Hopes Rise for Women's Rights in the New South Africa


Lydia Kompe grew up among the thatch-roofed mud and dung houses of a remote village. Today she has a plush office in Cape Town, drives a Mercedes Benz and carries a cellular phone.

The contrasting worlds inhabited by the 60-year-old legislator underline the changes facing women as South Africa evolves three years after the end of apartheid.

Contradictions are everywhere: modern cities and backward rural areas around them, a democratic constitution and patriarchal tribal systems, active women's movements and widespread acceptance of male dominance.

Even educated, successful women like Kompe face expectations that they will fulfill a traditional role as obedient, serving wives.

"It is an incredibly sexist and patriarchal society," said Cathy Albertyn, who heads a gender project at the University of the Witwatersrand's Center for Applied Legal Studies.

Kompe is one of 118 women in the 454-member Parliament. That compares with just eight under the previous administration, and indicates the strides that women have taken under President Nelson Mandela's government.

Once considered legal minors, unable to open a bank account without their husband's consent, women now enjoy status equal to men under the new constitution that took effect Feb. 3. The charter includes a clause giving women control over their bodies, effectively ensuring the right to abortion.

But while gender issues have taken a larger role in the national agenda, attitudes and values have been slow to change. Particularly in rural areas, where more than half the population lives, many women are not even aware of their new rights.

There, men still lead communities, serving as breadwinners and attending the tribal meetings where village affairs are decided. Women live out their lives as dependents.

Although women now can apply to a tribal trust for a plot of land, most of the chiefs who administer the trusts allocate property only to married men. When a man dies, the title typically goes to the eldest son, leaving widows dependent on their own children.

At home in Tsimanyane, a Sotho-speaking village of 3,000 people about 185 miles north of Johannesburg, Kompe uses her Mercedes for the daily trip to a nearby hospital to collect water for her family.

Other women must get up at dawn to fetch water from a river about 650 feet away and carry it home in 6 1/2-gallon containers balanced on their heads.

Cooking in the village is done in large iron pots over open fires, which must be kept alive regardless of wind and rain.

"Life is hard here," Mamapudi Madiseng, 38, said while using two stones to grind corn kernels into meal. Making enough to feed her eight children for three days takes a full day's work.

Traditional marriages are sealed by payment of lobola, or bride price, by the husband's family. Originally intended to cement the relationship between the two families, the effect has changed as cash has been substituted for the traditional gift of cattle.

"I think people today feel that when they pay lobola, they are buying you," Kompe said. "When the bride gets to the house of her parents-in-law, the husband expects a lot from her because he thinks he has bought her. So she must do all the work while he sits there reading a newspaper."

With blacks forced under apartheid to the nation's most barren rural areas, black women face the additional burden of severe poverty.

Khomotso Maila, 41, grew up in Johannesburg's Alexandra township and was in her 30s before she moved to Tsimanyane with her husband. Unable to find work, he soon returned to his Johannesburg factory job, leaving her behind with his five children and assorted relatives. She survives on the equivalent of $66 a month.

Maila said she did odd jobs while living in Johannesburg, such as cleaning house in the wealthy white suburbs.

"Because I was working, I felt quite independent and quite confident. Now I am completely and utterly dependent on my husband. We are all six of us sitting at home waiting on his mercy," she said.

There are signs of change.

The relative absence of men in Tsimanyane has given women greater influence over family and community affairs. The local headman, unlike others in the area, allows women to attend tribal meetings and participate in decisions affecting the community.

In a clearing on a hill, six men and three women sat on rocks arranged in a circle under a tree.

"The idea of bringing women here is to represent their husbands while they are at work, so that the issues pertaining to the village are known to all the residents," headman Moleke Matlala said.

Kompe says change in the national government has given some women of her area the courage to speak out. With a woman representing them in Parliament, they are starting to make demands.

After months of lobbying, the provincial government recently allocated land for a women's center. The local builder they hired was persuaded to train women as his laborers.

But when about 20 women first banded together to teach themselves skills like dressmaking and knitting to supplement their meager incomes, the community accused them of neglecting their families.

"Once you start doing this work, our mothers-in-law say their son has paid lobola for nothing," Madiseng said.

While most women continue to defer to tradition, some have started teaching their children new ways.

"My husband was an old man, so I couldn't change him, but I think I must start with my son to make the change," Kompe said, turning to instruct her grandson to bring sugar for the tea she had just prepared. "He can't expect me to put him through school, to work and still come home and cook."

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