For land reform to have a chance of success, women are key


I recently attended a panel discussion at which three eminent thinkers reflected on urban land reform. It shocked me that, after an hour of the panellists’ input, followed by another two hours of plenary sessions, the question of women’s rights to land had still not been mentioned.

This is because we have a clear consensus on apartheid as racial oppression but have yet to agree on the gendered nature of that system.

The recent death of liberation movement leader Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela brought this into sharp focus. Ironically, both the apartheid state and our liberation movements had very different standards for valuing and judging black women’s contribution. Madikizela-Mandela’s death invigorated our nascent black feminist movement, as reflected by the growing popularity of the #WeAreNomzamo movement.

It is worth remembering that apartheid was also profoundly gendered. At its heart was a Calvinistic ideology based on harmful misogynistic ideas about women and our place in the world. This system required all women, but particularly black women, to occupy a very specific place on the margins of society.

We are now faced with an exciting moment of agreement that it is time to undo one of the worse manifestations of our oppression in that era, namely land theft. We have declared it and are for the first time ready to move beyond the rhetoric of “the land shall belong to all who work it”.

READ MORE: How land expropriation would work

But we are now focused on race, as if black is a homogenous mass without its own hierarchies, privileges and marginalities. It is heartening that class has finally emerged as an important factor: we now seem to agree that our land reform success will not be measured on our ability to produce a few new black male millionaire commercial farmers, as was the case in the growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) era. We now have a clear conception of land reform as a vehicle for the dual goals of reparation and economic transformation for the poor. Yes, the two cannot be mutually exclusive.

Therefore, it is alarming that, 24 years into post-apartheid era, we are still blind to the aspirations and needs of 52% of our population. Women are, after all, the majority gender. Do we really want to craft a new vision for our landscape based on the needs of the minority? And doesn’t that sound eerily familiar to those of us who survived the ravages of the apartheid state?

This gender blindness is illustrated by the land reform panels we have been subjected to in recent times. The pattern is brazen: the panels are convened and we muster our minute of social media outrage. On a good day, a solitary woman gets added to the panel to shut us up, usually without the discourse changing in any substantive way. On a bad day, we are waved away with excuses of, “sorry, no women experts, just an organisational oversight, we’ll try to do better next time”.

If land reform has a chance of success then women, but specifically black working-class urban women, must be at the centre of land reform. This is, after all, the biggest demographic — black women, who live in cities, who remain largely unorganised and often without a voice and visibility in our political engagements. As such, we need to start aligning land reform with the woman who lives in an informal settlement in Orange Farm, the woman living in a backyard in Bonteheuwel as much as we think of the subsistence farmer in the former homelands.

Our notions of land reform have historically been about agrarian reform but the relevance of this may be limited in 2018 when 62% of us now live in cities. This demands us not to think of land reform only in terms of traditional rural agricultural production. Although rural food production should be an important consideration, this cannot be the sole focus.

Contrary to popular myth, commercial agriculture in South Africa does not exclusively feed us: a fast-growing proportion of our food is imported, which illustrates the inefficiencies of white commercial agriculture in securing our food sovereignty.

Land reform with a key objective of realising sustainable local food production can meet our food security goals and also eliminate the need to transport food over great distances at great cost to our road infrastructure, environment and depletion of the nutritional content of our food.

A gender-blind land reform process means we are in effect tying women’s destinies to those of men. This is not benign and is deeply problematic for several reasons. For one, a large percentage of women’s lives are not tied to one man. The notion of being tied to a man for eternity is rare. Women’s connection to the fathers of their children is increasingly more tenuous and often ephemeral.

More significantly, the tying of women’s interests to the group is irrational. It is men who rape and murder South African women in record numbers every day.

According to the most recent data from the Medical Research Council, a woman is murdered every four hours and 57% of women die at the hands of their intimate partners. That amounts to 2 190 women being murdered every year, more than the equivalent of five loaded Boeing 747s crashing in South Africa every year.

Women must be treated as sovereign beings with independent developmental destinies. This should not exclude women who share their lives with men and, more importantly, will not exclude the majority who do not.

If we fail to do so, we would have squandered an important moment in our history to advance women’s economic empowerment in accordance with our constitutional commitment. Land reform can be an important vehicle for economic transformation and also a broader mechanism for building women’s political and social power — a challenge to the reality of the deadly patriarchy that we dare not squander.

READ MORE: Ramaphosa dodges explaining land reform plan

As feminists, we don’t only find a gender-blind approach to land reform problematic and abhorrent; it is also unconstitutional and is likely to yield the same kind of patriarchy as the land reform programme has done thus far.

If it is left to some of us to stand up in rooms where our futures are crafted and beg for a mention, not much will change. We are tired of this. Whenever we have to do this, the room momentarily becomes quiet and the mood uncomfortable.

A few of our fellow sister soldiers usually applaud the intervention, whereas men nod sagely and say, “Yeah, that’s an important consideration, thank you for raising it”, before turning to the main business at hand, which in effect means land reform for men. This misogynistic bullshit has got to stop.

Fatima Shabodien is country director for ActionAid South Africa

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