to productive resources remains very weak for the rural women whose livelihoods are supported by agriculture.

While women may produce up to 45%-80 % of food, they own 1% of land. Achieving household food security, or being able to feed one’s family, is what often motivates women as heads of household, particularly as men are migrant workers, absent for long periods of time. For women, security of property rights has remained illusory since the land dispossession of 1913. Echoing Susan Nkomo, Chitja said the dispossession of 1913 was more than just a taking the land; it was the cause of the disintegration of community and family life.

Chitja said that the Traditional Courts Bill in its current form has the potential to further weaken women’s individual access to land and creates a dividing line between women citizens who can enjoy democratic access to courts in urban areas and those who are prohibited from enjoying the same simply because they find themselves in a rural setting where different laws apply under traditional authorities.

Talking about rural women’s specific gender vulnerabilities, she said that women work more hours in a day compared to men because of the gender division of labour where they are responsible for water and energy needs as well as taking care of their young and the sick. Although up to 80% of their work consists of agricultural labour, due to time poverty there is evidence that certain household roles have to go unmet and this may lead to women being vulnerable to their husband’s wrath through physical abuse. Many women have to perform work carrying their babies on their backs because the law does not extend maternity benefits to them under current law.

Chitja said that communal laws on the land affected men and women differently because of the lower status of women and inheritance law/practices also perpetuate discrimination against women. Current laws have not rectified the large scale dispossession and tragic social dislocation that resulted from the 1913 Land Act. She said economic development programmes in rural areas should aim to strengthen rural women’s access to resources, markets and skills, and target the household and household food security more strongly. Women’s rural livelihoods need to be sustainable and their role in food production is often undervalued, even though in many cases they are either the head of household or an important contributor to the household’s food security.


One Woman, One Hectare of Land campaign

One Woman, One Hectare of Land is an initiative of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) that aims at empowering rural women, CGE Commissioner Wallace Mgoqi said in introducing the Campaign. He said that land access is not just about ownership and many land rights may be held by different people in a parcel of land and together they make up a complex bundle of rights, similar to a bundle of sticks.


Mgoqi said that many countries do have legislation or constitutions that recognise the equal rights of both men and women, including the equal right to land. The formal rules, however, are not always observed in practice. Research done by the CGE over a 10-year period since 2000, as well as similar research done in Zimbabwe over the same period, revealed that women in land reform in both countries count for no more than 13% and 12% respectively among beneficiaries.


Despite legislated equal rights, groups such as rural women who experience greater poverty demographically, are still at a disadvantage in defending their rights. Lack of awareness, capacity or will to implement and enforce the formal laws and policies at different levels, especially for those who have no financial resources or in the case where local customs conflict with the legislation, limit  rural women’s rights.

Changes in the ways in which people gain access to land may thus change the power structure within a family, within a community, and within a nation. Currently, the promotion of gender equity may be in direct contrast with the “traditional way of doing things”. Mgoqi says without changes in the attitudes of much of the population, unconstitutional traditional practices are likely to continue regardless of the formulation of new policies or the enactment of new legislation. Advocacy for more equitable land rights is important in any effort to transform institutions and practices relating to access to land. An increasing number of households are now headed by women due to migratory labour, divorce, illness, desertion, war, and violent conflicts.

Traditional land tenure systems do not recognise women’s rights or women may not be able to afford to pay for the legal options to resolve disputes. Unjust and outdated inheritance rules also prevent women from building the resources to take advantage of opportunities.

Mgoqi argued that gender equity in rights to land can increase women’s power in social, economic and political relationships. Providing secure rights to land has the potential to increase their social and political status, and improve their sense of self-esteem, confidence, security and dignity. Land rights often lead to other benefits in society including participation in community decision-making, elections, and other socio-economic activities. Without gender equity in land, 50% or more of rural stakeholders may not have an effective voice or interest in national or community governance, and may be excluded from development projects. Improving the situation of women as well as men is necessary for sustainable rural development.

Almost all countries in the world, including South Africa, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Convention states that rural women should have the right: “to have access to agricultural credit and loans, marketing facilities, appropriate technology and equal treatment in land and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes.” The Campaign should therefore be supported by government and civil society organisations, Mgoqi said.

Some of the characteristics of women’s rights to land are that these rights are often not formally documented but are informal. Further, they do not have equal access to credit or facilities as they may have no property or assets as collateral. Care must therefore be taken to ensure that their rights are not misinterpreted, forgotten, or erased in development projects. Food production is difficult when those who take responsibility for growing food have limited rights over their land use. In some households, the rights of women to access and control resources may not be recognised, even though it is women who provide food for their dependants.

Today, many farm operations require external financing and access to credit is a potential benefit of formalising land rights. If women’s rights are not formally recognised, women must continue to depend on having access to credit through male family members. Even if women are the primary land users, they may not be able to use their land to the greatest benefit.

Mgoqi drew on the example Operation Mwolyo Out (OMO), meaning ‘relief out’. The Kenyan project aims to replace dependency on government welfare and seeks to mobilise the community around agricultural development of the land to achieve sustainable yields and wealth creation. Mgoqi concluded that such initiatives could be successful in South Africa. He also said that the Ministry for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities has supported the Campaign, and he encouraged organisations and other government departments, particularly the Department of Land Affairs, to support it. Ultimately the CGE’s vision is for it to lead to tangible action towards the achievement of gender equity in land access.




The discussion focused on the status and the whereabouts of the Traditional Courts Bill in the Parliamentary process, following the widespread opposition  that has been formally registered by rural women to the Bill. Sizani Ngubane said that the RWM first became involved with the Bill in 1998 when the South African Law Reform Commission conducted research on the roles and functions of traditional leaders in a new democratic South Africa. In answering the question of the of the Bill’s whereabouts, Ngubane said the RWM does not know where it is in the Parliamentary process. In April 2013, the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) provincial government conducted public education held in five towns. The national public hearings were held in May and RWM participated effectively. Ngubane said that the people at the hearings said that the Bill must be scrapped. The government has started a process for the Bill to be redrafted. In September 2012 the government said they need another round of public hearings in Parliament. “We expected Parliament to look at what the provinces said about the Bill” but instead the chairperson silenced the parliamentarians and prevented them from addressing the issue of the public hearings. She said that she was concerned that the government might pass the Bill while attention is on next year’s election.


Janine Hicks said that the CGE rejected the Bill and have made submissions at Parliament and in the Provincial Legislature to this effect. The CGE is monitoring the provinces as it seemed that Parliament is not following procedure. There were public hearings but Parliament did not allow the provinces to vote because there would have been an overwhelming rejection, and it stopped there. Hicks added that they keep hearing that the KZN Legislature is going to have a workshop and it is not clear where this new process is going. Should the Bill be passed, the CGE is part of a broader set of stakeholders who will mount a constitutional challenge because that is the only way to stop it. The Bill is flawed and it should be scrapped.


Lee Stone, chair of the session, thanked the presenters for the informative and insightful presentations on a subject of critical importance for women to engage with considering women’s unequal access to power and resources and the need for women to be positioned more strongly within sustainable development processes targeting their needs.


Launch of Agenda #96 ‘Love: Gender, power and sexuality’ 

The latest issue of the journal ‘Love: gender, sexuality and power’ was launched at the Feminist Dialogue. A discussion on its contents was chaired by Asha Moodley. Two of the contributors to the issue, Thabo Msibi, author of the article ‘Denied love: same-sex desire, agency and social oppression among African men who engage in same-sex relations’ and Ronicka Mudaly, author of ‘The power of love: young South Africans: Reconceptualising love and sexual relationships’ spoke to their research. The discussion highlighted the absence of love as an important affective meaning that has been sorely neglected in much gender research on Africa and the lives of Africans.



Plaatje Sol T (1916) Native Life in South Africa: Before and Since the European War and the Boer Rebellion (republished 1981), Johannesburg: Ravan.


Report compiled by Anathi Teyise

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap