Agnes Sithole has become an unlikely hero to hundreds of thousands of black women in South Africa.
At 72, she brought her husband to court to prevent him from selling their home against her will—and in the process, she took decades of apartheid-era laws to preserve what was rightfully hers.
In hindsight, Agnes Sithole realized that her marriage would be difficult. She married Gideon, her high school sweetheart, in 1972, but soon found herself turning a blind eye to what would become decades of infidelity.
“He was always in and out of different affairs, but that never affected me even between 2016 and 2017, when he wanted to sell all of our assets,” she says. “His answer has always been the same – it’s his home and his property, and I have none.”
Facing the loss of her home, Agnes decided in 2019 to fight her husband in the South African courts, a move very unusual for a black woman of her generation.
“I was 72 – where was I going and where would I start? So my only choice was to fight or find myself on the street at that age,” she says. “I think necessity made me brave. If there wasn’t a necessity, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I had to be the one who said no.”
Women had no choice
Agnes married at a time when South Africa was run by the white minority and black couples married automatically under a system called “out-of-property”, which gave men all property rights.
“At the time, women had no choice – either marry into the property community or you don’t marry at all,” explains Agnes.
An amendment to the Matrimonial Property Act in 1988 allowed black couples to change their marriage status to “in the community” – giving women equal property rights.
However, it was not automatic. Black women had to obtain their husbands’ consent, pay the application fee, and submit it within two years.
“We knew the law had changed and we thought it had changed for everyone,” Agnes recalls. “[Later]When I realized that the law had deceived me, I realized that I would have to fight this.”
“I’m a fraud”
Agnes was born in Freehead, a small coal-mining town in North KwaZulu-Natal.
Across the country, there was a clear economic gap between the races in the 1940s. Her father cleaned trains for the South African Railway Company and made tea for his white bosses in the office. Her mother was a “kitchen girl” who washed, cleaned, and cooked for “privileged white families”.
“I was born out of the poorest of the poor, and my parents were workers,” Agnes says. “They were a good example to us.”
She adds, “We used to go to church every weekend. Growing up, Catholics weren’t really allowed to divorce, even if I saw things weren’t going well.” “I didn’t want to get married again or have my kids grow up without my parents at home – that’s all I knew.”
Despite the challenges, Agnes saw her parents thrive by staying together and seeing their struggles made her determined to have a better life.
She trained as nursing before marrying Gideon. Later, she started selling clothes from her home and took up a number of jobs to make ends meet.
“I soon found out I was alone, because my husband was in and out of our lives,” says Agnes, who has four children.
“I would come home from work and then start sewing and buy and sell clothes. I was doing many things at the time because I was determined to have my kids go to school,” she continues.
“I’m a prankster by nature, I’ve been working my whole life. Instead of fighting for someone to do things for me, I’d do it for myself.”
For Agnes, the marriage took a distinct downward trend about nine years ago. Returning from work one evening, she finds that Gideon has moved into the spare bedroom without explanation.
The couple continued to live under the same roof but lived completely separate lives.
“We’d bump into each other along hallways or stairs or when standing and not say a word,” she recalls.
Agnes says that Gideon never spoke to her about his plan to sell the house and “it was a shock that random people showed up at my house to watch.”
Realizing she could end up homeless, in early 2019, she filed an order alleging financial abuse – arguing that she had contributed equally to building their family and sharing the wealth.
Two years later, South Africa’s Constitutional Court confirmed an earlier Supreme Court ruling that existing laws discriminate against black couples, and black women in particular.
It ruled that all marriages prior to 1988 would be changed to “common property” – giving women equal property rights.
Agnes and her youngest daughter watched the verdict online from her bedroom. At first, she didn’t realize she had won the case until her lawyer called her.
“We couldn’t find out what was happening because of [legal] Terminology, she says. We were clueless the whole time. My stomach was in knots, I was scared but I was a believer.
“I shed tears of joy,” says Agnes. “It seemed to me that we had saved thousands of women in marriages like mine.”
Agnes says she owes her fighting spirit to the many challenges she had to face alone.
“It’s my personality, who I am and how I do things, I want to be self-reliant in every way,” she continues. “It is definitely something rare in our culture and from the women of my generation.
“For me, winning the case is one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
Agnes even managed to forgive Gideon, who died of Covid-19 during the court case.
Two days before his death, he apologized to his wife and daughters for how things were going.
Agnes later discovers that she was not only excluded from his will, but that he left the marital home to someone else. However, the court ruling invalidated his wishes.
“We have forgiven him and I am at peace. I do not regret anything and most importantly I have completed my marriage [until the very end]’ says Agnes.
“I didn’t want anything that belonged to him but he wanted to take everything, including what I had and worked for and that I didn’t like.”