womens day optThe perennial land debate in South Africa seems to have taken on a new sense of urgency. In the last week alone, the National Assembly debated an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) motion to amend the property clause in the Constitution, with their leader issuing the injunction that “People of South Africa, where you see a beautiful land, take it, it belongs to you”.  The President too called for expropriation of certain land without compensation - a sentiment he first echoed during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) of 2017.

It is true that the sluggish pace of land reform, as well as lack of institutional capacity in South Africa, has resulted in the failure to deliver on the constitutional promise of an egalitarian and transformed society. It is also true that the available statistics on patterns of land ownership are largely outdated and incomplete. For example, a 2014 audit by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform revealed that 79% of the country’s land is privately owned, without revealing the race, gender or nationality of such ownership. The lack of a detailed and current countrywide land audit all too often results in certain key political figures manipulating facts in a bid to deflect attention from poor governance. 

Honest and robust debate is sorely needed over the land debate, however, what is largely missing in current discourse, regardless of its urgent and at times extreme nature, is the gender perspective. This creates the real risk of perpetuating gender inequality with regards to access to land.

Despite the constitutional assurance of non-discrimination in section 9, women continue to be subjected to unfair discrimination under land tenure systems. Enough research has concluded that property and access to land are vital for economic security, as well as political and social empowerment, and this too is true for women. In a country where gender inequality remains a real concern, giving women property and access to land is a means through which inequality can be addressed.

For rural women in particular, access to land, as well as secure tenure, can assist in providing supplementary income, thus shielding entire families from destitution. There are higher levels of poverty among female-headed households than in male-headed households in South Africa. Further statistics suggest that children whose mothers own land were less likely to be severely malnourished or underweight. Families where women own land also spend more of their budget on education.

The same studies reveal that in contrast to men, women spend more of their earnings from employment or assets - including land - on family needs. In India, research has shown that land ownership and secure tenure for women acts as security against domestic violence. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, secure land rights for women are necessary to increase farm output. As such, mitigating the constraints rural women face in accessing land and tenure security can raise both farm yields and total agricultural output.

As many as 69% of women living in rural South Africa are said to be living in poverty. In addition, female-headed households, more so than male-headed households, are often prevented by finances from participating in the Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development (LRAD) programme, thus excluding more women from the benefits of the national land reform programme. In September 1999, the National Land Committee (NLC) estimated that only 7 331 of the 50 152 beneficiary households that participated in land redistribution programmes were female-headed households. In 2000, the NLC estimated that female-headed households represented only 14% of the households to whom land had been transferred under the LRAD programme. The most frequently-cited factor that prevents women accessing land under the LRAD programme is the fact that the Settlement Land Acquisition Grant (SLAG) is paid to household members. This, despite the fact that access to land, for many women, continues to be mediated by and is dependent on a spouse, partner or family member.

The Commission of Gender Equality (CGE), in recognition of these facts, in 2015 introduced a campaign called “One Woman, One Hectare of Land”. The campaign was aimed at mainstreaming gender equality in the land reform programme.  It sought to ensure the allocation of a minimum of one hectare of land or more, to the poorest women in the country, in urban, peri-urban and rural areas. Without much political support and will, nothing has come out of the campaign.

Urban women too are vulnerable, given that women’s access to adequate housing in South Africa is informed by the historical, social and economic context within which women seek to access housing. Previously discriminatory laws and practices have limited women’s access to housing and other socio-economic rights. The Surplus People Project (SPP) in a nationwide study, concluded that regardless of existing legislative interventions there are still certain glaring gaps in facilitating women’s access to housing.

There is a need for sober analysis and debate on the land question. This analysis and debate should be guided by constitutional considerations reflecting the nuances of the property clause - the duty to protect property rights from arbitrary deprivation while ensuring that more South Africans have access to land and other natural resources on an equitable basis. This means taking note of the particular vulnerability of South Africa’s women, with regard to land access and tenure security, and including such concerns in the ongoing discourse.

*8 March annually marks International Women’s Day - set aside by the United Nations in a bid to “…reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

By Ms Phephelaphi Dube: Director, Centre for Constitutional Rights

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The Centre for Constitutional Rights (the CFCR) operates as a unit of the FW de Klerk Foundation.

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