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Land redistribution – women must grab the moment

Amid all the noise and analysis about last month’s vote confirming a policy of land expropriation without compensation, very little has been said about women

Amid all the noise and analysis about last month’s vote confirming a policy of land expropriation without compensation, very little has been said about women. This must surely change given that women are an integral part of agricultural production and food security in our country.

Since the dawn of our democracy, a pro-poor land reform programme has not been implemented successfully. Even by government’s own admission, land restitution has been a dismal failure. For the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA), last month’s vote brings new hope for a change in people’s access to land in South Africa – for black people in general, and women specifically. It is a great moment, but which can just as easily be dead-in-the-water for the oppressed if we do not seize it correctly or repeat the mistakes that have caused the failures to date.

In South Africa, women are 43% of the agricultural labour force. They are close to half of the workers on farms, in cellars, abattoirs, processing factories or markets. When it comes to small-scale farming, 69% of these farmers are women. They are the ones who complement the local market of food production in our communities.

Overall in Africa, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), women produce up to 80% of food on the continent, both for household and to sell. Women play key roles as producers of food, managers of natural resources, income earners, and main caregivers of their families and communities.

A reality of the South African countryside is that female-headed households feature prominently as rural men historically migrate due to the lack of employment and other income-generating opportunities. This trend persists, and herein lies the initial tier of hope that the radical amendment to the property clause may portend: hope for the future of the household. A new dream to break the cycle of poverty for the daughters and sons in our impoverished rural communities. Land. Land that can ensure we are food secure and properly sheltered, and which can stem this migration to urban centres.

But for many mothers and daughters this dream will be cut short if they continue having limited decision-making power and control over how to use the land or its outputs. As it is now, women rarely own the land they are working on, or have poor tenure security and rights to the land. South Africa’s Farmers Weekly reports that female farmers are for the most part “producing relatively small volumes of produce on relatively small plots of land”.

While our constitution and legal system may stipulate gender equality in access to land, customary legal arrangements, and laws on marriage, divorce and inheritance can at times discriminate against women and daughters, preventing them from owning land. This is part of the double-edged expropriation without compensation that black women have suffered, from colonial invasion to date.

And it’s not only about equitable ownership and access to land. Gender-based discrimination often curbs rural women from equitable access to education, productive resources, technologies, capital, support services, as well as the power of decision-making.

Since 2015, the RWA has championed the One-Woman-One-Hectare campaign first proposed by the Commission on Gender Equality. It calls for the state to allocate one hectare of land, for the growing of food, to rural female-headed households since we believe there is a direct link between women’s right to land, economic empowerment, food security and poverty reduction. Where women have land, their families generally are better nourished, better educated and better able to break cycles of poverty.

As government’s policy on land expropriation shifts, the RWA calls for women in farming communities to be prioritised in the land restitution programme. At the same time, a more enabling environment should be created for women to fully participate in agricultural markets. This has to involve removing legal and cultural barriers to ownership and access to land, information and extension services, inputs and other resources. More women are also needed in agricultural education and training, research and extension services, agri-technology, finance, and agricultural policy-making and implementation.

Land reform and land distribution in South Africa has been extremely slow. Moreover, much of the farms handed to rural beneficiaries have not succeeded because government has failed to provide support. For land expropriation without compensation to succeed and bring about change, women will require land with water along with financial, technical and extension support. Agriculture in black rural areas requires investment for the development of small-scale producers.

Now is the time for women to take centre stage in shaping not only the debate, but also the strategies and policies that will flow from the new imaginings around land redistribution stemming from last month’s vote.

The RWA is a self-organised network of national rural women’s movements, assemblies, grassroots organisations and chapters across 10 countries in the SADC region. Moipone Jwayi is the regional coordinator of Free State RWA.