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Open Letter to the President | We are not ‘in this together’


Dear President Ramaphosa,

We appreciate your efforts in trying to curb the rampant spread of Covid-19, a pandemic that has had catastrophic consequences. However, we have been dealing with another pandemic that threatens to wipe out the women in this country.  Yes, you acknowledged recently in your #WomensDay2020 speech that ‘one of the most important ways to reduce women’s vulnerability to gender-based violence is to enable them to become financially independent’. Dear Mr President, we are tired of promises, it is time to put your words into action.

Despite the significant strides made towards gender equality, it still remains a distant reality for most women of African descent in this country. While the situations faced by women in South Africa have featured prominently in many of your speeches and other government platforms, there has been little meaningful action on the ground. Women have largely been reduced to a buzz word in public pronouncements, while they continue to suffer every day from forms of patriarchal violence that are embedded in institutions of the state. A case in point, Mr President, is the thorny issue of women’s access to land.

What has become of the national land reform programme, that promised women secure access to land? Prof. Cherryl Walker, a scholar on land, noted in 2003 that gender policy in land reform in South Africa is little more than ‘piety in the sky’: commitments to gender equity in the land reform programme have only ‘operated at the level of lofty principle’. Seventeen years after Walker’s observations – even after the National Development Plan acknowledges that women make up a large percentage of the poor, particularly in rural areas and has promised to prioritise women in education and rural development to redress those problems – it seems we have drifted even further from the promises of the new government.

The report of the High-Level Advisory Panel (2019) on land reform has revealed that government’s plan to combat women’s landlessness has failed thus far, and that women in South Africa ‘still carry the cost of oppression, marginalised by the land reform programme’.

The Panel reported that women constituted only 23% of land reform beneficiaries. This despite the fact that women constitute 43% of the large scale agricultural labour force. When it comes to small-scale farming, women account for 69% of farm workers and the Women on Farms Project has been calling for your attention to the plight of women on farms. Mr President, they are still calling. Evidence for South Africa is consistent with a widely cited figure that women own only between 1% and 2% of the world’s land. The 2017 State Land Audit Report commissioned by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform reported that Africans own only 4 % of the land in South Africa and women’s ownership remains in a precarious state.

We have seen your attentiveness in dealing with Covid-19. We ask that the same level of attention be applied to the plight of landless women, especially now. In confronting the ravages of the coronavirus, you have said that ‘we are in this together’. But these phrases offer little relief for women acutely concerned about food and shelter, who understand that in the struggle to get through another day, they are quite alone.

Poor black women’s lack of resources has been starkly exposed during this pandemic. Food security expert Dr Tracy Ledger says that while both men and women suffer, the burden of everyday provision of food falls squarely on women. She further reiterates that, ‘this burden is largely silent and invisible’.

As incidents of domestic violence have spiked during the lockdown, women have been left with few options, especially as they are not the owners of the homes in which they suffer. Moreover, many women have been displaced from their homes either through evictions or through the ravaging femicide that has taken the lives of many women in this country.

The pandemic flows through the historical cracks of colonial and apartheid inequalities and has only deepened their exclusion from social goods. Again, Dr Ledger warns that ‘women bear the heaviest burden’ of this exclusion. Everywhere, this exclusion can be felt through their agony and heard through their murmurs for help that never comes. And exclusion from land proved a key site of vulnerability for women as the pandemic struck.

How does Gogo Mangena in Ivory Park informal settlement follow the call for social distancing, for instance?  How does a woman in Engcobo cope when she has to use grant money to buy water and spend days on end hungry, following cattle to harvest cow dung for making fire. They don’t own the land, the water and definitely not the cattle. The Women on Farms Project laments that ‘our government is doing nothing about landlessness. When poor women construct shacks, the state sends in law enforcement to evict them’. Why has so much money and effort been channelled towards Covid-19, while very little enthusiasm is shown to the other enduring pandemic? This is a painful reality, Mr President; that women’s lives and livelihoods do not matter. The impact of landlessness on women is inhumane. Land means power, options and avenues of survival; without it, women are definitely not ‘in this together’.

We don’t need to remind you that the South African government has failed women, that elitist approaches and biases to land redistribution have failed poor black women, that the ‘elite capture’ of public resources in land redistribution has peripheralized the landless and land poor in this country. We definitely should not have to remind you that women are important and their issues have to be prioritised in the same way as Covid-19. We are certain that you are acutely aware that women’s access to this vital resource is hampered by restrictive legislation and patriarchal policy planning. All these are clearly stipulated in the recent report of the High Level Panel Advisory on Land Reform and the Elite Capture in Land Redistribution in South Africa 2019 reports, among other numerous documents on the issue.

Black women in South Africa suffer unequal legal status with regards to cultural beliefs and practices. This situation is further aggravated by what appears to be a lack of social and political will to deliver justice in cases of violations against women. Women suffer because of their personal status and cultural identity as females – they are frequently treated as minors in terms of having few rights, but at the same time bearing enormous responsibilities. Their legal status as unequal citizens ensures that they are routinely and systematically excluded from resources, opportunities and rights.

Women’s lives and bodies in this country are sites of political and social struggle. But policy documents and reports on land and agrarian reform still speak in narrow terms, of ‘women’s empowerment’ – in essence, a preoccupation with according women some power and resources.  The interests in women’s issues, and access to land in particular, has tended to be rhetorical and lacking in substance.

We hereby urge you to stop talking about women’s empowerment and gender equity without any meaningful practicality to your words. We urgently need you to start acting on the pro-poor promises to land redistribution enshrined in the policies relating to it. More importantly, please clarify what exactly ‘prioritisation of women to gain access to land’ means when national data shows that women are a minority of beneficiaries. Mr President, please start listening to women’s plight with understanding; poor women need little more than enough land for a house and a small garden to plant vegetables. In the vast country of South Africa, is that really too much to ask for?


Signed by:

Thatshisiwe Ndlovu, Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI)