The forced eviction of Isabel Mngadi embodies rural women struggling to own or access land.

Mngadi, 63, was forced to flee her family’s 13ha farm in Ndwedwe, about 60km north of Durban, a few years ago after allegedly receiving death threats from a relative. She claims that after her mother died in 2011 she began receiving threatening SMSes from her nephew telling her to leave the homestead or face the consequences.

"I tried to go to the local chief but he said he could not help me because this was a family issue and we must sort it as a family," Mngadi says. "I fled when the threats increased. Since then my nephew has been renting out the homestead. He has sold about four plots on the land to people who have built homes."

Most land in SA’s rural areas is administered under customary law by chiefs and other traditional leaders.

In KwaZulu-Natal most rural land is administered by the Ingonyama Trust, a schedule 3A public entity reporting to the minister of rural development & land reform as an executive authority. It derives its mandate from the KwaZulu-Natal Ingonyama Trust Act of 1994 and was established as a special vehicle to "protect" about 28,000km² of land — about 13% of the land in KwaZulu-Natal.

MARGINALISATION OF WOMEN WILL ONLY END IF THE STATE GRANTS EQUAL ACCESS TO LAND TO MEN AND WOMEN

Rural Women’s Movement founder Sizani Ngubane says her organisation is fighting the cases of thousands of women who have been evicted from their homes following the deaths of their husbands.

Others are denied access to land under traditional leadership because of their gender. Ngubane says women are compelled to take their sons or fathers as their representatives when they go to talk to chiefs about land. In traditional courts, widows are not allowed to represent themselves when discussing land they occupied for decades.

"We won some of these cases and women were given their land back. But it is a hard battle. In rural areas, especially those under amakhosi [traditional leaders], women are often suffering from double jeopardy. They suffer as black people, they are discriminated against by customary law and they cannot fight for their land rights. The debate on land reform and land expropriation without compensation does not take account of the experiences and views of women."

Ngubane says women living on land administered by the Ingonyama Trust are "worst off". Her organisation is representing more than 400 women who were hounded off the trust’s land after their husbands died. Unmarried women are also chased off by relatives after their parents die, she claims. Ngubane says she believes marginalisation of the women will only end if the government grants equal access to land to men and women.

Women are discriminated against by customary law and cannot fight for their land rights. Women living on land administered by the Ingonyama Trust are "worst off", with many hounded off the trust’s land after their husbands die. Picture: Tebogo Letsie /The Times
Women are discriminated against by customary law and cannot fight for their land rights. Women living on land administered by the Ingonyama Trust are "worst off", with many hounded off the trust’s land after their husbands die. Picture: Tebogo Letsie /The Times

Ruth Hall, University of the Western Cape professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, says she has also witnessed many cases of women being discriminated against by farmers and traditional leaders. She says some farmers tried to evict women after their husbands, who worked on the farm, died.

"One of the reasons the government’s High Level Panel recommended that the Ingonyama Trust and other traditional leadership platforms should be scrapped was because they often deny women access to land. Discrimination of this form should be fought and abolished and the government should take the lead on this," Hall says.

Department of rural development & land reform spokesperson Mthatheni Mabaso says they are looking at land disputes, some involving women seeking their rights to occupy and work the land.

Nokwanda Sihlali, a researcher at the Land and Accountability Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, says that women’s voices should be heard during the land debate so that whatever reforms are made are not cosmetic but "aimed at addressing real problems".

King Goodwill Zwelithini has asked the Zulu people to donate money into a trust fund to help him launch a multipronged campaign against the government. He said recently that anyone who "touches the land" administered by the Ingonyama Trust is declaring war against the Zulus.

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