OPINION | African women biggest losers of land grab
With traditional leaders and political movements being at the forefront of land discussions in the current debates, there is a sense that African women are seen as the primary land users or “agrarianists” of the precolonial era. By “agrarianist” here, I intend to evoke the image of command and control; the implementers of agricultural production.
African women were the primary agriculturalists, and when the guns and colonial soldiers arrived, women lost their foothold over their means of production – land.
Now this is not an attempt to create some sort of hierarchy of African victimhood.
Rather, I want to sharpen the focus on all elements of black dispossession as we tackle the land question.
In the precolonial era, African women drew their independence and power from various elements of land use.
A key element is that land bestowed African women with economic independence.
Women were the primary controllers of land as a means of production, specifically in subsistence crop cultivation.
While men did work the fields – especially when there was large-scale ukulima (ploughing) to be done – subsistence crop production in southern Africa was largely a woman’s domain.
A woman’s capacity to provide for her children by cultivating iinsimi zakhe – her crop fields – was of utmost importance.
We see this in Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom – he describes the autonomy of his father’s wives in relation to land: “All told, my father had four wives . . . each of these wives had their own kraal . . . the kraals of my father’s wives were separated by many miles . . . and he commuted among them.”
Further on, Mandela describes his mother’s subsistence production at home.
“Everything we ate, we grew and made ourselves. My mother planted and harvested her own mielies.”
In Mandela’s account one can understand that sense of power and independence from the way the women of the family directly accessed power from having their own fields and controlling their own production. The ability of African women to control their own agrarian independence, greatly confused European Victorians when they arrived to colonise.
How could these African women be allowed to spend so much unsupervised time, which permitted them to do, among other things, unChristian activities like sneaking off to meet their illicit lovers?
As African communities fell apart and migrant labour set in, the work of cultivation spoke to the dire need for survival and, in a way, became the brutal hardship of rural women trying to supplement household nutrition.
Rural impoverishment rendered land cultivation a form of marginal living.
Land cultivation shifted from being a domain of matriarchal power to one of women’s desperation.
Another key element of precolonial land use by women was in the guardianship of sacred pools and areas.
Land dispossession, coupled with the laws that broke the powers of indigenous diviners, robbed African women of their power to preside over important parts of the landscape.
Right into the apartheid era, evictions to establish white farms meant loss of control over and access to sacred sites – all important sources of matriarchal authority in African communities.
In thinking about land reform then, it seems to me to be important to consider what “return of the land” really means, and how the young black people who are at the forefront of the land struggle today envisage the matriarchal history of land.
I say this because, in as much as this conversation has finally emerged, it is not clear that women’s power and gender equality are guaranteed once this land has been returned...