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‘Women Are Strong Like A Rock’

Land Rights for Women in Rural South Africa

Samke Mkhize is from KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, where she’s a Gender/Field Worker for the Association For Rural Advancement (AFRA). She joined the Women’s Land Rights Institute course because she’s keen to develop effective ways for women to assert their rights when it comes to land.

She spoke with Dominic Black about the course, her work and hope for the future. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

DB: Samke, what attracted you to the WLRI course?

Samke: So, in my work I facilitate capacity building sessions with women working on farms with the aim to build their agency, to empower them, but most importantly to enable them to have a voice in decision making spaces. I think that is one of the gaps we have identified as an organization in terms of participation of women in terms of decision-making platforms and spaces.

It’s always such a difficult situation where you are working with women and you are in a meeting but they won’t bring their voices with regards to land matters. For example, if there is a norm or belief that when we talk about land it has to be men who take decisions; it has to be men who talk about it; or it has to be household heads, and the assumption is that the ‘household head’ means, a man.

And so for me it was interesting to see a course of this nature. I thought, ‘I need to be there so I can empower the women that I work with.’ But not just to empower them, but to give them tools so they can navigate around this issue of participating in land matters.

DB: In practical terms, then, how will the course help you in your work?

Samke: So I’ll give an example. We’ve already had some interesting topics. There’s analysis that relates to how you identify gaps in terms of women’s inclusivity in terms of policies or laws. So: does this policy include women or does it speak to men? And if it includes women, how does it include women? For me, those sorts of questions are useful to take back into community meetings when you’re having a discussion…so that when women enter into these spaces or into decision making spaces, they’re able to identify or have these triggers: ‘OK this is what I need to look for. This is the policy. How does it benefit women? How does it make it an inclusive process for women? Are women catered for?’ 

For me things like that are the most practical tools that I could see using. 

DB: Many people have mentioned that one of the great things about the course is being able to learn from colleagues who work in different countries and getting those perspectives.

Samke: So it’s interesting Dominic – because one of the things I really love when we work in groups is the diversity in the room. As different as we are, the course enables us to have a sense of belonging, but it also allows us to learn from one another. So, when we plan for the week ahead, we receive information about what we’ll be studying. Every topic has a different case study, maybe Nigeria, Liberia – different countries. And that on its own is a learning process, because you get to find different issues, but you find they’re being mitigated in different ways in different countries.

People are tasked to do research around that and give feedback. And one of the things I did when I saw the list of what people will be doing each week was to engage with my colleague who was tasked to do the same thing. And from there I learned that she is doing the same work. And that, for me, is a meaningful network, because it means I won’t only stop here in terms of connecting with her…outside of this course I will also be engaging her.

And it brings in that collaboration. We also discuss the differences in our own work, because we live in different locations. We can engage each other in terms of the challenges that we find in our work, and what are some of the things that seem to be working for them that I can implement on my side – I think it’s about that kind of learning.

DB: So would you recommend the course to others?

Samke: Definitely I would. You don’t even have to ask that. I would recommend it because first: it provides a safe space. Second: there’s a lot of learning that’s involved. And third: when we have different perspectives around issues, that makes it more fruitful and more engaging.

And also, I think one of the reasons I would really recommend it is because there’s so much that we need to understand and know in terms of bringing the gender aspect into land matters. And there is a gap, because of the social norms that exist and because of some of the beliefs that we come from, or we grow up believing in.

So this an opportunity to advance our knowledge but also to enhance and empower us as women. Because if we want to bring change, we need to educate ourselves before we even bring that change.

‘Women Are Strong Like A Rock’

In my current role as a gender field worker / officer I work with a group of women who live and work on farms. They have owned their struggle and have formalized themselves by a name ‘Qina Mbokodo’ which translates in English to ‘Women Are Strong Like a Rock.’

DB: Could you tell me a story of a woman and how her situation with regards to land insecurity has affected her life? For somebody who doesn’t know anything about this subject.

Samke: OK so…AFRA works in seven municipalities. And because we are an organization that has less than fifteen employees, we always manage to work with communities directly, and these communities have grouped themselves in terms of being able to communicate or try to find people to communicate on their behalf as representatives. During one of our engagements there was a lady, she is a labour tenant claimant. She didn’t make a claim, it was her late husband who made a claim. The husband used to work for the landowner, and unfortunately her husband passed on.

After the husband passed on the woman then requested employment from the landowner. The response from the landowner was that he doesn’t employ women because there is no work for women on his farm. She…experienced a number of threats from the landowner.

Another issue she shared was that when her husband died, immediately the family of the husband wanted to take some of the property to them and claim it for their sons, and also made accusations that she’s the one that might have killed the husband.   

So she had to find other means to make ends meet because the money that was being brought into this household was from the father who was employed by this farm owner, this landowner. And the one thing she could do is to start a small garden. She started planting crops and she made a living off that because she was able to go and sell among the neighbours, and also sell as a street trader. A street trader is someone who stands by the street and sells whatever good they can sell. So she managed to do that.

But her tenure was insecure for two reasons: first, because the husband passed on. Secondly because the claim that her husband had made wasn’t settled. That means she didn’t have the right to own that land because the claim has not been processed.

So I think really for me that situation – it was a very unpleasant one to hear…because one of the norms in rural areas is that women have limited rights: the husband has most of the rights, especially when it comes to property and land. Women just don’t have access to those and they are not recognized as people that should have such rights.

‘You have hope that this will change.
And not just a hope only, but there is
something you do towards the change.’

DB: When it comes to the balance between indigenous people, settler landowners and large scale international commercial interests, what is the current state of land ownership in South Africa?

Samke: Hmmm. That’s a very interesting one. So, one of the issues around ownership of land and claims being settled is that…it’s the minority who have land ownership and then the very large majority who have insecure tenure. That’s one of the challenges. But another challenge: land reform was introduced to rectify that and there’s been little change in terms of secure tenure for black rural people who are very, very poor. And this has been one of the challenges in terms of our systems because it seems to be failing us.

And the one thing that makes me say that: there’s claims that have been made but the process for working on those claims and securing tenure for black rural people has been very, very slow…or not happening at all.

One of the things that AFRA has done with regards to this is to take this matter to court. I think it was two years back in 2019 when the judgment from the constitutional court was in our favour, and it was in our favour because it saw that there’s a gap. There’s something lacking in the institution that’s supposed to be processing these claims: the institution that’s supposed to be ensuring that black poor people have ownership to land. From 1994 you can see that there hasn’t been much change in terms of ownership for black people. And this results in more poverty because they have insecure tenure.

DB: Over 26 years…I guess are people disillusioned about how long it has taken and how few results there have been?

Samke: I don’t think it’s disillusioned. I think reflections from people that are on the grass roots level is that they have lost trust in our government, and they put more faith in civil societies because of the manner they work in. We are able to hold institutions accountable. But not only that. We are able to have a different approach that starts from the bottom up, where people’s challenges are taken forward. Not an approach where things are coming from the top and put into these local communities.

DB: I can understand the challenge for people over a long period to see no progress. What keeps you going in your work because it must be disillusioning at times.

Samke: It can be very draining. But I will say this – when something is happening that is so negative I just say: ‘I have a girl child and a boy child and I would not want them to be living in such an era.’ Because that’s when you want to bring change. You work in these really difficult conditions and you really want to say ‘This cannot be happening, and just because I am experiencing this I don’t want someone else coming after me to experience the same thing.’

I think that’s for me what keeps me going.

Like, you have this hope that this will change. And not just a hope only, but there is something you do towards the change. 

Samke Mkhize is a Gender and Field Worker for the Association For Rural Advancement. You can find out more about her work here:

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