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South African women fight to own their homes

An increasing number of black women want to formally own their own homes and land in the cities where they settled informally under apartheid. The system is still stacked against them.

Hilda Ntombise Ntanyana, 68, has just retired after a long and tiring working life in domestic labour and nursing. She is looking forward to relaxing with her grandchildren in her modernised house in Mandela Park, part of the second fastest growing township in South Africa, Khayelitsha, on the outskirts of Cape Town.

Like all black South African women her age, Hilda grew up under the apartheid regime. Like many others, she was stripped of her South African citizenship and forced to live in one of the ten 'bantustans' remote, rural, jobless areas – set up by the apartheid government to separate black South Africans into different tribal areas and keep them out of the towns and cities set aside for whites.

King Williams Town, where Hilda grew up, was deemed to be part of the Ciskei Bantustan and under the apartheid Pass Laws Hilda was issued with a pass defining her as a Ciskei citizen. As such she was not allowed to live or work in Cape Town, but even so she migrated there in the 1970s in search of work.

In those days, the only city jobs available to black women were cleaning the homes of white families. Hilda was single and the main breadwinner for her family. Whilst she worked her children remained with her parents in King Willliams town. Hilda sent the money she earned in Cape Town home to her parents and children.

'I was arrested many times in those years for not having a Cape Town pass and was often sent back home. At other times, I hid from the police. Finding a place to stay was a real problem. Capetonians were scared to rent us rooms because of the risk of being raided by the Pass Law police,' says Hilda.

Hilda spent many years living in shacks in different parts of the city, in informal and illegal settlements that mushroomed quickly and were sites of resistance to the apartheid regime. In a part of Khayelitsha that came to be known as Site C, Hilda says people first built shacks on open sand dunes. There was no electricity or running water. 'We were living under plastic sheets in this windy area. When the wind blew, my food would blow out of my shack all over the ground.'

30 yeas on and the apartheid regime has fallen. Hilda still lives in Khayelitsha but her home is now a small, three-roomed house which she shares with her son, daughter and grand-daughter. She worked a day job and night shift as a nurse for many years in order to raise enough money to put down a deposit on the house in 1989. However, despite paying a mortgage for the past 17 years, Hilda has yet to receive a title deed to her home, and continues to lives an insecure existence.

Hilda says that none of the residents in Mandela Park have been given title deeds to their houses, which were sold to them by a private company jointly owned by the government and a consortium of major banks. Residents bought the houses for 25,000 Rand – about 4,000 US dollars each – but were surprised a few years later when faults such as cracked walls and damp appeared, indicating poor construction.

This was the beginning of a long campaign by the residents, which included boycotting mortgage payments for several months as a protest until the housing company repaired the homes. The community formed a pressure group, known as the Housing Action Committee. Other protests and demonstrations led to arrests and court cases, and received widespread publicity for their demands for an end to the privatisation of social housing and for arrears to be wiped out. The group continues to meet every Sunday to discuss housing issues.

Many black South African women who left remote rural areas decades ago to work in the cities later brought their children to live with them, mainly so that they could attend university. As their children received qualifications and went on to get their own city jobs, the family ties with the cities were strengthened.

Many women approaching middle age, especially widows or single mothers like Hilda, decided to buck the trend of retiring back to the rural homestead and instead chose to buy so-called 'low-cost' housing, where they could live out their old age on the edge of the city.

The problems Hilda faces, though, in securing the title deeds to her house, have not swayed her in her determination to stay in Kayelitsha. She does not want to retire to the rural areas, which lack basic services such as water and electricity. She says she doesn't have the strength to do a rural woman's daily work, which includes carrying water and fetching firewood.

In any case, South Africa's Communal Land Rights Act introduced in 2004, poses difficulties for single women and widows who want to retire to rural areas, build their own houses and live independently of the family. In Cape Town, women are beginning to get organised and demand their rights, but it is more difficult for women to own land in rural areas. Here, land is administered by male-dominated traditional councils.

Researchers at the Institute of Women's Law based at the University of Oslo recently published a report called Human Rights, Formalisation and Women's Land Rights in Southern and Eastern Africa.

Written by five African and Norwegian writers, the report says "The Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act requires that 40per cent of the members of the traditional councils be elected and that 30per cent be women. Yet, this requirement has been met with considerable resistance from the traditional leaders."

Single mothers who battled against apartheid Pass Laws to secure employment, put their children through university, and renovate even small houses run the risk of feeling marginalised all over again if they retire home to rural areas where customary law often dictates that women are inferior to men.

'Since women are already discriminated against under customary law, a further strengthening of traditional leaders and customary law risks severe negative consequences for women's access to land, especially for widows, divorcees and unmarried women,' the report points out.

The report also highlights another problem for women who originally came to the city after being evicted from their land by apartheid laws, and now want to return home. Land redistribution is happening at too slow a pace and helping too few women. 'By 2004, approximately 3per cent of commercial land had been redistributed. As at 29 February 2004, only 11.9per cent of all households benefiting from land redistribution were female-headed.'

In Hilda's case, instead of retiring to the rural areas, she has spent nearly all her life savings on renovating the damp and mouldy city house that she bought. She has had to repaint the entire building, replace all the ceilings, add doors, install a kitchen in part of the front room, and fix the damp. The house is small, modern and very well kept.

She seems to have taken a huge risk in doing this, since the housing company has tried several times to evict dozens of residents who they say have defaulted on their mortgage payments. Hilda says that two years ago, the housing company brought people papers to sign.

Company officials told 12 elderly women that they were merely signing to confirm that they still lived in the houses. Shortly after, according to residents, the women found that they'd signed away their rights to their homes and had to accept being removed to tiny one-roomed houses in the far-away community of Thubelitsha. 'Many old ladies were tricked like this,' says Hilda.

For those who refused to move and who, like Hilda, stayed in their houses, another problem has arisen. Because the houses in Mandela Park have only two tiny bedrooms, most families have added more bedrooms on to the back of the houses and some families have tried to start tiny vegetable gardens.

But last month the housing company told residents that any 'spare land' outside the front and back doors did not belong to them, and will be sold to new buyers. And any extra rooms that residents have built over the years will, apparently, be bulldozed.

Without a title deed, Hilda is not sure how much land she actually owns. It places her and the other households in Mandela Park in a very difficult position.

"I feel very insecure,' said Hilda. 'As a family we have shed many tears over our situation. I don't know how much I still have to pay for this house. If I die, I don't know who will inherit my house as I don't yet have a title deed."

"Some women in the community feel we have achieved something by owning our own houses, but where are the title deeds?"

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