More about MEA finalist Sizani Ngubane from South Africa

January 7, 2020

staff writer on the Christian Science Monitor published on 6 January 2020 a Question and Answer piece with Sizani Ngubane, the South African land rights defender who became a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/11/26/breaking-news-mea-has-3-women-hrds-as-finalists-for-2020/ ]
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 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.

——

On 28 November 2019 Kim Harrisberg reports for the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the “Death-Defying South African Nominated for International Human Rights Award“. A South African women’s land rights activist who has been stabbed with a knife, slapped with a gun and hit by a speeding car and those are just a few of the murder attempts on Sizani Ngubane who is currently in hiding to prevent further attempts on her long life of activism.

“We cannot separate women’s land rights from gender based violence in South Africa,” said the 74-year-old activist who frequently champions women’s access to land in rural KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province. “We are celebrating 25 years of democracy, but rural women are still treated like children. It is not in line with our constitution,” Ngubane, founder of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM) land rights group, said in a phone interview.

Land is a hot topic in South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphosa last year launched a process to change the constitution with a proposed redistribution of land aimed at addressing high levels of inequality. But in KZN, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini controls 2.8 million hectares of land, a fragmented sub-tropical area the size of Belgium, under an entity called the Ingonyama Trust established in 1994. The Zulu monarch wants President Cyril Ramaphosa to sign an agreement promising to exclude territories that the king controls from land reform.

Land rights activists are challenging the control wielded by such traditional authorities over rural communities, particularly on women who are often evicted once widowed. “The trust has turned communities into tenants by leasing ancestral land to them,” said Ngubane, adding that a compulsory rent, rising 10% every year, had to be paid by community members who otherwise face eviction.

Ngubane, along with rights groups, is challenging the Ingonyama Trust in Pietermaritzburg High Court in March 2020. The work of the Rural Women’s Movement includes finding housing for evicted women and children, helping grow food on communal land for the hungry and sick, campaigning for better legal protection of women’s land rights and more. “We are like one big family,” Ngubane said. “We have now begun to spread our wings into different parts of the country.” Launched in 1998, the Rural Women’s Movement has grown to 50,000 women, said Ngubane.

Ngubane said there was retaliation and danger involved in challenging the traditional authorities, citing burnings, kidnappings and beatings of outspoken women and men. “My dream is that one day KwaZulu-Natal will be like other provinces, where women’s rights are seen as human rights and women are given the same power over land that men are keeping for themselves,” Ngubane said.

https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2020/0106/A-woman-s-right-to-her-land-Q-A-with-Sizani-Ngubane

Death-Defying South African Nominated for International Human Rights Award

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2019-11-28-human-rights-award-nominee-in-hiding-as-she-fights-for-womens-land-rights/

One Response to “More about MEA finalist Sizani Ngubane from South Africa”


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