The woman who fought against South Africa’s sexist marriage laws

A photo by Agnes Sithole

Agnes Sithole has become an unusual heroine for hundreds of thousands of black women in South Africa.

At 72, she took her husband to court to prevent him from selling her house against her will – adopting decades-old apartheid-era laws to keep what was rightfully hers.

In retrospect, Agnes Sithole knew that their marriage was going to be difficult. In 1972 she married Gideon, her high school sweetheart, but she quickly turned a blind eye to decades of infidelity.

“He’s always been involved in various matters, but it never touched me until he wanted to sell all of our assets between 2016 and 2017,” she says. “His answer was always the same – that it was his house, his property, and I had nothing.”

Given the loss of her home, Agnes decided in 2019 to fight her husband in the South African courts, a most unusual move for a black woman of her generation.

“I was 72 at the time – where did I want to go and where would I start? So my only choice was to fight or to find myself on the streets at my age,” she says. “I think the necessity made me brave. If there wasn’t a need, maybe I wouldn’t have.

“Women had no choice”

Agnes married at a time when South Africa was ruled by its white minority and black couples were automatically married under a system called “community of property” that gave men all property rights.

“Back then, women had no choice – either they marry out of community of property or one does not marry at all,” explains Agnes.

An amendment to the Matrimonial Property Act of 1988 allowed black couples to change the status of their marriage to “in community”, which gave women equal property rights.

However, this did not happen automatically. Black women were required to get their husbands consent, pay an application, and submit it within two years.

The story goes on

“We knew the law had changed and we thought it had changed for everyone,” Agnes recalls. “[Later]When I realized that the law had betrayed me, I realized that I had to fight it. “

“I’m a hustler”

Agnes was born in Vryheid, a small coal mining town in the north of KwaZulu-Natal.

Across the country there was a clear economic racial divide in the 1940s. Her father cleaned trains for the South African Railways and made “tea for his white bosses in the office”. Her mother was a “kitchen maid” who washes, cleans and cooks for “privileged white families”.

A photo of Agnes Sithole with her younger sister and father in front of the house where she was born

Agnes and her father carry their younger sister in front of the house where she was born

“I was born to the poorest of the poor, my parents were workers. They are a very good role model for us,” says Agnes.

“We used to go to church every weekend. When I was growing up, Catholics weren’t really allowed to get divorced even if I saw there were things that weren’t going well,” she added. “I didn’t want to remarry or let my children grow up at home without both parents – that was all I knew.”

Despite the challenges, Agnes saw her parents thrive by staying together, and when their struggle saw her, she decided to live a better life.

She trained as a nurse before marrying Gideon. She later started selling clothes from home and took a number of jobs to make ends meet.

Agnes Sithole and a friend from King Edward Hospital Nursing School

Agnes (left) worked as a nurse before getting married and starting a family

“I quickly realized that I was all alone because my husband was in and out of our lives,” says Agnes, who had four children with him.

“I came home from work and then started sewing, buying and selling clothes. I did so many things back then because I was determined that my children would go to school, ”she continues.

“I’m a prostitute by nature, I’ve been stressed all my life. Instead of fighting to have someone do things for me, I would do it for myself.”

For Agnes, the marriage took a clear downward spiral around nine years ago. When she came back from work one evening, she found that Gideon had moved into the guest room with no explanation.

The couple continued to live under one roof, but led a completely separate life.

“We met in the corridors, stairs or parking and didn’t say a word,” she recalls.

Agnes says Gideon never spoke to her about his plan to sell the house and “it was a shock that people happened to show up at my place”.

When she realized that she could become homeless, she filed an order in early 2019 invoking financial abuse on the grounds that she had contributed to building up her family and mutual wealth in equal measure.

Agnes and her husband Gideon Sithole

“I have no regrets and most of all I have fulfilled my marriage,” says Agnes

Two years later, the South African Constitutional Court upheld an earlier Supreme Court ruling that the existing laws discriminated against black couples, and black women in particular.

It ruled that all marriages before 1988 would be changed to “community of property”, which gave women equal property rights.

Agnes and her youngest daughter followed the verdict online from their bedroom. At first, she didn’t know she’d won the case until her lawyer called her.

“We couldn’t figure out what was happening because of that [legal] Terminology, “she says.” We were clueless the whole time. My stomach was knotted, I was scared, but I was confident.

“I shed tears of joy. I realized that we saved thousands of women in similar marriages,” says Agnes.

Agnes says that she owes her fighting spirit to the many challenges she had to face alone.

“It’s my character, who I am and how I do things. I want to be independent in every way,” she continues. “It’s definitely something rare in our culture and among women of my generation.

“For me, winning the case is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.”

Agnes, her husband Gideon and their three daughters

Agnes and Gideon were married for almost 50 years

Agnes was even able to forgive Gideon, who died of Covid-19 during the legal process.

Two days before his death, he apologized to his wife and daughters for the course of events.

Agnes later found out that not only had she been excluded from his will, but he had left the marriage home to someone else. However, the judgment of the court replaced his wishes.

“We have forgiven him and I am at peace. I have no regrets and most of all, I have fulfilled my marriage [until the very end]“Says Agnes.

“I didn’t want anything that was his, but he wanted to take everything, including what I owned and what I worked for, and I didn’t like that.”

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