• STRUGGLE: Sizani Ngubane was inspired by her mother's encounter with a traditional leader, who refused to give her land. Picture: RAJESH JANTILAL

  • STRUGGLE: Sizani Ngubane was inspired by her mother's encounter with a traditional leader, who refused to give her land. Picture: RAJESH JANTILAL

  • STRUGGLE: Sizani Ngubane was inspired by her mother's encounter with a traditional leader, who refused to give her land. Picture: RAJESH JANTILAL

SIZANI Ngubane, founder of the Rural Women's Movement, has driven more than 15000km since the start of May to alert rural women about the government's efforts to get the Traditional Courts Bill passed.

Ngubane formed the KwaZulu-Natal-based movement in 1998 to represent and document the issues of 50000 women in rural areas via a coalition of regional organisations. Women comprise the majority of an estimated 15-million South Africans living in rural areas under tribal authority and face numerous problems resulting from the discriminatory patriarchal and informal character of many of the tribal authority structures.

Democratic Alliance MPL Johann Krog put the problem in more simple terms when he said history has shown that feudalism can never lead to development.

"I went to all the public hearings (for the Traditional Courts Bill). There were 400 chiefs.... They didn't tell people about the hearings. Where were the women? The chiefs could have used their power to call an imbizo (public gathering), but they didn't," says Ngubane at her home in Sea Cow Lake, Durban.

Six years after being born in KwaMpumuza, near Pietermaritzburg, the seed of a passionate lifetime's calling seems to have been planted when she told her mother she wanted to travel across Africa so she could share the experiences of other women with her.

Their life was hard - Ngubane's mother was a domestic worker who earned R10 a month; her father was hardly ever home because he worked in Johannesburg.

That seed germinated into full-time activism when, in 1965, "my mother went to a traditional leader and asked for land, after being kicked out by my father's brothers". Reflecting the plight of many rural women who continue to be forced to leave their homes after the death of a spouse, the leader replied: "I wish your daughter was a son."

Her passion about a woman's right to be independent arose from this encounter.

The Rural Women's Movement was initially formed to address this particular plight among rural women. In tribal areas - more than 40% of the land in KwaZulu-Natal is nominally owned by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini - land is traditionally granted only to males, so women are sometimes forced by male relatives to leave their homes and communities after the death of their husband.

Since its formation, the movement has had to tackle many other problems that affect rural women, one of the most notable being corruption among traditional leaders. She says land is frequently sold illegally by traditional leaders for R250 to R7000. Traditional land may not be sold or traded.

On the death of a spouse or relative, a traditional leader may charge R300 to R500 to stamp the document required for the Department of Home Affairs to issue a death certificate, claiming the money is required "to cleanse them".

Most rural people live on government grants, and with many dying due to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses, families spend their available resources on travelling and other expenses to care for the sick person.

"How do you charge a person for losing a relative?" she asks.

Other arbitrary and illegal levies charged by traditional leaders can include R50 a family for a new traditional skirt for the wife of a chief; contributions of R50 to R100 for a new car for the leader and R10 for the repair of the chief's cattle kraal.

The chief's "levy" collectors usually visit each home during the day, when the men are not there, and women get blamed for "causing trouble" if they do not pay the money. "I am putting my neck on a block by telling you this," Ngubane says, "but someone has to do it. I will fight this corruption until I can fight no more."

She does not, however, oppose the concept of traditional leadership.

"I am against some of the chiefs who do these things . but there is no legal way of monitoring this type of abuse and corruption."

She is also deeply concerned about the slow pace of land reform in South Africa: "I work in rural areas. I see and feel it. There is grinding hunger."

The 13% of the land that apartheid planners had left for black people in rural areas was mostly not arable - "Eighty percent of the land is owned by a few individuals. There needs to be more equity."

The government initially decided on a target of 30% of the land being transferred to blacks by 2014, but the figure is currently far less.

Ngubane's most recent travels are due to the re-emergence of the Traditional Courts Bill. The controversial bill was scrapped in 2008 due to heavy opposition in the National Assembly, but the government is once more trying to get the unamended bill passed into law.

The new bill is intended to maintain harmony in communities through traditional courts that can hear relatively minor civil and criminal cases. Many women in rural areas rely on customary dispute resolution processes as their primary access to justice because either they value these systems or the courts are inaccessible to them.

But women are often excluded from the traditional court processes and are sometimes refused self-representation and attendance.

Ngubane says the Traditional Courts Bill will continue to compel women to be represented by their husbands or neighbours in accordance with customary law, which favours men.

She says the bill has been shaped largely to protect the interests of traditional leaders, the only group known to have been consulted in the drafting process of the bill, even though women are the most likely to be affected by the bill.

The newly formed Alliance for Rural Democracy, which the Rural Women's Movement and many other rural organisations have joined, says the bill was sold by traditional leaders as upholding African custom, dignity and tradition, but instead, it seeks to entrench colonial and apartheid distortions embedded in "official" customary law at the expense of women's rights and equal citizenship.

On May 31 four provinces - North West, Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape - rejected the bill at a sitting of the National Council of Provinces. Mpumalanga wanted more time to obtain a mandate on the issue.

The National Council of Provinces committee opted to reopen the bill for public hearings, but the alliance wants the bill scrapped, and a new one drafted which takes as a starting point the concerns expressed by rural communities, and the constitution.

For Ngubane, the struggle continues, and she needs to hurry off to another appointment far away in the country. A luta continua.