African Studies Quarterly

WOMEN, LAND AND AUTHORITY: PERSPECTIVES FROM SOUTH AFRICA. Shamim Meer, ed. Oxfam and David Philip, 1997. pp. 146. Paper: $15.95.©

The articles assembled here by the National Land Committee's Gender Task Group examine rural South African women's access to land and other resources with the goal of informing current policy debates concerning land reform. Drawing attention to the needs of women at this time is particularly important because the South African government is laying the legal ground work for transforming the exploitative land tenure system inherited from the apartheid era. The government is specifically committed to land tenure reform which would involve establishing a unitary legal system of landholding, land restitution, returning to eligible previous owners land taken after 1913, and land redistribution, with government assistance to citizens seeking to purchase land. This volume's authors believe that in order for these policies to succeed, attention must be paid to the particular yet varied interests of women.

This volume begins with two introductory chapters, one of which, by the editor Shamim Meer, synthesizes the conclusions of the case study chapters that follow and one, by Catherine Cross and Michelle Friedman, which offers an overview of how the various existing land tenure systems in South Africa affect women. Both of these chapters are extremely useful. Meer's helps readers identify the common conclusions of the case study chapters; Cross and Friedman present a literature review within which to place the case studies' specific findings.

It is the richly detailed information provided in the eight case studies of rural South African communities that serve as this book's most significant contribution to the literature. The case communities range from the former Reserves, to white farmland, to freehold and informal settlements. Yet the studies are comparable as, in each case, researchers probed gender dynamics concerning access to and decisions about using land, the different interest groups in each community, women's various interests concerning land, and the degree to which women participate in local decision-making structures.

The case studies are arranged into three sections. The first section examines traditional land tenure systems with attention paid to women's access to land and authority. Lisa Thorp's chapter presents data gathered in a qualitative survey of 53 respondents in six communities in the former Transkei and KwaZulu and two communities in the former Natal. Janet Small's chapter examines the similar land tenure system in three villages of the former Lebowa. Both authors conclude that while women are disadvantaged by these traditional systems, they are not all equally so. The second section presents studies of communities that are undergoing dramatic change "where gender relations are in greater flux than normal" (Meer p. 8). Cheryl Walker writes about a community in KwaZulu-Natal that has established a trust to oversee land allocation. Sue Middletonís chapter offers an examination of two communities in the Eastern Cape that have been established by land invasion. Fiona Archer and Shamim Meer's chapter studies the impact of a new law regarding land ownership in Namaqualand Coloured Rural Reserves. While women seemed to fair better in some of these situations than in others, the authors all conclude that women and men have different priorities concerning development and land use.

The final section examines gender relations among current and former farm workers. Lisa Waldman and Mampe Ntsedi have researched women on farms in the Benoni, Springs, and Delmas districts. Sandra Hill-Lanz and Kathy O'Grady's chapter discusses the status of women on farms in the Western Cape. Bronwyn James and Sibongile Ngcobo offer an examination of Coloured women recently evicted from farms. Together these chapters highlight the race and gender dynamics of power in these communities.

Three themes run through this volume. The first regards the authors' insistence on overcoming the simplistic view that communities are homogeneous. It is a mission of this book to help overcome the reality that women's experiences are too often hidden from policy-makers. Second, although many of the authors are at pains to emphasize that women themselves are a heterogeneous group whose varied interests derive in part from their marital and class status, the studies suggest that common problems do plague many women. Foremost, compared to men, they are disadvantaged with regard to access to land. In addition, women have particular problems obtaining the resources necessary to engage in production. Also, most women have little power in their families to make decisions over issues such as finances. Finally, men are largely resistant to women's demands for greater rights. The book's final theme is that land reform and development must be approached in a manner that (a) removes the traditional patriarchal social relationships in society and (b) facilitates the formation of social movements and non-governmental organizations among women. On this final point, the authors are most united. Various authors suggest that women need to participate fully in local decision-making bodies, such as trust and development committees, civic associations, and political parties. Fiona Archer and Shamim Meer, as part of their research, even facilitated the formation of the Namaqualand Women's Forum.

These essays' conclusions will not be surprising to those who are well-informed about gender dynamics and land policies in South Africa and the developing world. No dominant paradigm is being subverted here. This volume's contribution is in the specific information from the various case studies. This rich detail informs to the general conclusions and assertions made in much of the women in development scholarship. Consequently, this book would be useful primarily to readers with a solid background in women in development literature who are interested in case studies of rural dynamics in South Africa. One critique is that only one of the chapters (James and Ngcobo) offers case studies of individual women, which are illuminating since they demonstrate how individuals experience the broad dynamics and challenges that face the rural women of South Africa. Another shortcoming of this book is that, although it was published in 1997, it contains no discussion of the land reform initiatives taken by the new South African government. It would be best to regard this book as describing the situation facing rural women when the apartheid era ended, since most of the data were collected prior to the 1994 election.

Kimberly Lanegran
Department of History and Political Science
Hood College