Just about 30km northwest of Limpopo’s capital in Polokwane, rural women in Moletjie continue to be subjected to violent exclusionary methods in rural communities where chiefs or tribal authorities are the custodians of the land. These women’s rights to access and use land are hampered on the premise of colonial and patriarchal standards.
These daunting revelations were brought to light by 15 women from Moletjie‘s subcommunities – such as Ceres, Fairlyn, Ga-Kolopo, Mabokelele and Monywaneng – with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) and land rights advocacy non-profit organisation Nkuzi Development Association. Together they penned down a declaration which details repressions they encounter in their own communities. This was on 30 November 2021.
The women challenged the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, among others, “to promote women’s access to use, control, own, inherit and transfer land and natural resources”.
The declaration mainly calls for laws that promote joint and equal ownership of land between husband and wife or wives, consultation with women when their partners or spouses approach traditional leadership to acquire land such as grazing or ploughing fields, and to secure land rights for all women.
The declaration also sheds light on women whose marital status is single having to surrender and re-register their land under the name of the husband after getting married. This disregards the fact that the husband might not have contributed to acquiring the land.
The declaration was inspired by PLAAS and Nkuzi Development Association, who undertook a study in two communities in the village of Ceres in February and March last year.
The study was authored by Chilombo Musa, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and researcher at PLAAS, and programme officers at Nkuzi Development Association, Mapula Mnisi and Molatelo Mohale, who is also a fellow at LANDac. They carried out 17 in-depth interviews with rural women, traditional leaders and municipal officials, along a focus group discussion with seven women. This enabled the researchers to uncover deep nuances.
Women can’t register land in their names
The study reveals the long-lasting ramifications on women when there are disputes around legitimate leaders. For example, Ceres is divided into two communities: one under Chief Kgabo Solomon Moloto and the other under King Kgabo Abram Matabola. The two have a long-running dispute over village boundaries and who the rightful leader is.
The study states that under Chief Moloto, when a woman loses her spouse, the widow is presented before the chief by other widows to be issued with rules on how to conduct herself and her mobility, and to be prohibited from remarrying. The study states that this a clear violation and exploitation of women’s bodies as they are stripped of any sense of agency.
On the other hand, under Chief Matabola, married women face discriminatory customary practices as they “cannot register land in their name while still married; only in exceptional circumstances can a married woman register land in her name”.
Astonishingly, some of the women participating in the study were complacent in perpetuating patriarchal ideas: that women are only usufruct and do not possess ownership rights over land. In their mind, this means a woman should leave after divorce, regardless of the role she has played in developing the property.
When asked about this, Mnisi says: “I was shocked to hear other women support abuse and stripping women of their power and rights to stay where they want to stay. That made me think of how apartheid and patriarchy has played a role in brainwashing the thinking capacity of women, especially in rural areas.”
Mnisi adds that sufferings which widows endure are somewhat common to those whose marital status is single. The key difference is that tribal authorities impose exorbitant charges for widows who wish to transfer the land to their name once their loved ones are deceased.
‘They shoot and beat us’
The study also revealed that women encounter brute force, especially those “who assert their rights over land”. The authors continue, “Women are expected to remain passive and not participate in decision-making over land issues at community and household levels. Thus, those who speak out and challenge the loss of land are exposed to violence and, in some instances, murder.”
The abuses are not just physical and extend to severe emotional distress when accessing burial land for their relatives. “Before the death is announced to the community, the traditional leader’s troops scrutinise the family against any outstanding tribal levy payments and the camp to which the family is aligned,” argues the study. “In instances where the family is deemed ‘unruly’ because of non-payment of tribal levy and affiliation to the opposing camp, a fine ranging between R6 000 and R12 000 is imposed.”
The burial will not take place if the family fails to pay the fine. Mmeta Sekoaila, a 70-year-old widow, spoke of the intimidation she faced when trying to bury her deceased relative. “If there is death in our families, we cannot bury our loved ones. They lock the gate and pelt us with stones. They shoot and beat us. They don’t want burials there because they say the land belongs to the Molotos.”
Another participant, Elizabeth Meso, has been affected by the unlawful imposition of the Moletjie Tribal Authority. The Meso family could not afford the R12 000 fine for “disrespecting the chief and unpaid tribal levy” in 2015. The family clashed with the Moloto troops for over 24 hours as they tried to dig a grave after being denied access to the village cemetery. The family ended up burying the husband in their backyard.
Such cases are endless.
Money unaccounted for
The money collected by tribal authorities or chiefs from such incidents is never accounted for. As a result, Mnisi says her organisation took a decision to take tribal leaders to court over the issue of annual tribal levies.
The tribal levy isn’t fixed – meaning every chief charges whatever amount pleases them. Only a limited number of families – those whose social standing is affluent – can challenge the pretext of the levies. For example, Mnisi says, one affluent family took a chief to court in December 2020 to apply for an interdict after they were denied burying their relative. They succeeded in their quest but they “had to part with something like R50 000 to get the interdict”.
What should be done?
Such abuses, which rural women encounter, undermine efforts to make the world more inclusive and ultimately to curb gender discriminations and biases, the study says and suggests the following policy considerations for protecting women’s land rights in Moletjie:
- Defining clear roles for traditional leaders in spatial planning and land use management. The contestation of power between the traditional authority and the municipality emanates from traditional leaders’ perceived threat of losing control over customary land management and administration.
- Promoting customary practices that support women’s access to land and strengthening their adoption by traditional leaders, men and women. Regardless of marital status, women should all have their land rights protected.
- Strengthening the implementation of laws on gender-based violence and ensuring the stiff punishment of perpetrators of violence against women. But this will require advocacy and awareness campaigns by policymakers to sensitise women on reporting domestic violence and establishing safe homes for those who are constantly exposed to it.
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