‘What is wrong with my own good female name?’
Paulinah Sithole cannot read or write. She is uncertain of her age. One thing she does know is that traditional authorities have ruined her life, leaving her homeless because she’s a woman.
Sithole’s husband, the father of her seven children, died more than 20 years ago, after which she fell in love with another man.
“He is David Mawelele and I loved him,” and they decided to get their own place. Because Mawelele was from Mozambique, she went to the tribal office in Schoemansdal, Mpumalanga, and spoke to the head of the tribal authority, Samual Shongwe, and the headman Solomon Thumbathi.
“The induna and the tribal elders said I couldn’t put my own name on the stand because it would be disrespectful to my man’s name, and that I need to give my man dignity by putting the stand in his name,” she said.
“I said: ‘But I’m the one asking for the stand. I’m the one identifying the stand where we want to live. What’s wrong with my own good female name?’”
The belief that only men owned land prevailed and Sithole accepted the tribal authority’s demand.
“At the time the chief said no stands were given and registered to women. I was in love and I didn’t argue too much.”
The couple built their home and lived together for 18 years – until Mawelele went home to Mozambique and returned with another wife and more children.
“I knew he had an ex-wife in Mozambique, but I didn’t know they were still in contact. He arrived with her and told me to leave our house because it’s in his name. Our love and life together was over.”
Sithole went to the tribal authority for help.
Schoemansdal’s chief died in 2008. Emmanuel Shongwe was anointed late last year, but his chieftaincy was disputed.
“They said I must pay R1?500 for the sitting. I didn’t because they refused to assist me, saying that if the stand was in his name, the house and the plot are his.
“Thumbathi, the induna, said I must get out of my own house because Mawelele paid lobola for his first wife and not for me and that my house and stand were in his name,” she said.
“The tribal authority came to my house and told me to get out and told me what I was allowed to take.”
Sithole went to the tribal authority three times, on the last occasion with Daphne Nkosi, executive director of the local Nkomazi community advice office, and a lawyer from the Gender Commission.
“The headman said: ‘No woman will come here and give us instructions and tell us what to do and will adhere to our rules,” she said.
“I got so angry in the meeting that I got up and left. The induna responded and told me I would never own a stand because I was disrespectful by leaving.”
Tribal authority member Saai Shongwe told her they would “never assist” her.
“He said they must ‘phakula’ me – meaning I am a cow whose reproductive organs must be removed because I will make other women rotten with my ideas.
“They said I would make women disrespectful if they allowed me to win my case. They said I would make women stand up for their rights and then they will be disrespectful to their husbands.”
Last year Sithole lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, which wrote to chief Emmanuel Shongwe, saying her treatment was unfair. More than two years – a full 760 days – later, there has been no response.
“This is what happens to women who are under the chiefs. We stay under. Forever.”