Sizani Ngubane is a powerful 72-year-old woman who has dedicated her life to promoting gender equality and fighting for women’s rights.
In 1994, South Africa was looking at the promise of a new democratic society. Black women bore the brunt of the systematic racism, and Sizani was a strong activist with the ANC (the social democratic political party of South-Africa). When the party was elected in 1994, she decided to make a change for rural women. Sizani and four other women founded a women’s organization, the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM).
They created an organization for rural women by rural women. In 1998, Sizani left her position as a Gender Specialist at the Association for Rural Development to concentrate her efforts on building the RWM. Twenty years later, RWM’s work is not finished, but Sizani still does not waver.
Sizani fought hard throughout her life to be seen as an equal in men’s eyes, and she is a shining example of how the hammer of fortitude can smash the glass ceiling. She is a role model for young girls and women, teaching through example that one is not indebted to one’s current situation but that instead, women have the power to break through and achieve their aims.
Background of a role model
When she was ten years old, Sizani witnessed first hand the detrimental effects of gender bias and the unjustified strain it puts on women. Sizani’s father was a migrant worker in Johannesburg, leaving the house to be managed by Sizani’s mother. While he was away, his brother approached Sizani’s mother, demanding that she leave and give him the house and land. According to the Bantu Administration Act of 1927 and the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951, all indigenous women were considered minors and could therefore not own property. Forcibly evicted, she and Sizani approached their traditional leader, asking for his assistance. They told their story, and he replied: “Mama Ngubane, I wish your daughter was your son, I would be allocating land to you now. But because she is a girl and your eldest son is still too young, I am sorry I am unable to allocate land to you in your own right as a woman.” Sizani, her mother and four younger siblings were homeless, unable to take any possessions from their former home and
were forced to seek refuge at an aunt’s house. Two years later, Sizani’s mother wrote to a young male family member, asking him to stand on her behalf so she could acquire a piece of land. Sizani’s mother needed a man in order to move out of her aunt’s house. She needed a man in order to move forward, and she needed a man in order to have control over the future of her children. Sizani’s family moved into their new home, but the land technically belonged to their young male relative who could lawfully evict them and claim the property at any time. Sizani knew that this was an unjust and promised herself to do something to stop it. More than six decades later, she still works to fulfil her goals.
Sizani is not only an activist but she is a Human Rights’ Defender
Sizani has overcome countless obstacles, endured great suffering, and beheld tragic sorrow, but she is filled with hope. When she was six, she started helping her mother look after her siblings. When she was ten, her family was forcibly evicted from her home. When she was thirteen, Sizani’s father committed suicide. Her mother was only earning about half of a USD dollar per month and soon Sizani dropped out of school so she could get a job to ease their financial burdens. She therefore never received proper education and yet has still achieved great triumphs.
Life is often harder for a black woman living outside a city, without a car, without a husband, without a job, and without a sense of security. Sizani knows this from personal experience, and she identifies with struggles of rural women. Because Sizani has faced those tough and hard topics in her own life, she can connect and empathize, and she can give support to those who have never been validated for their hardships. Sizani deeply wishes to destroy as many obstacles to one’s happiness in the rural setting as she can, so women and men alike can feel fulfilled.
Sizani is recognised as an expert in her field: gender equality. Indeed, she was invited with other women, ministers and deputy ministers to attend a meeting about the future of the country and the future of women. This meeting was arranged to ask the question: “what would an organization for women look like that was not about political parties but about coming together as South African women, regardless of race, colour, gender or sexual orientation?” The answer was to establish the SA Women’s National Coalition. In 1991, Sizani became a Provincial Coordinator, conducting research about what women imagined for a new democratic South Africa. She focused on rural areas, the only Provincial Coordinator to do so. This ultimately resulted in the formulation of the Women’s Charter for Effective Equality. In 1993, Sizani was instrumental in providing crucial information about what rural and indigenous women wanted from a new government. This information was taken into consideration when the above-mentioned parties were constructing the current Bill of Rights within the Constitution. The new Constitution was adopted in 1996 and Sizani’s contribution to it was tremendous.
Sizani’s strong activism since a young age has caused her to be in danger but this never stopped her. Attacks on her as a Human Rights Defender have not stopped since 1980. She once found a threatening message spray-painted in red on her wall reading “Sizani we are looking for your head.” In March 1993, her home was attacked by 150 IFP men and the police and her brother who was going to turn 40 in two weeks was gunned down. In 1998, her house was broken into every month or even twice a month until she could not afford to pay her insurance premium. The new house she bought in 2000 was vandalized in 2010. After this, she and her extended family were forced to run for their lives.
Sizani is thus much more than an activist in that sense, she is a Human Rights’ Defender. Although her personal actions had a huge impact on the South-African society and especially for rural women and girls, the creation of the Rural Women’s Movement had an even greater impact and truly reflects the way she fights for rural and indigenous women and girl’s rights.
Sizani is an advocate for positive social change
How the RWM functions
Sizani is the founding Director of the Rural Women’s Movement (RWM) and has led the movement to have a tremendous impact on the lives of rural women in South Africa.
Rural Women’s Movement is the only grassroots movement leading an intensive campaign for women and girls’ independent land, property and inheritance rights, lobbying National Parliament and policy-makers for policies that are user-friendly to indigenous and rural women and girls, disabled women and girls, LGBT, widows, single mothers, married women, women and girls with HIV/AIDS, girls that have dropped out of school, survivors of abductions, torture, forced marriages, rape and incest. RWM strongly believes that no-one should face the indignity of extreme, absolute, chronic poverty and that no-one should be denied an opportunity to realize their full potential. RWM strongly believes it is in everybody’s interest to leave no-one behind and to ensure a fair opportunity for all and that is what the RWM is committed to every day.
Sizani has built up from the ground this vibrant movement of rural and indigenous women and girls to create space for them to have their voices heard, to have food security for their families and communities, and to have the security of tenure and access to land in their own rights as women and girls. The movement was initiated in the 1990s and was officially launched by Sizani and a group of 250 indigenous and rural women and youth in November 1998. The Commission on Gender Equality, Commission on Human Rights, National Land Committee as well as the Centre for Applied Legal Studies based within the Wits University were also represented. RWM is now a coalition of some 501 Community Based Organizations (CBO) with a membership of approximately 50,000 women. The members work at the grass-roots level (within villages) but also work with their sister organizations at the provincial, regional, national and international levels. The RWM collaborates with several other NGOs on workshops, partnering with organisations that, like the RWM, are experts in their field.
Sizani provides intensive training on different pieces of legislation and policies and encourages women and girls to effectively participate in policy-making processes by assisting women to prepare their oral and written submissions to present before the Portfolio Committee on Rural Development and Land Reform and the Portfolio Committee of Justice and Constitutional Development and other structures of policy-makers within the National Parliament. She also effectively participates in Public Hearings conducted in all provinces by the National Parliament.
At the grass-roots or local level, RWM works in the following ways: training women in efficient farming, making land claims, establishing individual and collective farming, income generation, confidence-building and mutual support, helping others through farming crises, and countering corruption and gender bias in land allocation. All of these goals and activities contribute to closing the leadership gap.
Nationally, the Coalition of RWM and CBOs challenges undemocratic practices and discriminatory laws through intensive campaigns, test cases brought before the SA Constitutional Court. They challenge policies that distort customary law, undermine the security of tenure and independent rights of indigenous women and girls to land while entrenching the powers of the chiefs and their traditional authority.
RWM encourages the independent development of young girls and women. As the driving force behind RWM’s actions, Sizani is an exemplary role model in teaching women to believe in themselves. She facilitates a journey of self-discovery and skills development that shows women they have the power to uplift themselves and thus empowers them. Sizani does not take credit for RWM’s success because ultimately it is the women themselves who deserve the credit. Sizani seeks to develop a sense of self-confidence for RWM members, one of the greatest lessons one can learn.
Sizani addresses issues by opening a dialogue with community members to start finding a solution. She works tirelessly on implementing Sustainable Development Goal Five in all RWM projects and uses it as a powerful tool. RWM’s main mission is to attain gender equality in a democratic South African society, and every project seeks insight and participation from the women of a community. Sizani ensures “women’s full and effective participation” in community meetings, assuring equal opportunities for leadership roles in projects, but also within RWM’s management structure. All employees of RWM are female, and every leadership position is held by a woman. Over her two decades with RWM, Sizani has demonstrated her commitment to gender equality.
Results and achievements
Young women are now challenging the traditional leaders in terms of women’s participation in traditional courts. Some young women have participated effectively in economic empowerment programmes and are now successful in their businesses. Some have contributed financially to support orphaned and vulnerable children and out of school girls and boys.
More importantly, women are now effectively participating in the policy-making processes. They assist other women in their respective communities who are not members of RWM – sharing information and providing advice about meeting their challenges.
As a direct result of the RWM’s actions, transmitted diseases have decreased by 15% in the areas where RWM works. Teenage pregnancy has decreased by about 10% in the last seven years. The number of young women dying of complicated childbirth as a direct result of their bodies being too young has stopped in the two communities where Sizani in partnership with local women stopped ukuthwala (abduction and forced marriages of girls and young women aged between 13-30 years of age).
The Rural Women’s Movement was the leader of the successful lawsuit that got the Communal Land Rights Act 11 of 2004 declared unconstitutional because it was unfair and enshrined gender bias. RWM campaigned tirelessly against the Traditional Courts Bill of 2008 and the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003. This resulted in a vote against the government-sponsored draft law in parliament’s National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The RWM succeeded in amplifying the voices of rural and indigenous women who have been part of the Rural Women’s Movement. The RWM argued that the Bill would create a separate legal system for the 18-Million people living in the former Bantustans and make them subjects of traditional leaders with second-class rights in the South African democracy. Many of the local leaders have a practice of not allowing women to represent themselves in court or to testify before the court, and it is all too common that they take land away from women whose spouses or fathers have died, to give to men who throw the women off the land they long worked to support their families. The Bill was dropped by the government.
In 2015, the UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality produced a report on RWM’s activities that outlined the challenges and progress of the organization. It was meant to spark reflection on RWM’s achievements and the lessons its members learned. The report found that RWM helped 450 women increase their income, thus establishing greater economic security; and 750 rural women became “better organized and mobilized to effectively lobby against and tackle legislation, policies and practices discriminating against women’s socio-economic and cultural well-being.”
Sizani is a strong public speaker
Sizani is a seasoned public speaker who constantly addresses challenges, opportunities, and empowerment of rural women and girls. She considers it as her main responsibility to address the difficulties of women in order to outline the best strategy to create positive opportunities. Sizani approaches them with sustainable lenses in the way that she labours to heal an issue from its source.
For example, with the assistance of RWM, the communities of amaHlubi and eMangwnei in Kwa-Zulu Natal are seven years free from the harmful Ukuthwala practice. Once a consensual Zulu courtship practice, modern men used Ukuthwala to justify the abduction and rape of young women from the ages of 13-30. The women in these two communities now enjoy a safer environment not because RWM stormed neighbourhoods pointing fingers and blaming, but because Sizani developed effective relationships by opening a dialogue to create a safe space for change. She is thus not only a strong and respected public speaker but she has also natural communication tools and practices to make women’s voices heard in a sustainable and constructive way.
Opening a dialogue and creating a safe space for change is slow but it is a more effective process for sustainable positive social change. Sizani entered communities knowing that many of those women were victims of this distorted practice but she had the expertise and the emotional intelligence to let women take their own time to speak. She first started a conversation with 80 women and two home-based male caregivers who were too ashamed to admit they had been abducted and abused. At first, no woman admitted she knew a person who had been abducted. After two months of interaction, in an open meeting a woman confessed her suffering and the plight she had endured when she was only 15 years old. Sizani encouraged her to open up about it. This was a powerful step forward. Other women started to speak up and the process naturally flowed. Acknowledging the wrongful acts against their gender was the first step to fighting back, and that started a space of respect and understanding.
Sizani successfully exposed a women’s issue that had been hidden under oppressive male dominance but recognition was only the first step. The second was to provide action: the RWM started holding workshops on South Africa’s constitution so women would know their constitutional rights and what a violation of those rights meant; they held workshops on leadership skills so women would have the tools and confidence to demand more respect in a group of self-righteous men; and they held workshops on economic stability through agriculture, where women learned basic gardening techniques to gain a more reliable source of food for their families. Sizani explains the triumph over Ukuthwala not solely because of RWM and the blessings it bestows on communities, but because women ignited a fire within themselves to demand a better life.
Sizani has thus created and implemented a method that reflects a powerful sense of leadership. She does not lecture, nor assert her ultimate authority, and she does not claim to know the exact steps for solving an issue. Her approach is situation-based, thus flexible and adaptable. She trusts the communities and adjusts her problem-solving skills to the situation. This makes her an expert facilitator, and she guides community members on the journey through diagnosis, treatment and healing.
How Sizani would benefit from the Woman of Distinction Award
Sizani will benefit from participation in the NGO CWS Forum because it is an event of learning from and sharing of experiences; she will be able to gather information, resources, and contacts to use for RWM. The interaction this event provides with other women is crucial in obtaining ideas and experience from other organisations to increase even more the impact of RWM actions on rural and indigenous women. Additionally, it also allows the RWM to help and exchange with other organizations by sharing RWM’s successful approaches and Suzani’s unique methods. Sizani and the RWN know how crucial being part of the world discussion is for the future of rural women and they intend to get the full benefit from this.
Rural women are too easily ignored, and the NGO CWS Forum seeks to make their plights heard in creating a space for critical discussions. Sizani’s participation in the NGO CWS Forum renders rural women more visible which drives them further along the road to equality. Sizani puts an emphasis on voicing problems as the first step to solving them.
Sizani would also like to organise a parallel event which would provide an incredible opportunity to share the RWM’s success stories and to learn from other organisations.
Attending this conference also touches upon another step toward tackling rural women’s gender inequalities: obtaining funding. In order to solve the issues facing rural women, RWM must voice their obstacles while seeking the funds to finance initiatives. Making connections with other people and organizations opens numerous financial paths for RWM to continue expanding its help to rural communities. This funding is especially needed now as the RWM is currently planning on establishing a Rural Women and Girls’ Agricultural Skills Training Centre which would have a tremendous impact.
The RWM is currently lobbying for policies which are user-friendly to indigenous women and girls with the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Act of 2017 for example. This will have an enormous impact on rural and indigenous women in South Africa. This bill is the first major review of the rules that restricted 17-million people in former Bantustan to second-class citizenship. Unfortunately, the new bill does not remedy the myriad problems introduced by the Act.
With the new knowledge acquired from attending the NGO CWS Forum, Sizani will return home to continue helping rural women make a positive impact on their communities. She is a leader who will continue to make a difference because her history demonstrates her commitment to the future. She will continue to build upon triumphs and progress to reach more rural women and further advance women’s rights, and to expand her reach.
Signed and sent on the 28th of November 2017:
President of IAW