Land: a dis­torted legacy

In­sult to African women ob­scures way in which colo­nial­ism has shaped norms and prac­tices

Daily News - - OPINION - MARY DE HAAS De Haas is a vi­o­lence mon­i­tor and an­a­lyst

WITH breath­tak­ing ar­ro­gance, the chair­per­son of the In­gonyama Trust Board de­clared – in Women’s Month – that a bill aimed at giv­ing women ac­cess to land should not ap­ply in the land it con­trolled.

He was sup­ported by the Kwazulu- Natal House of Tra­di­tional Lead­ers, which agreed that it un­der­mined “African tra­di­tions”.

Such ar­ro­gance, like many other pro­nounce­ments about sup­pos­edly “African” ways, ig­nores the huge di­ver­sity of so­ci­eties on the con­ti­nent, and the way in which that het­ero­gene­ity has his­tor­i­cally shaped ac­cess to land.

It also ob­scures the way in which colo­nial­ism has shaped land norms and prac­tices. Iron­i­cally, the Trust, like the con­tem­po­rary of­fice of tra­di­tional lead­er­ship, is a prod­uct of colo­nial­ism.

As we re­cently cel­e­brated Her­itage Month, it is ap­pro­pri­ate to con­sider the dis­as­trous im­pli­ca­tions of the in­vented tra­di­tions on the sta­tus of women and their ac­cess to land.

What ex­actly is this “African way” that the Trust and oth­ers re­fer to, given this tremen­dous his­tor­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal, eco­log­i­cal and eco­nomic di­ver­sity, which have im­pacted in many dif­fer­ent ways on so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion?

While an­ces­tral ven­er­a­tion, in which ei­ther ma­ter­nal or pa­ter­nal an­ces­tors might dom­i­nate, plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in most so­ci­eties, so too did the spread, hundreds of years ago, of Chris­tian­ity and Is­lamic po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion, rang­ing from so­ci­eties hav­ing no cen­tralised au­thor­i­ties to feu­dal king­doms. All the fac­tors im­pacted on the sta­tus of women, and how they ac­cessed the land on which most of them farmed. The land was val­ued for sub­sis­tence and, with the rise of states, a means of ter­ri­to­rial con­trol. It also had re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance, es­pe­cially given its as­so­ci­a­tion with fam­ily – in­clud­ing fe­male – an­ces­tors.

How­ever, it was the ad­vent of colo­nial­ism, es­pe­cially the ram­pant cap­i­tal­ism of the 19th cen­tury, that led to land as a com­mer­cial com­mod­ity. The na­ture of gen­der re­la­tion­ships, too, was trans­formed, since the roles of men and women had been com­ple­men­tary rather than hi­er­ar­chi­cal.

The 19th- cen­tury hi­er­ar­chy of gen­der re­la­tion­ships, termed by Marx and En­gels “the world- his­toric de­feat of the fe­male sex”, was im­posed on colo­nial sub­jects. Al­though, in cen­tralised states, men gen­er­ally oc­cu­pied po­si­tions of author­ity, women also ex­er­cised power in dif­fer­ent ways, es­pe­cially as they grew older.

In what is now the North­ern Province, the Lovedu queen, whose rep­u­ta­tion in­spired Rider Hag­gard to write the novel She, con­trolled the realm’s forests. The way in which the colo­nial pow­ers ad­min­is­tered what is now Kwazulu- Natal played a cru­cial role in shap­ing so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing apartheid.

It was in this colony that the “in­di­rect rule” pol­icy ( the “Shep­stone sys­tem”) took root. Indige­nous peo­ple were con­fined to des­ig­nated areas (“re­serves”), ac­cess to “white” towns was re­stricted, and those liv­ing in re­serves were gov­erned through their chiefs, who were re­spon­si­ble to mag­is­trates and the provin­cial gov­er­nor.

In­stead of be­ing “chiefs by their peo­ple”, chiefs be­came em­ploy­ees of the colo­nial gov­ern­ment. If they failed to obey instructio­ns, they were re­moved and im­pris­oned, as Lan­gal­ibalele of the Hlubi found to his cost.

In areas in which peo­ple lived con­tent­edly with­out chiefs, ad­min­is­tra­tor Shep­stone cre­ated new ones. Af­ter Union in 1910, the in­di­rect rule sys­tem, and its ex­clu­sion­ary prac­tices, be­came the norm coun­try­wide and was re­fined by apartheid.

The colo­nial gov­ern­ment cod­i­fied what it de­fined as cus­tom­ary law ( the Natal Code) and dealt a mor­tal blow to the sta­tus of women. His­to­ri­ans have noted the ex­is­tence of “gen­der co- op­er­a­tion as op­posed to gen­der con­tes­ta­tion”, as Pro­fes­sor Si­fiso Ndlovu puts it. Male reg­i­ments, for ex­am­ple, had fe­male coun­ter­parts.

They also par­tic­i­pated in author­ity struc­tures, the piv­otal role of Re­gent Queen Mn­qabayi ( King Shaka’s aunt) be­ing a prime ex­am­ple. The cod­i­fied not- very- cus­tom­ary- law de­creed that women would re­main life­long mi­nors, un­der the con­trol of a man ( father, brother, hus­band or son). Only un­der ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances could they be­come “eman­ci­pated”.

By the time the leg­is­la­tion was amended in the 1980s, the nor­ma­tive dam­age had been done. Eth­nic iden­tity is a learned phe­nom­e­non and an ar­ti­cle by the an­thro­pol­o­gist David Web­ster, pub­lished posthu­mously, noted that Thonga men in north­ern- most KZN were adopt­ing a Zulu iden­tity as it was a pre­ferred cat­e­gory for em­ploy­ment on the mines. In con­trast, women re­jected an iden­tity change as they con­sid­ered they en­joyed more power than their Zulu sis­ters.

In in­sult­ing the women of Africa, the In­gonyama Trust ap­par­ently does not re­alise that it, too, has its roots in colo­nial­ism, as do the po­si­tions of some of the chiefs. Most of the land held by the Trust is 19th- cen­tury re­serve land, some of which had never been part of the his­toric Zulu king­dom. This land formed the ba­sis of the Kwazulu home­land and in­cluded land ceded to it by pres­i­dent FW de Klerk in the early 1990s. Like the colo­nial masters, the Trust and some of the chiefs col­luded to de­prive poor farmers of their land, es­pe­cially for min­ing. It also in­sists that men are lease­hold­ers to land ac­quired by women.

Colo­nial­ism is alive and well in Kwazulu- Natal and the sup­pos­edly demo­cratic gov­ern­ment lets it live on.


COLO­NIAL­ISM still dis­torts the land legacy of African women, says the writer.

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