Access to Land - Women's Struggle in South Africa's Former Bantustans

By Mann, Michelle | The World and I, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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Access to Land - Women's Struggle in South Africa's Former Bantustans


Mann, Michelle, The World and I


Black women constitute the poorest socioeconomic sector of South Africa's population. Most are unemployed and live in impoverished rural areas. In fact, rural women are disadvantaged even when compared with men of the same race and class. In particular this is true with regard to rights and access to land and to the control women are able to exercise over it.

Land is a productive resource and means of survival. Although women make up the majority of the rural population, they manage only a small proportion of rural land. They face major obstacles with respect to legitimate access to this resource, and any access they have is insecure. Women also have fewer decisionmaking powers, from the home to the nation's government. In rural South African communities, land is a means of access to community leadership and political power. Thus, women's exclusion from independent control over land has contributed to their political disenfranchisement at the local level.

But in the new South Africa's former Bantustans, or homelands, rural women are actively working to transform their status. One focus of their struggle is the conflict between the demands of gender equality and the entrenched practices of traditional leadership and customary law. Through sharing their stories, and with the assistance of certain nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, many rural women have identified an essential need to lobby for equal rights to land access and the structures of government.

To understand the problem, one should consider the nation's recent political background.

Until the 1990s, it was the apartheid government's policy that black people should not own land. This was done primarily to free up valuable properties for white occupation. The Bantustans were the result of programs, instituted from 1913 onward, that dispossessed black South Africans of land ownership. Ultimately, under this policy, all black people were eventually to be displaced and relocated to these artificially created "ethnic homelands."

In 1994, the first truly democratic elections were held in South Africa. In an attempt to remedy the legacy left by apartheid, the new government declared its intention to make land reform a priority. The focus of the tenure reform program is the strengthening of individual and community land rights in the former Bantustans. On October 11, 1996, the final constitution was adopted, as amended, by the Constitutional Assembly. It enshrined the principle of gender equality as well as the practices of customary law and traditional leadership.

During negotiations for the interim constitution, however, traditional leaders challenged the emphasis on equality. Their chief negotiator repeatedly insisted that women were not the equals of men. The resulting constitution consequently left many issues of consequence to rural women largely unresolved.

Traditional leadership and customary law

Traditional African communities are patriarchal in nature, and women have been considered to be minors. This status is still reflected in customary law. With no laws providing for women's independent access to land, a woman's opportunities will depend on whether she can persuade the traditional authorities of her need. Given the power of chiefs, who are invariably men, women encounter obstacles in inheriting--or obtaining--land.

Under apartheid, hereditary traditional leaders and their councils in the former Bantustan communities were responsible for allocating land held in trust by the state. This concentration of power led to the marginalization of women and many allegations of despotism. In postapartheid South Africa, the reincorporation of the former Bantustans has highlighted the conflicts between concerns for gender equality and the practices of traditional leadership and customary law. Land tenure reform is also often viewed as directly threatening the power of traditional authorities.

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