of The Gift Economy
Many Voices discuss The Gift Economy
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The Rural Women’s Movement (RWM) is a land-rights grassroots women’s orga-
nization based in South Africa, in the province of Kwa Zulu Natal. The RWM is
working with Indigenous, poor, rural, farm dwellers, and landless women whose
communities were forcibly evicted from their ancestral land as a result of 1913
Land Act and other Acts that followed. RWM is currently made up of 500 com-
munity-based grassroots women’s organizations, with a total membership of about
35,000 women between the ages of 16 and 78 years. RWM advocates for women’s
economic emancipation, land and property independent rights.
The Rural Women’s Movement in South Africa
Land Reform and HIV/AIDS
Faced by a legacy of apartheid systems, the districts we work in are character-
ized be a deep rural consciousness and social conservatism evidenced in strongly
held traditional social values, including around gender roles and relationships.
For the most part the women are located within patriarchal households. When
we interviewed one of the chairpersons of the community land trust in one of the
districts, he said, “I’m the manager of my household. I have knowledge about a
number of things. Therefore I don’t want my wife getting involved because she
might fumble and mess things up. A woman will do things a woman’s way and
make things worse. She may even sell our land to her boyfriends, and the man
will be held responsible. She would then be a problem in the community. When
the police come, they ask for the man, so women should follow their husbands.”
This was very sad for us because when the land reform program began in 1995,
the government made it very clear that women must be represented in all land
reform projects and structures and their voice must be heard. But this chairperson,
who was supposed to be assisting the project in his community, was against having
women participate in the decision-making process.
The social and agrarian history of some districts in the province is marked by
extreme social divisions in which land conflicts have played an important part.
The deeply scarred patterns of contestation over land, territorial boundaries, and
labour stretch back to the mid-nineteenth century. These patterns enforce not
only conflict between black, landless, or land-hungry communities and white
landowners, but also clan-based violence within black communities.
In one magisterial district where labour tenancy was abolished, more than 20,000
people were forcibly evicted from white-owned farms between 1969 and 1972.
Many of the people were dumped in resettlement camps close to their former
land. The province I come from is one of the poorest provinces with more than
70 percent of its inhabitants living in rural areas, which are significantly worse off
economically than urban areas. More than 30 percent of households in this province
are headed by women, and women-headed households, in terms of poverty, are
worse off compared to households headed by men. Their access to arable land, on
which to live and grow food, is severely limited and this contributes significantly
to women and children’s increasing poverty in South Africa.
But it wasn’t always like this. Pre-colonization, individuals could not own
land. Land was regarded as a sacred gift from Umvelinqangi (The Creator). For
example, traditionally, when a baby was about to be born, the Grandmothers,
symbolizing Mother Earth, would be the first people to take care of the newly
born baby. While the mother is in labour, the grandmothers would dig enough
soil outside to make mattress of earth in the hut. They would place blankets and
sheets over the mound of earth and then have the woman in labour lie down on
that earth-mattress. That earth would be kept in the hut for one week and could
only be removed by the Grandmothers in the early hours of the morning while
everyone was still sleeping. The Grandmothers would dig a big hole in the earth
and bury it. The umbilical cord would be buried in the same way. The earth used
for the mattress was regarded as sacred and only the Grandmothers know where
it is buried after its removal from the hut.
Mother Earth was also regarded as a sacred home for our people who had
passed on, and as the sacred source of food for the nation. Food was produced by
individual families but shared with everyone in the community. When it was time
for supper at night, the women, each bearing a bowl of food, would gather in the
Great-Grandmother’s house. Everyone—children, women, and men—would sit
in a circle and each of the mothers would pass around their bowls, and everyone
would eat from these bowls of different foods. In this way, there were no people
suffering from starvation, because even if a family did not have enough food to
bring to the Great-Grandmother’s supper, they could come for supper without
having to bring anything, and eat with the rest of their extended family, and
In the past, communities stayed together and shared whatever resources they
had. Mother Earth was regarded as a sacred gift and no one owned the land.People
ploughed and tilled the land communally. The food that was produced from the
land was shared among the families. If a woman had to visit her parents’ home
for a couple of days or weeks, she didn’t have to go to someone and say, “Please
look after my children while I am away.” She could just let all the members of
the extended family know that she would not be around, and her children could
go to anyone’s house and be fed.
When the youth who are looking after the livestock came back from the fields,
they didn’t have to go to their mother’s kitchen to have their meals. They could go
to any house in the community and find food ready for them. The heads of the
households, usually men, were regarded as managers, but they could not make
any decision without consulting their extended family, including the children
(girls and boys). Even the children had a voice in how the cattle could be kept,
and their voices were respected by the elders. Women had access to property and
they were treated with respect.
In order for communities to build houses, the people in the community would
perform what used to be called Ilima. This is when the community would come
together in support of a community member who needs to be assisted to carry
out bigger tasks, like building a house. One week they would build one person’s
house and the week after it would be another person’s house. This practice still
exists in some communities but its beginning to disappear. The principle behind it,
however, continues to exist in events like weddings, burials, and credit unions.
Colonization left women without access to land. It took away communities’
togetherness. People became individuals, and land became privately owned; Mother
Earth was carved into small pieces. About 87 percent of this land went into the
hands of the few white men, and the majority of the nation was left with only 13
percent of barren land on which to survive. The tilling of the land was the only
means of survival for our communities. To force our men into migration, the
colonizers made it illegal for people to have more than five cattle. People had to
reduce the number of cattle they had, on which they also depended for survival.
With migration came the breakdown of communities and also the breakdown
of family values. As Africans we began to look at our households as individual
This is when we began to see orphaned children, street children. In 1991 alone,
there over 100,000 children in South Africa living in the streets of major cities
like Durban, Johannesburg, Cape Town and some other small towns like Pieter-
maritzburg. Boys and girls had to sell their bodies in order to survive.
Before the land was taken away from the communities, the communities did
not need to have money. People could survive without money. My mother told
me that my grandfather sometimes worked for money for six month periods.
Then he would come back and work at home, and it would be his brother’s turn
to earn money. They would negotiate among themselves who was to go and work
for money that year, while the others continued to work at home on the land and
take care of the livestock. The money earned by the person who had volunteered
to work was not his own, because the others were at home looking after his cattle,
after his family, and ploughing and tilling his fields. So the money my grandfather
or his brother earned and brought back was for the entire extended family.
All of this is gone now because of the scarcity of resources and the scarcity of
land. The breakdown of extended families is seen as the main cause of poverty,
especially women and children’s poverty in the rural areas. Women and children,
60 percent of the population, live below the poverty line in rural areas. As a nation,
we are witnessing vast numbers of women evicted from their marital homes after
the death of their husbands, and from their parents’ homes after the death of their
fathers and mothers, because of the scarcity of food and economic resources. A
woman cannot inherit land because she is considered a minor. Traditional leaders
are turning a blind eye on this physical and psychological eviction. An example
is a woman from Mbulwana in Greytown whose husband died of AIDS. After
the burial, anonymous people threw stones at her window and roof until she was
forced to leave the area and return to parents’ home.
South Africa is currently experiencing one of the most severe HIV epidemics
in the world. By the end of 2006, there were more than five million people living
with HIV, according to UNAIDS estimates (www.avert.org/aidssouthafrica.htm).
A recent study by the South African Department of Health, based on its sample
of 16,510 women attending neonatal clinics across all nine provinces, estimated
that 30 percent of pregnant women were living with HIV in 2005. Our province,
KwaZulu Natal, recorded the highest rates, with a prevalence of 36 percent where
the national prevalence is 30 percent.
The breakdown of family values and communities has also led to a high rate of
teenage pregnancies. More than one-third of births in South Africa are to moth-
ers under the age of 18. This is one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the
world. Sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis are commonplace among
sexually active teenagers, and despite some public education efforts over the past
ten years, condom usage among teenagers remains at around ten to fifteen per-
cent. But there are many interrelated factors contributing to this environment of
increasing sexual promiscuity. Abuse and violence among young South Africans,
poverty, the of breakdown of family structures, political liberation, and men no
longer acting as role models are shaping the attitudes of our African youth.
The Rural Women’s Movement recently established an HIV prevention program
for youth in the district of Greytown. Our dream for this program was motivated
by realizing that the HIV/AIDS pandemic, especially in KwaZulu Natal province
where I come from, would affect labour turnout in agriculture and manufacturing,
and mining which is predominantly migrant labour sectors of our economy. This
would result in increasing malnutrition, adding to the problems of rural women,
especially female-headed households, arising from division of labour, land rights
and scarcity of resources, and deepen the debt crisis with increasing medical ex-
penses for sick family members, and the increasing number of funerals.
The Rural Women’s Movement main strategy is to get South African youth,
particularly the youth between the ages of eleven and nineteen, to speak more
openly about sexually transmitted diseases and the impact of HIV/AIDS. We
strongly believe that this strategy will work because there is substantial evidence
from different countries that HIV prevention programs work, but to be success-
ful, prevention programs must be strategically targeted and sustained over many
years in order to bring about lasting transformation. In South Africa, land reform
organizations have not until recently needed to take into account of issues such as
HIV/AIDS. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that HIV/AIDS is likely
to present one of the greatest challenges to land reform and capacity building of
It is estimated that, as the nation, we will lose 600 loved ones every month
to AIDS-related diseases, like tuberculosis and pneumonia. It is also estimated
that every day there are 1,500 to 1,800 new infections. More women than men
are infected. Some of the reasons why are clear and can be traced to deeply held
traditions that give men sexual authority in relationships. HIV infection among
South African women has increased dramatically, especially among women aged
20 between and 39, and especially among poor African women.
Women who are poor are doubly vulnerable because they have no economic
or social power. In a situation where gender inequality is culturally entrenched,
women’s poverty is frequently associated with violence and abuse, and this is
further advancing the spread of HIV. In one of the workshops we held, more
than 50 percent of the HIV-positive participants were married and were faithful
to one partner all their life. Infected women in abusive relationships remain in
those relationships for financial support, especially for their children. AIDS is also
putting more pressure on women in other ways, as we have to make hard choices
in allocating time between household needs, rearing and caring for children,
and caring for the sick. When we lose valuable team members, our productivity
is reduced, and we also find we are often depressed. Not one of us is untouched
by the rising incidence of illness and death rapidly engulfing our nation. We are
carrying a heavy burden of grief.
I would like to share a short story about four children who lost their mother a
couple of weeks ago. This woman was dying of AIDS after all her family members,
including the grandmother and the grandfather of her children, had already passed
on. She was the last one to pass on in the family and because she was the last,
she resisted. She didn’t want to die. In order for someone to enter her room, they
had to have a broom because there were worms crawling on the floor and her bed
was dripping with body fluids, her body finished. Four children, the youngest,
a little girl four years old, had to witness this situation. She refused to die until
she realized that her children will be taken care of even after she is gone. She said
to the caregivers, “I have remembered, I can still die and my children would not
suffer this much. I can remember that someone from somewhere would come
and take care of my children.” And she asked four women if they could please
look after her four children. And they said they would be happy to assist her.
A week later she passed on and four women came to collect the children and
took them to their homes. Within a week’s time the children had run away from
their foster homes and returned to their mother’s house. It was two days before
the community members noticed that the children were back. The Community
Health Worker telephoned me to tell me the children were in their own in their
home and it seemed they hadn’t eaten for four days.
In South Africa, about 29 percent of the productive active population is unem-
ployed. As activists we know that 29 percent does not accurately reflect what we
are seeing in the rural areas where we have people who haven’t been employed for
the last decade. While the government argues the 29 percent of the population is
unemployed, civil organizations maintain that the unemployment rate is actually
43 percent. Perhaps government statistics refer to people who are still looking
for jobs; and these statistics do not include those who have given up looking for
work. So, the community did have anything to share with these children. The
Community Health Worker who called me did not even have enough food for her
own children, and because we had a bit of money in our organization’s account,
I asked the chairperson if we could use some of that money to buy food for the
children. The money in that account was not raised to buy food but rather to buy
school uniforms and pay school fees for the children. We had to do something
we were not supposed to do, in order to feed the children.
AIDS thus poses challenging questions to existing approaches for development,
which is part of the reason why, as a lands rights organization, we decided to inte-
grate HIV prevention programs into our work. In some situations, the epidemic
has exposed the failure of previous development intervention to address persisting
gender inequalities. In many cases existing inequalities have been exacerbated by
the epidemic, such as widows being evicted from their homes.
Our work has shown that the impact of HIV has also raised the importance of
inter-household entitlement to food and other resources, partly because of the
number of orphan children being taken in by different families. Gender sensi-
tive and entitlement-based approaches are now more urgently needed than ever
before. The situation is scary, especially in the rural areas, and we need to do
something about it now.
Sizani Ngubane is the founder and director of the Rural Women’s Movement in
KwaZulu Natal-South Africa. She worked for ten years as a gender specialist for the
Association for Rural Advancement in KwaZulu Natal. Prior to that, she worked
for the South African Women’s National Coalition as a provincial coordinator. Her
skills and abilities were recognized when she was appointed the first organizer in the
Northern Natal Region by the Africa National Congress (ANC), which has recently
been legalized. She has been an activist for women’s rights for 40 years, and is particu-
larly passionate about women’s independent rights to land, property and inheritance.
She has two grandchildren and currently lives in Winterskloof. As a Zulu-speaking
child, she grew up in the rural areas just outside Pietermaritzburg. She was unable
to complete high school because of her family’s financial situation, but has made it a
priority to educate herself.