A woman's right to her land: Q&A with Sizani Ngubane

Why We Wrote This

Land means more than property. It’s a foundation for independence, and providing for loved ones. This South African activist is fighting for rural women’s land rights amid a fierce national debate about fair ownership.

© Martin Ennals Foundation 2019
Sizani Ngubane has spent decades fighting for women's land rights in rural South Africa.

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For the past few years, if you’ve read much news from South Africa, you’ve seen “land reform” in the headlines pretty frequently. But for activist Sizani Ngubane, now a finalist for the Martin Ennals human rights award, land has been at the core of her work for decades.

At age 6, watching her uncle evict her mother from the family’s property, she thought, “When I grow up I want to be part of the people who are going to correct these wrongs.” She went on to found the Rural Women’s Movement, which works to protect women’s land access and ownership – a continued challenge in some communities.

Ms. Ngubane spoke by phone with the Monitor’s Ryan Lenora Brown about why land is so important in South Africa, and what keeps her going as an activist.

“The thing I’m most proud of isn’t necessarily any legal battle we’ve won,” she says. “It’s the fact that before we started this movement women in many rural communities were not empowered to speak. Now we see our women speaking up for their rights, even at national and international levels.”

The first inkling Sizani Ngubane had that she might grow up to be an activist came when she was just 6 years old. It was the early 1950s, and while her father, a migrant worker, was away from the family home near the eastern city of Pietermaritzburg, his brother evicted her mother from their land. “You’re a woman,” she remembers her uncle telling her mother, “so you have no right to this property if your husband isn’t around.”

Those were the early years of apartheid, South Africa’s infamous system of white minority rule, and a woman like Ms. Ngubane’s mother had few places to turn. The white government wasn’t likely to be on her side, and neither were the men in charge in her own community.

At 6, of course, Ms. Ngubane didn’t know exactly what was happening, but her mother’s humiliation told her all she needed to know. “From that experience I just said to myself, when I grow up I want to be part of the people who are going to correct these wrongs,” she says.  

In the 70 years since, indeed, she has become the voice for tens of thousands of women like her mother. In the late 1990s, Ms. Ngubane was a founding member of the Rural Women’s Movement, which today counts some 50,000 members. Among other work, the organization fights to make sure women have access to, and ownership over, the land on which they live and work. This has been a major challenge in many rural areas under the authority of semi-autonomous traditional chieftaincies that were originally set up by the apartheid and colonial governments. These leaders have often been reticent to give more rights to women.

As South Africa’s government mulls over whether to expropriate some land from white owners and return it to the country’s black majority, her work has become all the more urgent – and complicated.

Ms. Ngubane is one of three finalists for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, which will be awarded in Geneva this February. She spoke by phone with the Monitor’s Johannesburg bureau chief Ryan Lenora Brown about why land is so important in South Africa, and what keeps her going as an activist.

Since the start of democracy in South Africa, there’s been a program to provide land or money to people who were stripped of their land during the colonial or apartheid periods. But it’s moved slowly, and over the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about expropriating land – that is to say, redistributing the land, whether current landowners want that or not. What do you think of that idea? And do you think it will really happen?

I support it. A large percentage of South African arable land is still in the hands of white people, even though they are a small minority in this country. How equal is that? How constitutional is that? But the problem now is that our government is not really doing anything about it. They promised us in the 1990s that by 2014 they would have redistributed 30% of land into hands of original users. I say users and not owners because in our culture land is not owned. Mother Nature was not a commodity that could be bought and sold. But only about 10% of that land has been returned to date. So I think those promises were politically motivated to get people to come out and vote in elections. I don’t see real transformation of the land situation happening anytime soon.  

Why is access to land so important for South African women in particular?

When you begin to give land to women, a lot of abuses in society are eliminated. They can feed their own families without fear of being evicted. They can inherit land when their male relatives die. And most importantly, they are not so controlled by the men in their lives. Because when land is the main value of a society and women cannot own land, we are nothing. We are not 100% human beings. It is easy to abuse and abandon us. So the land is the only way out for us.

What is the accomplishment you’re most proud of? 

The thing I’m most proud of isn’t necessarily any legal battle we’ve won. It’s the fact that before we started this movement women in many rural communities were not empowered to speak. Now we see our women speaking up for their rights, even at national and international levels. And no one tells them to shut up, because we have taught them that this is our constitutional right. [The men] know they must listen. 

You’ve been an activist for nearly six decades. And there are still more battles to be fought. Right now, for instance, you’re preparing to go to court as part of a challenge against the Ingonyama Trust, an organization run by the Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini that controls an area in eastern South Africa the size of Belgium. I’m wondering what keeps you going through battles like this one. 

It comes from my heart. From when I was 6 years old I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life. Don’t ask me how exactly I knew there was a world outside that rural community where I grew up. The only other place I had ever seen was the city of Pietermaritzburg [10 miles away], where I went once a year with my mother to buy school shoes. But somehow I knew even then I was going to grow up to see the world, and learn from it. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

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