Many rural black women feel "betrayed" by traditional leaders. The "oppressive hand of patriarchy" has "stamped out" their land rights. Traditional leaders hamper rather than protect them and their rights. They remain at the receiving end of "brutality brought on by landlessness". Even where traditional leaders are women, the struggle of landless rural women "continues unabated".
These are among the main points to emerge from a "roundtable discussion" held earlier this year by the Presidential Advisory Panel on Land Reform and Agriculture. The panel says in its Final Report, which was recently published, that the roundtable was designed to solicit the views of rural women about their "plight".
Discussing customary land tenure, the report notes that it is largely unwritten, and does not enjoy recognition in law or by money-lending institutions. "This type of tenure affords very limited rights, particularly to women, and is open to abuse and corrupt activity by some chiefs, who are the customary custodians of the land."
"Rights to control and use land are central to the lives of rural women, whose lives and livelihoods are derived from the land and its natural resources," records the panel. Yet it notes that their access to land is dependent on males, while their status is that of minors. It is within this oppressive framework that rural women are "economically incapacitated".
Adds the report: "The lack of land rights for women and girls threatens their living conditions, their economic empowerment, their physical well-being, and their struggle for equality." Rural women are workers of the land, not owners. This notwithstanding the fact that "women in South Africa's rural societies are responsible for the majority of the agricultural food production".
Traditional leaders, however, are reported by the panel to be strongly opposed to "land titling" for individuals. Such titling "can only lead to further vulnerability of individuals and communities instead of providing them with tenure and economic security". Land in a rural setting is an "indivisible and inalienable sacred heritage" to be passed on from one generation to the next. Titling would threaten this by enabling individuals to borrow against land, which they could lose if they could not service their loans. The "people's inheritance should be protected from negative external forces such as loan sharks and financial institutions."
Traditional chiefs dismissed as a "side issue" the view that the path to rural tenure security was title deeds. The focus instead should be on the provision of additional land, they argued.
Accordingly, the panel "warns against private titling of communal land". Instead, legislation should be enacted to enable residents of communal areas and others who hold property "off register" to record and register it. A "protection of informal land rights bill" should also be enacted to provide "permanent statutory protection" for customary land rights as real property rights, whether registered or not.
The panel also said that there was a need to champion a formula which ensured that communal land tenure rights were "not subservient to private property rights". Instead of working within the framework of "oppressive" Roman Dutch Law, "Western-imposed" ideas, and the "language of apartheid and colonialism", there was now an opportunity to advance "Afrocentric solutions".
The panel also says that communities should not have to reconcile themselves to the "financial requirements and dictates of banks, which place them in a precarious position". Rather, "it is incumbent on financial institutions to modify and transform their financial instruments and measures in accordance with the needs of rural communities and to take cognizance of the workings of the communal system that has stood the test of time".
As has been widely reported, the panel also recommended the review or repeal of the Ingonyama Trust Act, which "has perpetuated the existence of KwaZulu-Natal as a homeland". The trust had unilaterally assumed the role of a landowner, and was converting "permission-to-occupy" certificates into leases. One result was that rural people faced eviction from the land if they failed to pay escalating rentals. The Zulu monarch has vowed to resist attempts to terminate the trust.
It is odd that the panel is willing to confront the Zulu monarch on this issue, while simultaneously kowtowing to traditional leaders in rejecting the grant of full land ownership rights to rural women whose "plight" it has so graphically described.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.