Fire destroys property at the Umsuluzi Game Reserve

2011-05-13 00:00

A FIRE at a game reserve near Weenen is yet another blow for a project once hailed as the country’s “flagship sustainable development model”.

The main lodge, two cottages and three chalets at the Umsuluzi Game Reserve adjacent to the R74 were burned down on Sunday evening.

According to a police statement the buildings were empty at the time of the incident and undergoing renovation. A case of arson is being investigated and specialist forensic investigators from Pretoria visited the site yesterday.

“This is a shocker, we have to start from scratch,” says Niki Vontas, CEO of Bonatla Property Holdings, who have a 99-year lease on the property and are developing it on behalf of the Sibuyelo Matiwane Community Trust (SMCT) that represents the Khumalo community.

The fire began early on Sunday evening. Bonatla project manager on site, John Westcott, received a telephone call alerting him to the fire and went to investigate.

He called the local fire brigade, but their vehicles were unable to get across the Bloukrans river that flows through the reserve.“Even if they had got across I don’t think they would have been able to do anything,” Westcott says. “With all that thatch and timber it just went up like a torch,” Westcott said.

The Khumalo community were removed from the area in 1968 and subsequently became scattered around Colenso, Weenen and Estcourt. In 1998 a claim was lodged with the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights.

In the interim a trust bought the property in 1993 and created a game reserve used for tourism and hunting.

The trust entered into a joint venture project with the Khumalo community and in 2003 the joint venture settlement initiated by Thabi Shange, the then Land Claims Commissioner for KZN, was hailed as having “the potential to become South Africa’s flagship sustainable development model”.

The following year an agreement was signed with various parties involved, including the SMCT and the Department of Land Affairs (now Rural Development and Land Reform).

Under this agreement Land Affairs agreed to act as facilitator in the restoration of the land to the beneficiary community and it was agreed to further develop and upgrade existing infrastructure to make the reserve economically viable for its new owners — the SMCT.

In 2005 — when it became clear no money was forthcoming for the upgrading — the trust gave notice as per the agreement. After their departure the lodge and its adjacent accommodation fell derelict.

Last year SMCT entered into an agreement with Bonatla Property Holdings who are now, says Vontas, developing the reserve as part of their corporate social responsibility programme.

“We started refurbishing, added security, fixed fencing and created nine jobs,” says Vontas.

“But somebody does not want us to continue. This was sabotage. Now we just have a tented camp and a burnt lodge,” he said.

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