Autonomous Access to Land Is Not in the Best Interest
of Rural Women in South Africa

by Dr Funokwakhe Cedric Xulu

05 July 2013    Dr Cedric Xulu


“These are the people to whom Mandela said their "hopes and dreams are about to be realised". It follows that they ought not to have merely an expectation of a better life, but a right to one. This right is still denied and South Africa is still not theirs.”

The unbanning of the liberation movement in 1990 and the repealing of racial laws created a space for gender struggles to be waged in South Africa. For the first time women managed to influence the process of constitutional negotiation through which major gains in gender equality were achieved. Women were able to define and articulate their interests and finally ensure that the constitution spoke directly to and for them. The outcome of the constitutional battle of 1992-4 resulted among other things to the inclusion of an equality clause in the Bill of Rights which guaranteed women protection from discrimination on the basis of gender. The constitution also established a Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), one of the six State Institutions Supporting Democracy. The aim of the Commission as set out in section119 of the Constitution is to promote gender equality and to advise and make recommendations to parliament or any other legislature with regard to any laws or proposed legislation which affect gender equality and the status of women.


In addition to these constitutional provisions, South Africa has been rated as probably one of the few developing countries to have demonstrated a strong commitment to the advancement of women (Press Release, United Nations Women’s Anti Discrimination Committee 24 June 1998). In less than a year after its independence (i.e. December 1995), the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was ratified, and all apartheid laws that discriminated against women were repealed followed by new progressive gender policies and laws. The Beijing Platform for Action and national plan of action following the Beijing recommendations was undertaken by the government (UNICEF Report 1998). Since 1994 there has been an increase in the number of women in both national and provincial legislative assemblies, and women constitute a bigger number of ministers and deputy ministers in South Africa.


Furthermore, the government’s commitment to improve women’s conditions was seen by its adoption of a Women’s Charter for Effective Equality (1994), the Reconstruction and Development Programme (1994) which propagated the idea of “literacy for rural women empowerment”.  


With all these gains, it still appears that women in South Africa are still divided along party political lines and therefore find it difficult to maximize these constitutional and democratic gains as a united force. It is often said that in South Africa, there is no independent organisation of women by women and for women. What you have are women organizations that are branches of political parties. Their roles are merely branches that send party political messages to women and not necessarily to address what is perceived to be women’s problems.


“The Promoting Women’s Access to Land (PWAL) Programme is a cooperative project of government and civil society organisations engaged in land reform that aims to advance the land rights of poor rural women in South Africa. The programme is led by the National Land Committee (NLC) – a national network of 10 land rights non-governmental organisations working with poor and landless communities struggling to access land reform - and the Department of Rural Development , and is supported by various other NGOs and CBOs, including the Centre for Rural Legal Studies and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (Wits).”


PWAL in my view completely ignores the fact that the majorities of women, especially rural women have never had full time employment and therefore do not stand to benefit from unemployment benefit schemes or new main stream equal opportunity policies meant for black economic empowerment. If there is no mechanism put in place to alleviate the situation of rural women the status quo will continue and women will have little or no access to the benefits of democracy, either by way of involvement in decision making processes or in their access to resources or the receipt of benefits. Rural women therefore as a group should push to the core the transformation efforts in re-ordering society and a shift in economic power relations.


PWAL suggests that if the South African government wants to effectively eradicate poverty, independent access and control over land and other resources by women as a group is an appropriate strategy. In its definition economic empowerment involves the capacity for women to engage in income generating activities that will enable them to have access to independent income. The argument is that financial dependence is one of the key sources of women subordination. The support that women need is therefore access to credit facilities, physical space to operate their economic activities and business management skills.


This is precisely my problem. From the look of it women’s autonomous access to resources appears to be the panacea for women emancipation. In my view this approach as studied elsewhere, carries an element of risk for the very audience it is intended. The basic understanding here is that there is asymmetrical gender relations based on dominance and subservience. In other words, men hold economic power over women. To achieve a balance and cohesive gender relationship the power holder will have to relinquish power in order for the powerless to gain power. The redistribution of power, therefore entails a conflict situation in which women will have to challenge the existing power relations and men will have to be ‘convinced to renegotiate’.


The question is, have women particularly in the context of poor rural women everywhere in the country been equipped to challenge these power structures? Given the current state of rural economies, will autonomous access to resources alleviate poverty or contribute to the deterioration of family units. Naila Kabeer, my former professor at University of Sussex once found in 1998 that in India women on their own were extremely vulnerable, and husbands still offer a form of social protection. It can be equally argued in our case in South Africa that targeting women as a group in isolation from their husbands or families undermines traditional social values and may jeopardize women traditional social safety nets and instead of decreasing, may in fact increase women’s vulnerability.


Autonomous access to resources may be advantageous for women in the short term but may not be adequate as an empowerment vehicle for women. Women’s disadvantaged position is not only due to lack of resources but to the social structures and relations that perpetuate their disadvantage to the advantage of men. Improving women’s social mobility should not only involve poverty reduction strategies or independent access to agrarian economies but should equally involve redistribution of power. The barriers that women face are mostly gender related. Disrupting the current existing form of protection through ad hoc and piecemeal actions can only jeopardize women’s position and equally attract radical action from the traditional institutional structures. Jeopardizing these safety nets without finding an alternative is not in the best interest of women.


Sarah Longwe, a gender activist, argues that any form of empowerment which is concerned with enabling women to advance within the present society rather than through structural transformation is limited because it ignores the extent to which the empowered women remains restricted by gender discrimination, and does not address the question of whether a man, with the same access to resources as the “empowered” woman actually occupies a more privilege position in terms of control over income, social status and political position in society.


What becomes critical here is the understanding that empowerment programmes will benefit women only if women’s domestic responsibilities are also addressed. Similarly making more resources accessible to women would have greater transformation potential for their position within the family than would be creating women only income generating projects, which according to Kabeer (1995) “have a poor record of success”. The focus is on how both men and women as a gender and as a group have been affected by ideologies and institutionalized systems of domination, subordination, exploitation and oppression, and how these practices have resulted in specific and profound injuries to women subjectively and collectively.

It should be stressed that women are empowered when barriers that bar them from actualizing their maximum potential are removed. They can then be proactive on their own rather than spoon fed or acted upon by piecemeal actions.


Questions need to be asked, whether subverting existing gender relations; targeted intervention will ultimately enhance women’s status for a long run or by undermining certain familial or community rights to which they are traditionally entitled, place them in a more vulnerable position.


Dr Funokwakhe Cedric Xulu is the Head of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation Committee of the Inkatha Freedom Party National Council. However he writes this in his personal capacity.