With breath-taking 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 land it controlled.  He was supported by the KwaZulu-Natal House of Traditional Leaders, which agreed that giving land to women 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 current land norms and practices. Ironically, the Trust itself, like the contemporary office of traditional leadership, is a product of colonialism.  In celebrating Heritage month, it is appropriate to consider the disastrous implications of these 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 so many different ways on forms of 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 Islam  Political organisation ranged from societies having no centralised authorities to feudal kingdoms. All of these factors impacted on the status of women, and how they accessed the land on which most of them farmed. 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 nineteenth century, that led to land – including rights to mine on it – 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 nineteenth 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. (White women in South Africa only gained voting rights in 1930). 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 herself.

The way in which these colonial powers administered what is now KwaZulu-Natal played a crucial role in shaping South African society, including apartheid. It was in this colony that the ‘indirect rule’ policy (the ‘Shepstone system’) took root. The essence of this policy was that 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’ (who might previously have deposed or killed them if they were unpopular), chiefs became employees of the colonial government. If they failed to obey instructions, promptly, they were removed and even imprisoned, as Langalibabele 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 this indirect rule system, and the exclusionary practices that went with it, became the norm country-wide, and was further refined by apartheid.

In a unique move, 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 networks of 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 life-long minors, always 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 late anthropologist David Webster, published posthumously, noted that Thonga men in northernmost 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 nineteenth 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 then President de Klerk in the early 1990s.   Like the colonial masters, the Trust and some of the chiefs collude to deprive poor farmers of their land, especially for mining-related purposes. It also insists that men are lease holders to land acquired by women.  Truly, colonialism is alive and well in KwaZulu-Natal and the supposedly democratic government lets it live on.

*This term was used by Harvard Professor Emerita Sally Falk Moore,a lawyer and an anthropologist, to describe the departure from customary law of that she saw operating in traditional courts in Tanzania decades ago.