Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who controls 2.8-million hectares of land in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/TEBOGO LETSIE
Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who controls 2.8-million hectares of land in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/TEBOGO LETSIE

Stabbed with a knife, slapped with a gun, hit by a speeding car.

Just a few of the murder attempts on SA women’s land rights activist Sizani Ngubane, nominated this week for a prestigious human rights award for her 40 years of activism.

Ngubane is one of three finalists for the 2020 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, referred to as the Nobel prize for human rights, and is currently in hiding to prevent further attempts on her long life of activism.

“We cannot separate women’s land rights from gender-based violence (GBV) in SA,” said theactivist who frequently champions women’s access to land in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

“We are celebrating 25 years of democracy, but rural women are still treated like children. It is not in line with our constitution,” Ngubane, founder of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM) land rights group, said in a phone interview.

Land is still a hot topic in SA, with President Cyril Ramaphosa launching a process to change the constitution with a proposed redistribution of land aimed at addressing high levels of inequality in 2018. But in KwaZulu-Natal, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini controls 2.8-million hectares of land, an area the size of Belgium, under the Ingonyama Trust established in 1994.

The Zulu monarch wants Ramaphosa to sign an agreement promising to exclude territories that the king controls from land reform. Land rights activists are challenging the control wielded by such traditional authorities over rural communities, particularly on women, who are often evicted if widowed.

“The trust has turned communities into tenants by leasing ancestral land to them,” said Ngubane, adding that a compulsory rent, rising 10% every year, has to be paid by community members, who otherwise face eviction.

Ngubane, along with rights groups, is challenging the Ingonyama Trust in the Pietermaritzburg high court in March 2020.

The work of the RWM includes finding housing for evicted women and children, helping grow food on communal land for the hungry and sick, campaigning for better legal protection of women’s land rights, and more.

“We are like one big family,” Ngubane said. “We have now begun to spread our wings into different parts of the country.”

Launched in 1998, the RWM has grown to 50,000 women, said Ngubane, adding that there is retaliation and danger involved in challenging the traditional authorities, citing fires, kidnappings and beating of outspoken women and men.

“My dream is that, one day, KwaZulu-Natal will be like other provinces, where women’s rights are seen as human rights and women are given the same power over land that men are keeping for themselves.” 

The 2020 Martin Ennals Award will be presented to one of three finalists on February 19 2020 in Geneva.

Thomson Reuters Foundation