How did it land up in such trouble?

2010-04-02 00:00

WHEN the Khumalo community was awarded tenure rights to the 7 000- plus hectare Umsuluzi Game Reserve near Weenen in March 2003, the then national agriculture and land minister, Thoko Didiza, warned them not to rest on their laurels. The hardest part of land reform, she said, is making meaningful use of the land and it was yet to be achieved. Seven years on, those words have come to haunt all those involved.

The land had been taken from the Khumalo community in 1968 in terms of the labour tenancy rights system, which forced people who refused to become full-time labourers in the area off their land. In 1998, a claim was lodged with the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights and, according to reports at the time, the commission verified that 1 564 claimants had been illegally dispossessed of land. The Khumalo community had become scattered around Colenso, Weenen and Estcourt.

At the time of the handover in 2003, it was reported that the R13-million settlement would see 250 families return to their land which in the intervening years had become a game reserve used for tourism and hunting.

At the time of the settlement, the Department of Agriculture identified conservation as the most productive land use for the area and it was agreed that when the Khumalo community took over the 7 629 hectares they would occupy an area fenced off from the reserve. The reserve area would consist of 5 500 hectares, as per the settlement agreement between various parties including the Khumalo community and the previous landowners.

In response to questions, Rural Development and Land Reform (RDLR — formerly the department of Land Affairs) said a Restitution Planning Grant of R259 200 and a Restitution Development Grant of R540 000 (a total of R799 200) were approved by the minister in 2002. In a statement, RDLR also said there were 1 080 beneficiaries, not 1 564, and 180 households involved, not 250.

Mike Mayer, heading up a trust, bought the property in 1993. The land had previously been used for cattle and was heavily over- grazed. “We began a rehabilitation programme and gradually phased out the cattle,” he says.

“In 1999, we won an award from the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa for conservation.”

Mayer also created the Riverside Game Lodge and the rustic Bushwillow Bush Camp, both situated on the banks of the Bloukrans River that flows through the property.

When the land claim was lodged in 1998 further development was frozen. Rather than “sale and bale”, Mayer opted to enter into a joint-venture project with the Khumalo community. “We didn’t contest the claim,” he says. “We wanted to become part of the future and help realise the dream of creating a reserve.”

In 2003, the final settlement agreement, initiated by Thabi Shange, the then Land Claims Commissioner for KwaZulu-Natal, was hailed as having “the potential to become South Africa’s flagship sustainable development model”. Shange said the settlement had been founded on sound business principles and that a joint venture “between restitution claimants and the existing economically viable white farmers has been forged where each party contributes equitably either by way of human capital or financial resources”.

As part of the settlement, the trust members were allocated five-hectare properties within the reserve and in July 2004 were signatories to a memorandum of agreement with various parties, including the Sibuyelo Matiwane Community Trust (SMCT), formed to represent the Khumalo community, and the Department of Land Affairs.

According to this agreement, Land Affairs agreed to facilitate in the restoration of the land to the beneficary community.

The agreement also stipulates that the SMCT and the Umsuluzi Park Trust, represented by Mayer, engage with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife to facilitate the management of the reserve.

A clause in the settlement agreement stated that the Riverside Game Lodge would be further developed and infrastructure provided to make it economically viable by its new owners, the SMCT. To this end, the SMCT were to invest R500 000 to upgrade the lodge and another R150 000 for the bush camp within 12 months of signing the agreement. A budget detailed the items on which the money was to be spent. In addition, a skills development and training programme was to be instituted within 60 days from the signing of the agreement. The understanding seems to have been that all this would be funded by Land Affairs.

Post settlement, Mayer rented Riverside Game Lodge from the SMCT. “But when it became evident within six or eight months that the money for upgrading was not forthcoming, certainly not within the time frame specified, I gave six months’ notice as per the agreement.” When Mayer handed over the keys of the Umsuluzi Riverside Lodge it was a going concern with a dining room, bar, lounge area and eight chalets. Now it’s a ruin. In the lodge doors have been ripped off, windows are broken and the wiring has been stolen, as well as other fixtures and fittings. Two of the chalets burnt down in a veld fire because the firebreaks had not been cut, while another was destroyed after a robbery. Similarly, the Bushwillow Camp, with its three tented accommodation units, has fallen into total disrepair.

Rodney Hubbard, another of the previous landowners now on a five-hectare plot, has had his house broken into and robbed several times. Perhaps worse are the threatening statements painted on his garage a few months ago, including “your days are numbered”.

In what appears to be a catalogue of disaster, some things went right. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife came to the party and put 12 rhino onto the reserve. They also chair the management board that now runs Umsuluzi and which includes representatives from the SMCT, the five-hectare site owners, Land Affairs, and a game company.

Land Affairs also provided funding to the SMCT so they could fence off their communal area from the reserve. However, the community fenced in a larger area than agreed in the settlement, which impacts on the carrying capacity of the land.

When it became clear that matters were not moving forward, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife drove a process whereby people who had a vision for Umsuluzi put forward proposals to the Umsuluzi board. At a point when one of these proposals was about to be accepted, the SMCT suddenly brought the Bonatla property group on board. This was done without consultation and was unacceptable to both Land Affairs and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

“Bonatla were interested but we were told by Land Affairs that they couldn’t have the 99-year lease they wanted, only 10 years,” says Petrus Khumalo of the SMCT.

Asked why little has been implemented since the original settlement, Khumalo says that they have been unable to attract investors. He says that Land Affairs gave the SMCT funding for fencing but complains that the SMCT is still owed R1,5 million by Land Affairs. The RDLR denies this and says that the total grant money for SMCT of R799 200 was spent on the fencing and fencing repairs. “The remainder of the money was spent on security, Ezemvelo insist on that for the security of the rhinos.”

Currently, the SMCT derives no income from the reserve, although according to the settlement agreement they receive eight percent of the profits from the hunting concession. “Eight percent is nothing,” says Khumalo. “The previous owners get more money than the community.”

The SMCT, along with the other Umsuluzi board members, are required to pay a monthly levy which goes towards paying a monthly budget of around R40 000 for staff salaries and other running costs of the reserve. Whatever money the SMCT might receive via hunting goes straight to paying their levy arrears.

Ironically, the only people seen to be deriving any benefits from the reserve are the former landowners, which perhaps explains why frustrations at the lack of progress have found expression in vandalism, theft and fire, and racial tension.

So who is to blame? The general consensus is that nothing set down in the settlement agreement happened; if it had, it would have worked.

“There was a development plan and the game lodge was functional,” says Mayer. “The settlement agreement had a one-year clause that a lodge would be developed and that the infrastructure would be improved to make it all economically viable. Land Affairs have not come up with one rand. They say they have no money. But what about their obligations?”

Asked why they have not honoured their agreements, the RDLR says the “partnership between the five land owners and SMCT did not unfold as it was anticipated, the reason for the concessions given to the five land owners was for skills transfer to happen which never materialised. The only developments that have happened are through Ezemvelo.”

Questioned as to why this flagship model was allowed to collapse in such a manner, the RDLR responded: “There is tension between the parties and the commission is facilitating the process of dispute resolution.”

The RDLR says that in an attempt to rectify matters, the KZN Regional Land Claims Commission is “facilitating a process where investors can fund the project. In the past three years we have seen good proposals that are not explored because of tensions and lack of trust between the two parties.”

Seven years ago, the Umsuluzi settlement was hailed as a model of its kind with all parties committed to a shared vision. Little has been achieved in realising that vision. Of the government or parastatal bodies involved, only Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife emerges with credit and the story of Umsuluzi now looks to become just another marker of a failed land reform process.

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