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Postcard from Abroad


Posted August 20, 2007

Dear Students:

I'm writing to you from the South African city of Johannesburg. I am working at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at the University of the Witwatersrand (known to students and faculty as "Wits"), one of South Africa's most famous universities and the home to four Nobel laureates. CALS, founded in 1978 by law professor and human rights activist John Dugard (who is currently serving as the UN Special Rapporteur to Palestine), is an independent organization committed to promoting democracy, justice, equality and peace in South Africa and addressing and undoing the country's legacy of oppression and discrimination. CALS works to achieve these goals by undertaking intensive research, disseminating information through media and publications, and participating in litigation, policy formulation and law reform.

Likhapa Mbatha and Dennis Barrett
Likhapa Mbatha and Dennis Barrett

At CALS, I have worked under Likhapha Mbatha, the resident expert on customary law. My work has focused on how customary law is impacting women's access to land under the 2004 Communal Land Rights Act (CLRA). Since the country's first democratic elections in 1994, rectifying the land injustices that resulted from the discriminatory practices under apartheid has been one of the government's greatest challenges. The government has taken a three-pronged approach to land reform: restitution, redistribution and tenure reform. The CLRA, a major plank in the country's tenure reform policy, was passed as an attempt to provide people living in the communal lands, also known as the homelands (the 13% of land in South Africa where the majority black population was restricted under apartheid), with individual title to land. Under apartheid, the homelands were state-owned and inhabitants had a weak form of leasehold claims to land through their communities. The CLRA, which passed in 2004 and has not yet been implemented, seeks to use land administration committees to transfer land from the state to the individuals now living on the land.

Houses on small parcels of land in northern South Africa

Houses on small parcels of land in northern South Africa

There is a concern among many in the advocacy community in South Africa that women's access to land will be impeded through the CLRA because the Act empowers traditional leaders, descendants of tribal chiefs who practice forms of customary law that often treat women as second class citizens. My research focused on reviewing the existing literature on the CLRA and how it would affect women's access to land, examining the impact of traditional leaders and customary law on the Act, and identifying areas for further research when the Act is implemented.  

Houses on small parcels of land in northern South Africa

Houses on small parcels of land in northern South Africa

Some of the highlights of my time here include traveling to the Limpopo Province in the northernmost part of the country to meet with traditional leaders about the CLRA, sitting in on a lecture given by former Constitutional Court Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, and participating in a meeting with a group of rural women that was conducted in five different languages and dealt with the way in which customary law has affected their lives. The experience has been a remarkable one and special thanks go to the Class of 1957, who sponsored the fellowship that enabled me to work at CALS. I look forward to seeing everyone back on campus.  

Dennis Barrett