SOUTH AFRICA: South Africa's Tribal System Strips Rural Women of Rights

Sunday, August 5, 2012
Los Angeles Times
Southern Africa
Southern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

He brushed it off as a family affair, she said. Male relatives took her brother's side, and Dlamini fled to avoid what she feared would inevitably be rape.

After two decades away, Dlamini, 32, came home last year to this village in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal. She approached the head man asking for land to build a house with her savings where she could raise her two children.

"He said he's not allowed to allocate land to a woman," she said. "It must be a male relative."

South Africa's system of traditional rulers and tribal courts endures, and the ruling African National Congress moved recently to widen the reach of that system. The Tribal Courts Bill would subject 20 million rural South Africans to courts ruled by traditional chiefs, in a move critics say creates one law for urban people and another for those in tribal areas.

The bill would deny South Africans in tribal areas their present right to opt out of traditional courts in favor of government courts. Although serious criminal offenses would still be heard in conventional courts, some assaults, including cases of domestic violence, could be heard in tribal courts.

"The tribal courts remain patriarchal institutions. Women complain that when they try to bring their cases to councils comprised of men — and old men at that — they don't get a very sympathetic hearing, particularly when it comes to family matters," said Sindiso Mnisi Weeks, senior researcher at the Law, Race and Gender Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

The tribal traditions and institutions sit uneasily alongside a liberal constitution outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion or sexual preference.

Nursing grievances against arbitrary chiefs and traditional courts that treat them as second-class citizens, women have emerged with horror stories: chiefs who refuse grieving widows the right to appear in conventional courts when their land and houses are stolen; who collect arbitrary taxes or impose harsh fines; who punish them by refusing to let them bury their dead.

Talking about her experiences 21 years later, Dlamini stood in the doorway of her unfinished house, which she hasn't the money to complete. Tears threatened, but she brushed them away, engulfed by memories.

Suddenly she crashed, face first, to the concrete floor of the round thatched hut in a faint. After a minute, she regained consciousness. She said she had been suppressing so much grief and anger that she feared she would explode.

Her older child returned from school, folded his uniform reverently and took a bowl of samp (coarse cornmeal) and beans from a pot on the stove. Dlamini has managed to put a roof over their heads, but she's afraid they'll be turned out one day, because the land isn't hers.