Women of St. Marks, Transkei : negotiating customary law, c.1940 - c.1960

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis explores the ways in which customary law affected the women of the St. Marks district, Transkei between 1940 and 1960. In particular, it examines how women worked within and through customary law and the customary law courts in order to obtain redress for their problems. The thesis discusses the argument that the codification of customary law was the result of collaboration between older African men and colonial administrators and that its effect was to increase and render more rigid the patriarchal control of women. It argues that literature on women and customary law shows that after African customs were codified, their form and content changed in accordance with British administrators' legal and administrative needs. Women's legal and social status was negatively affected. The codified law emphasised the patriarchal aspects of the African custom and reduced women's social status in society. However, the thesis concludes that the question of how far customary law oppressed women has not yet been resolved. Using Customary Law Court Cases and records from the Chiefs Courts, the Native Commissioner Courts and the Native Appeal Courts of St. Marks District in Cofimvaba in Transkei from the late 1930s to the early 1960s, this thesis explores how women viewed themselves in relation to the law and also to the way it was applied by officials in the courts. It also explores and how women negotiated customary law in a bid to deal with the changes in the lives brought about by Christianity, capitalism and migrant labour. Missionary teachings, colonial rule, capitalism and migrant labour were significant social and economic factors that greatly affected the lives of the women of St. Marks. In court, educated women married by Christian rites were able to manipulate and challenge patriarchal values and frustrate men's attempts to prevent their access to property and inheritance or their efforts to demean women in various ways. The thesis shows that African women were not merely victims of customary law. Rather, they found ways of negotiating their agency within the confines of the customary law courts.

Includes bibliographical references (leaves 68-73).