Challenges impacting rural women and their participation in land reform

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

The agricultural sector continues to play a pivotal role as the engine of economic growth in many African countries. It is the main source of livelihood and employment.

However, this important sector of the economy is not performing optimally, partly due to widespread discrimination against women who ironically, according to the figures released by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), comprise about 43% of the agricultural labour force.

While many agree that land reform is crucial to redress racially skewed land ownership patterns that are a result of decades of apartheid and centuries of colonialism, the big question remains: how does the country use the land reform programme to drive the advancement of women, revitalise rural economies and combat the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty?

Women in agriculture continue to face myriad structural barriers that hinder them from playing a meaningful role in the agricultural sector in South Africa. A report compiled by the Sustainability Initiative of South Africa (SIZA) and the Western Cape Department of Agriculture paints a worrying picture regarding the discrimination faced by women in the agricultural sector.

The report found that deep-seated patriarchal practices, culture and traditional values are the main barriers that continue to hinder women from advancing in the agricultural sector and preclude them from assuming any leadership roles in the sector and in the land reform programme. The report further found that women are treated with a lesser amount of respect by their male colleagues, and that women consider themselves to be less capable than their male counterparts. As a result, women are more reluctant to apply for any leadership roles. The notion that agriculture is “a man's job” further breeds prejudice, sexism, and discrimination among and between both men and women.

These disturbing findings were also echoed by the United Nations, which identified four overarching systemic constraints to women's economic empowerment: adverse social norms, discriminatory laws and a lack of legal protection, the failure to recognise, reduce, and redistribute unpaid household work and care, and a lack of access to financial, digital, and property assets.

While the South African Constitution is universally lauded for its progressive stance on gender parity, there are still several challenges that the lawmakers, the industry, communities and other stakeholders need to address to create an enabling environment for women to meaningfully participate in the agricultural sector and in the land reform programme.

The current socio-economic challenges facing the country makes a compelling case for driving women’s advancement in agriculture and land reform in South Africa. The country has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world. According to the latest figures from StatsSA, unemployment hit a record high of 34.4% in the last quarter, or 44.4% to use the expanded definition that accounts for those discouraged from seeking work, which translates to 7.8 million jobless people. StatsSA has also highlighted that the labour market is more favourable to men than it is to women, with the official unemployment rate for women sitting at 36.8%, compared to 32.4% for men.

To alleviate the stubbornly high unemployment figures, the land reform programme can be used as a catalyst to curb unemployment and provide economic opportunities to millions of women and young people who are currently excluded from economic participation.

The land reform programme represents low hanging fruit that can be harnessed to upskill women, provide them with meaningful employment opportunities, enable them to contribute to food security and play a meaningful role in communal property associations (CPAs), which are landholding institutions established under law to acquire and manage the beneficiary land on behalf of the community.

Currently, the general age demographic in CPAs is estimated to be above the age of 50, and many of these bodies are dysfunctional and plagued by challenges of mismanagement, corruption and factionalism including lack of support from government. This has often led to once-prosperous pieces of farmland lying fallow and the widespread failure of many land reform programmes, whose beneficiaries have not benefitted from the restituted land. 

Women can play a significant role in providing much-needed leadership to these CPAs for the benefit of their communities. The study by SIZA lends credence to this narrative. The study found that women are empathetic leaders, good problem solvers and effective communicators, and they pay attention to detail and nuances, making them well suited for administrative and organisational management, as well as compliance and sustainability audits.

In stressful situations, women are better communicators, team players, and less aggressive than men. Women excel at problem solving and strategic thinking. Women are less prone to amassing and abusing power. Female agricultural students complete their studies at a higher rate than males.

Let me hasten to point out that we cannot rely solely on the intrinsic leadership qualities of women in the land reform programme. It is equally important that both government and private sector organisations with an interest in the success of the programme should empower women and young people with the requisite skills to enable them to successfully manage these entities professionally and in accordance with sound corporate governance principles.

The Vumelana Advisory Fund has always advocated that private sector participation in the land reform programme is one of the ingredients to success. Reduced budgetary allocations for land reform continues to hamper the ability of the state to address historical injustices resulting from massive land dispossession of the black majority and attaining a more equitable land ownership pattens in South Africa.

The private sector has the requisite skills and access to finance and markets to help claimant communities sustain and scale up their operations on beneficiary land. While the private sector is keen to play a meaningful role in the land reform programme, investors need to mitigate systemic risk and need assurance that they will receive a return on their investment.

The private sector is more inclined to invest in an entity that is guided by sound corporate governance guidelines, as this ensures transparency and accountability and acts as a bulwark that prevents fraud and mismanagement. Prior to making an investment decision, private investors make an assessment of the likelihood of recouping their investment. Therefore strict adherence to corporate governance guidelines by CPAs will have a strong bearing on a CPA’s reputation and will result in a higher evaluation in the eyes of the private investor.

It is therefore crucial that we nullify the structural barriers that impede women in meaningfully participating in the land reform programme. Concerted efforts need to be made to shift the mindset of women and young people regarding agriculture and the available opportunities in land reform. Land reform and agriculture should be presented as viable and sustainable sources of livelihood, particularly for those who are not gainfully employed. CPAs require a sound succession plan, considering the average age of CPA administrators. For this to happen, government needs to play an active role as a catalyst to inclusion of these important sectors of our society

Peter Setou is the Chief Executive of the Vumelana Advisory Fund, a non-profit organisation that was established in 2012 to help beneficiaries of the land reform programme put their land to profitable use by establishing commercially viable partnerships between communities and investors. To date Vumelana has facilitated 20 partnerships between communities and investors, putting approximately 70 000 hectares of land to productive use, and benefitting more than 15 000 beneficiary households.