We are emerging from a society that did not place that much importance on ownership of assets because there was an unwritten law that, “You may own but we shall all use.”

This was the case with such issues as farming land (masimo) and drinking wells (didiba), but confusion arose when the concept was applied to plot ownership in the townships where individuals in modern times like to have clarity over who owns what.


This was indeed the story in the case of a certain Mr Mpani. Unlike many clients he was composed, confident and elegant.   He introduced himself by his totem before giving me his name, which is typical of a man who is proud of his roots.  Then as if to address my wondering mind, he took some minutes telling me of his time in Jo’burg working for a clothing factory. He explained that the owners used to sell to him at staff prices, hence his sartorial manner of dress.

When he got down to the reason for his visit to the kgotla, it turned out the issue was over a piece of land he had bought in the late fifties. He told how he had sent money to his mother who then sent his sister to some landowner’s office to buy a plot, which was eventually purchased in the sister’s name.  He then sent money and building materials and a three-roomed house was built as well as a number of grass/mud houses to accommodate other family members in the compound.

Mr Mpani had now retired and had moved his wife and children to the house, where all seemed well for a little while.  As time progressed there was evidence that Mrs Mpani’s presence seemed to be suffocating his sister since she believed in cooking for her family and not for the entire group.  She had her own set of values and beliefs including the ritual of always boiling water before drinking it.

Many small differences built up to a huge mountain of discontent and reminded Mr Mpani that he was supposed to be the sole owner of the plot, and as such his wife should not be subjected to so much stress.   When it became obvious that his relationship with certain relatives was becoming strained, Mr Mpani searched his files for the receipts for the plot and to his shock read that it was in his sister’s name.  His mother, who was over 100 and suffered from memory loss, was unable to throw much light on the issue.

He now wanted a civil matter be opened requesting the sister to come and show cause as to why she should not hand over ownership of the plot.   The matter was set down for hearing and on the set date all close and extended relatives attended.

Mr Mpani related his story humbly describing how he was raised to have broad shoulders as the first-born son of his family.  He gave an account of how he had looked after the family by educating all around him and ensuring that all were sheltered, hence he did not object when he found that the money he sent to buy the plot was benefiting the entire clan. He told the court that even now he would not have objected if the family treated his wife with dignity and respect, but they had ganged up on her, even calling her degrading nicknames.

When Mr Mpani was done his sister indicated her desire to cross-examine him, and a series of question and answers followed.

Question:   Mpani son of my mother have you ever built a house in the plot?…No
Question:   Does your wife know how to build a mud house?…No
Question:   Do you prefer your wife to us, your family? …Yes she is my wife.
Question:    Do you know that as the first-born you are our father?…Mm yes.
Question:    How much money did you send for the plot?…12 pounds.
Question:     Do you know that we can all contribute and pay you back your 12 pounds? …I don’t want money I want my piece of land.

The sister then gave her side of this story, which confirmed that indeed Mpani, who they all looked up to as a father figure, sent money to their mother who in turn sent her to buy a plot.  She said putting the plot in her name was never meant to defraud or disentitle her brother, but she knew it was theirs (dilo tsa rona).

She pointed out that when they left for the house in town she thought they would continue in the same unity they had enjoyed at the village.  In her statement she not hide her scorn and hatred for the sister-in-law who she claimed was transferring her ‘good for nothing’ values to divide their once united family.

Her hostile attitude prompted one family member to stand up and ask the question: “It is obvious that you do not want Mpani’s wife ….now should Mpani develop a boil between the legs, would you like to see it?”

There was a moment’s hesitation as the impact of the question settled, before the sister replied: “It is difficult to say.”

The implication of this question was that every man needs a wife, and whether she is good or bad she answers the husband’s complex needs.

I had to make a decision over the ownership of the plot that was bought by Mr Mpani’s money, but under whose roofs the entire family was housed.


These were the issues I had to consider:

  • It was a fact that the plot was acquired through money sent by Mr Mpani.
  • It was equally important to note that Mr Mpani had for many years watched over developments done by his sisters and had never complained.
  • He had made this naïve conclusion that his wife and children would jell into the family and all people would live happily ever after.
  • His family’s rejection of his wife and children gave him a rude awakening into the difficulties of extended family life.
  • The sister on the other hand was putting pressure on her brother to tow the cultural line and choose between his family of origin and his acquired wife and children.

Having weighed up the facts the court came to the conclusion that all property on the plot be valued and Mr Mpani should compensate other parties for developments.
The family wounds could not be healed by court decree, but clearly the tension between ‘ours and mine’ has the potential to bring untold misery to lives entangled within its social framework.

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