Land: a distorted legacy
Insult to African women obscures way in which colonialism has shaped norms and practices
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.