Gender, Traditional Authority, and the Politics of Rural Reform in South Africa


Rangan, Haripriya, and Mary Gilmartin. 2008. “Gender, Traditional Authority, and the Politics of Rural Reform in South Africa.” Development and Change 33 (4): 633-658.

Authors: Haripriya Rangan, Mary Gilmartin


The new South African Constitution, together with later policies and legislation, affirm a commitment to gender rights that is incompatible with the formal recognition afforded to unelected traditional authorities. This contradiction is particularly evident in the case of land reform in many rural areas, where women's right of access to land is denied through the practice of customary law. This article illustrates the ways in which these constitutional contradictions play out with particular intensity in the 'former homelands' through the example of a conflict over land use in Buffelspruit, Mpumalanga province. There, a number of women who had been granted informal access to communal land for the purposes of subsistence cultivation had their rights revoked by the traditional authority. Despite desperate protests, they continue to be marginalized in terms of access to land, while their male counterparts appropriate communal land for commercial farming and cattle grazing. Drawing on this protest, we argue that current South African practice in relation to the pressing issue of gender equity in land reform represents a politics of accommodation and evasion that tends to reinforce gender biases in rural development, and in so doing, undermines the prospects for genuinely radical transformation of the instituted geographies and institutionalized practices bequeathed by the apartheid regime.


Keywords: women's land rights, customary law, gender inequality, informal access to communal land, New South African Constitution


  • Examines the key contradictions emerging from the post-apartheid Constitution's delineation of traditional authority, customary law, gender rights, and democratic governance, and shows how these `constitutional contradictions' have turned former Bantustans (spaces of concentrated settlement for the majority of ethnic African populations) into terrains of contention regarding issues of control over land allocation, the location of competing land-uses, and the validity of customary practices.
  • Contradictions: 1) new Constitution has formally abolished homelands and Bantustans, but continues to protect the status of “traditional” authorities who were appointed to exercise control within these jurisdictions; 2) while post-apartheid constitution protects status of traditional authorities, also enshrines Dem. Bill of Rights based on governance through elected officials; 3) while the Constitution accords equal rights to women and men, it simultaneously endorses the exercise of traditional customary law in former Bantustan areas. Rangan et al. argues that gender equity and land reform is viewed too often as a social issue, seen as “a social restructuring in space” rather than a process of reshaping `instituted geographies’. The article emphasizes the “geographic dimensions” of gender equity.
  • These geographical dimensions are crucial because they not only reveal the ways in which institutions and institutionalized practices shape class and gendered access to land-based resources, but also indicate how changes to existing modes of access might affect the livelihood abilities and social well-being of women and men in rural communities.The reconstruction and development program initiated in 1994 the RDP identified land and agrarian reform as the most important issue facing the country and sought to address the subject of women's rights to land through intense national debate.


“Despite these efforts with legislation and policy, there appears to have been very little positive advancement of gender rights and land reform in post-apartheid South Africa…Tenure insecurity for women-headed households in rural areas has grown worse since the enactment of interim legislation in 1994 to protect informal land right.”(635)

“The problems emerge in large part because most development theorists and policy-makers are unable to recognize the fact that the process of linking gender equity with land reform involves bringing together two distinctive kinds of geographical agendas to make a single and complex geographic project.” (636)

"Gender equity is fundamentally a geographic initiative that seeks to redefine institutionalized relationships and customary practices of everyday life in communities, but the only way in which the post-apartheid government has dealt with the geographic dimensions of such processes is through the technocratic jargon of `decentralization' and `devolution' to local governments. While such terms may imply support for `community control' or `grassroots democracy', they do not indicate how devolution and decentralization will address issues of gender equity at the regional and local levels alongside the prevalence of traditional authority and customary law.”(654)

Topics: Gender, Women, Gender Equity, Governance, Constitutions, Livelihoods, Rights, Land Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: South Africa

Year: 2008

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