Journeys have a way of evoking unexpected things

Sibongile Mtungwa

Journeys have a way of evoking unexpected things – emotions, memories, reflections, new and old doubts, questions and answers about possible pathways to the future. I’ve been meaning to write about this Mzantsi short left experience visiting one of KZN’s fiercest social justice leaders and community organisers, Sibongile Mtungwa. I’ve known about her work for a while, but for me, the “visit” did much to elucidate her intersectional feminist organising praxis. Her command of complex relationships and nuanced approach to disrupting power hierarchies in a largely traditional socio-cultural set up. Her nuanced feministing that comes so effortlessly that it may be easy to miss. Her everyday facilitation of a critical, if curious, intergenerational dialogue where culture, tradition and so called “modernity” collide into each other exploding into new spheres of imagination.

Her depth and breadth of knowledge on diverse issues and her ability to zone in on what it all means for women is beyond commendable.

As fascinating is her treatment of the politics of identity. In a world where one of neoliberalism’s colonising effects is its injection of a mortal fear in our imagination, that we are disappearing together with everything we once knew or were, identity often becomes the life boat we cling to, sometimes pathologically so, in navigating our way to survival. When it is not the life boat it becomes this perverted instrument for a neo-colonialism of a special type. Her “intersectional” feminist approach challenges and stretches mine, and that of many other feminists, with their tendency to be overly matter of fact and fail the task of recognising the bridges there are for traversing “cites of struggle”. That identities, including cultural identities, can be claimed and repurposed into resources from which to advance liberation, expanding our “decolonial” possibilities as opposed to new identity prisons that patriarchy and his friends prefer to fashion them as. The idea that the art of liberatory feministing, or what the “new” NGOism calls “Transformative Feminist Leadership”, is the ability to creatively and effectively hold contestation as dialogue between intersecting oppressions and possibilities for liberation. Imagine the possibilities for the restoration of “health” and wellness that such an approach can yield!

Leadership like this is only possible to be produced from communities that are rich in spirit, agency, self-knowledge and vision, even when everything exists around them to strangle that vision. And there are as many stranglers of vision in Harry Gwala District Municipality as leaders and vision are plentiful.

Sibongile has chosen for herself a spirituality that seems to ground her faith in, and commitment to the art of possibility. The work she does is a daily grind that can only be made light by that kind of grounded commitment. Those who have organised anywhere, and especially in rural South Africa know how isolated rural activists often are, and feel. Donors have many excuses for marginalising these organisation’s and the rural organising space. Oh it’s too far. The organisations are too small and local. The context is too complex. It’s not easy to reach. We’ve all heard the excuses. Donors don’t like journeying off the beaten path, it’s easier to fund mainstream social change with its mainstream actors and their glossy reports and simplistic narratives and roll-off the tongue (if often vapid) strategies. So despite years of experience, a proven track record and commanding vision, Sibongile’s organisation continues to shrink in capacity because if there are going to be casualties in this war of attrition in social justice it’s going to be those organisations at the cliff’s edge of the urban/rural divide. But she pushes on. Art of possibility. And from the plentiful fruits of her labour the future is birthing itself in the cracks that time has made on the shell of the old.

The girls whose leadership journey her work fosters are beautiful and hopeful and have found the song of their hearts. The old ones are puzzled and curious, if somewhat desperate to believe the past has not taken everything with it. They walk slowly towards the hills where the sounds of water beckon. The future has made its call to the past!

Sibongile is not a lone warrior because she knows that futures that are liveable for all are made possible through community effort. She is a representation of so many multi-generational feministars the world over who are as they say “flipping the script”!

Gazing into those hills, I couldn’t help but be reminded of mama Sizani Ngubane and how in some way her spirit lives in Sibongile and so many others working hard to ensure rural South Africa is not relegated to the country’s own forgotten wild west.

May those she walks with in this organising journey be strengthened by the knowledge their work is known beyond the hills, and it’s kind of philosophies has a name.

Among her many affiliations, Sibongile is a Tekano Fellow and member of the Atlantic fellows global community of leaders dedicated to the advancement of “fairer, healthier, more inclusive societies”.

Hers is an inspiring example of the transformative pedagogy of struggle the pursuit of equity and justice, from a health or any other angle, demands.

Sibongile has told snippets of her story whose contours as vast and deep as her home province. Check this snippet:

Niqine maqabane ase WLTP!

And as for especially so called “feminist” donors, say thank you, you’re welcome! Fundani nazi and fund the work of women like her. Find Sibongile and fund their visionary feminist work here!


(By Siphokazi Mthathi)

(Photo credit: Siphokazi Mthathi / Facebook)

In South Africa, elderly rural women take a patriarchal King to court … and win!

Linah Nkosi

In South Africa in 1990, Sizani Ngubane co-founded the Rural Women’s Movement, a coalition of over 500 community-based organizations and a membership of over 50,000 indigenous women and girls. Until her untimely death at the end of last year, Sizani Ngubane, as Director of the Rural Women’s Movement, challenged traditional leaders’ misogyny, sexism, authoritarianism, patriarchy. In the last decades, she focused much of her work on KwaZulu-Natal, and especially on the Ingonyama Trust, a trust with only one trustee. At the time of Sizani Ngubane’s death, that trustee was King Goodwill Zwelithini. He alone controlled close to 30 percent of the land in KZN. Around five million people, about 50% of KZN, live on land the Ingonyama Trust controls. For years, the Ingonyama Trust ran roughshod over local landowners who actually had title, under traditional law, to the land. The Trust was especially vicious and dismissive of traditional women landowners. Last year, some of those women, along with the Rural Women’s Movement, took the Ingonyama Trust to court. This past Friday, the Court decided in the women’s favor. The court decided the Trust must repay the stolen money and land. This is a monumental victory for women, democracy, justice, and a demonstration that a person may die but the spirit lives on. Long live Sizani Ngubane!

In 2018, Sizani Ngubane described the Ingonyama Trust: “The Ingonyama Trust was established to secure the 2.8 million hectares of land in KwaZulu-Natal for white people, who were not sure if the ANC led government would accommodate them after the colonial and apartheid regimes took 87% of the South African land from the indigenous communities …. The Ingonyama Trust’s actions concerning land have been terrible for the communities who reside on land designated as the Trust land … The Trust invites people to bring in their Permission to Occupy (PTO) certificates and other documentary proof of land rights in order to convert them into lease agreements, whose annual rentals escalate by 10%. A PTO Certificate is an apartheid-era land right that is upgradeable to ownership in terms of the Upgrading of Land Tenure Rights Act 112 of 1991. Not everyone has PTO Certificates because under the apartheid regime the issuing of these certificates was only for men. Nevertheless, anyone who has established long-term occupation of land is likely to have customary ownership, especially in instances where the inheritance of the land occurred over generations. The Trust’s standard lease agreement turns the indigenous and/or rural communities from owners into tenants of the Trust, binding them to pay rent that escalates at 10% a year. If one defaults on the rent, one stands to lose the land, including any buildings and improvements one, or one’s family, made on the land.”

Linah Nkosi, 64, lives on a pension. She has a plot of land that’s about seven acres. Linah Nkosi and her sister acquired that land years ago, through the local traditional council. The Ingonyama Trust decided all landholders needed leases. When Linah Nkosi came to sign hers, the Trust rejected her because she’s a woman. The Trust told her to get a man to cosign. Linah Nkosi protested … to no avail. She returned with her male partner, and he signed. Linah Nkosi continued to protest and then, with others, went to court.

Margaret Rawlings, 65, Thembekile Zondi, 62, Hluphekile Mabuyakhulu, 75,and other women tell similar stories. Margaret Rawlings has a title deed that goes back to 1926, and yet traditional leaders and the Ingonyama Trust seized parts of her property, and when she protested, guns went off. Thembekile Zondi was married to a local traditional leader. When he died, a new leader was installed, and he promptly evicted Thembekile Zondi and her daughters from the house that Zondi and her husband had built. To this day, Zondi and her daughters “feel like refugees who have been forced to flee from their own home and watch the usurpers enjoying the fruits of our hard work.” At a community meeting, Hluphekile Mabuyakhulu was told to sign the lease or lose her land and become homeless. 

The women who were badgered, dismissed, threatened, injured, stolen from said “NO”. They said the Constitution, justice, decency, the rule of law, and women matter. On Friday, the Court agreed. The Legal Resources Centre, who represented the women in the case commented: “For the seven individuals, this fight is personal. The group comprises of single mothers, factory workers, pensioners, farmers and fathers trying to provide for their families. For many, their ascendents worked the land on which they are now being forced to pay rent. They have – along with the other 5.2 million residents of the Ingonyama Trust land – built their homes and their lives on this land. The applicants represent these 5.2 million South Africans and the threat that this matter poses to their security of tenure on this land.”

This fight is personal, for the seven individuals who took the Ingonyama Trust to court, as it is for everyone everywhere. Around the world, people face eviction from their homes, homes which they built, under all sorts of pretenses. Pandemic billionaires rake in untold wealth and avoid paying taxes, while the majority of the world population suffers economic crisis. Historically racist, sexist and economically discriminatory housing policies continue to build today’s Americas, Europe, Asia, Australia, as well as South Africa. Industrial capital was founded on pushing people off their land and then criminalizing them. Post-industrial capital continues to rely on the disenfranchisement and mass eviction of rural populations, especially women. No one, no one man, no one group of men, should control 30 percent of anything, but they continue to do so. That must come to an end. Friday’s judgement was a personal and a global victory. Long live Sizani Ngubane!

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: New Frame)

The Traditional Courts Bill is dead. Long live Sizani Ngubane!

Sizani Ngubane

The Alliance for Rural Democracy, South Africa, announced today that the Traditional Courts Bill is dead: “The Traditional Courts Bill (TCB) is dead. This follows years of opposition from civil society and is a massive victory for the thousands of people in rural parts of the country who spoke out against the bill during provincial public hearings … Women have been at the forefront of opposition to the TCB, arguing that it would legalise and entrench current discrimination.”

The Alliance statement quotes Nomboniso Gasa, of the Alliance for Rural Democracy and the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town, and Sizani Ngubane: “Sizani Ngubane of the Rural Women’s Movement in KZN states: `The TCB was never about custom. It was about bolstering the power of chiefs. Government can no longer deny the abuses that many chiefs are getting away with, because we explained these abuses over and over again in the public hearings. What we need now is a law that protects real custom and protects women, especially, against the kinds of autocratic power that chiefs got used to under apartheid.’”

Many other women, and women’s organizations, contributed to the death of the Traditional Courts Bill. The Women’s Legal Centre has worked tirelessly in the courts. Siyasanga Mazinyo, of the Rural People’s Movement, has been organizing and representing tirelessly across the provinces. And Aninka Claasens has been researching and writing tirelessly on the implications and injustices of the bill.

For decades, Sizani Ngubane has been speaking out, organizing, researching, writing with rural women initially in KwaZulu Natal, and then across South Africa. She founded the Rural Women’s Movement in 1998, which later became the National Movement of Rural Women.

In 1999, Sizani Ngubane met with women across the rural expanse of KwaZulu Natal. She was conducting research about the situation of women and the prospects for organizing a women’s movement. Here’s her conclusion: “Although no longer constitutionally defined as minors in the law of the country …women continue to be treated as subordinates to men; this subordination is defended by many (including some women) in the name of `African culture’ … As a result of the gendered division of labour in the communities, women carry much of the responsibility associated with food production … Women also carry the burden of responsibility for maintaining the household, energy and water collection and childcare. As a result women have less time to develop themselves as individuals or as groups. The prime constraint women face is the absence of a strong lobby campaigning for women’s land rights in rural areas … Organizing women around the land their needs is central to meaningful land reform: that process must begin now.”

The Traditional Courts Bill is dead. Long live Sizani Ngubane and all the women who killed it!

(Photo Credit: International Alliance of Women)