Simangaliso blocks new ‘kraal’

2012-06-25 00:00

BUILDING in Bhanga Neck in violation of laws governing the pristine iSimangaliso Wetland Park — a UN World Heritage Site in KwaZulu-Natal — could result in a local resident and turtle monitor being jailed.

Muzi Mthembu (27) is accused of allowing an outsider, Jan Joubert, to build in the Bhanga Neck (KwaDapha) area within iSimangaliso without permission from authorities.

In October 2009, iSimangaliso obtained a Durban High Court order preventing Joubert, Muzi Mthembu, and Nkawu Mthembu (Muzi’s father) from continuing with construction work or destroying plants or vegetation on the site.

Muzi Mthembu was also interdicted from threatening to assault or intimidate park authorities after hostile behaviour towards rangers who visited the site to deliver letters of warning.

Joubert subsequently stood trial in the Ngwavuma Regional Magistrate’s Court. He was found guilty of contravening national environmental legislation in November last year and sentenced to a fine of R25 000 or two years in prison, suspended for five years.

He was also ordered to pay R25 000 to iSimangaliso’s Community Levy Trust.

Mthembu’s trial is set down for two days in the Manguzi Magistrate’s Court this week. He is charged for clearing vegetation and building two cottages on site without permission.

The case highlights a growing rift between the Wetland Park Authority and people in the Bhanga Neck area, who claim that they were not consulted or informed about the changes to their way of life when their area was incorporated into a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. They say that bidding to do business on land that traditionally belongs to them has become the biggest bone of contention, and constant source of a never-ending battle with conservation authorities.

This battle dates back to the late 1980s when David Webster, an anti-apartheid activist and anthropologist, encouraged Bhanga Neck residents to resist forced removals from the coastal reserve and set up independent eco-tourism enterprises.

Twenty three years since Webster’s assassination in Johannesburg, and 18 years into democracy, little progress has been made in translating Webster’s vision into reality. No licensed eco-tourism camps operate in the Bhanga Neck area.

Since the declaration of the World Heritage Site, at least four unlicensed camps developed by local residents have been demolished.

iSimangaliso media officer, Siyabonga Mhlongo, said illegal tourism camps amounted to “economic theft”.

They eroded “the economic foundation of the park” and jeopardised sustainable tourism which provides tangible benefits to communities, said Mhlongo.

“Prosecution and civil action are always the last resort and follow after many attempts to secure voluntary compliance,” Mhlongo said.

In Mthembu’s case, court records show that in late November 2008, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife field rangers were on routine patrol when they came upon a site being cleared of vegetation in preparation for construction.

They were told by a person working on the site that the place belonged to Joubert.

Later when the rangers met up with Mthembu on his way to the site, he said the land was his, that it had been allocated to him by the local induna, Gilbert Ngubane. He told rangers that Joubert, who was with him at the time, was a friend helping him to build a homestead.

Subsequent police investigations involved subpoenaing records of telephone and cellphone calls, and Joubert’s banking and business records.

These investigations revealed that Joubert had paid for the material and labour for construction on the site. Police also discovered that Joubert has three previous criminal convictions: one for theft, one for assault and another for concealing stolen property.

Mthembu argues his relationship with Joubert was not a financial one.

“He (Joubert) is my friend, and he is the one who usually assists me with anything I’m running short of for building my kraal,” Mthembu said.

In a recent interview, Mthembu said he was concerned that if he receives the same sentence as Joubert, he could end up in jail as he does not have the money to pay a fine or damages to iSimangaliso.

Mthembu said his only income is derived from the work he does for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife as a turtle monitor during the turtle nesting season, from November to February.

“There are five of us from Bhanga Neck working as turtle monitors. Last year was my first season,” said Mthembu.

Mthembu has resorted to traditional medicine in preparing for his court case, using turtle fats and the insides of a “squirrel like animal” in the preparations which he smears on his eyebrows or hands before appearing in court.

He also believes he has traditional land rights on his side, having been allocated the piece of land by his father, whose own father had occupied it before him.

Additional reporting by Fred Kockott

• This story forms part of a Roving Reporters case study: Bhanga Neck: Developments and Demolitions. A group of journalism students from the Durban University of Technology (DUT) are conducting the investigations, supervised by Roving Reporters director, Fred Kockott. The training project is supported by the Taco Kuiper Trust in association with Wits Journalism and DUT.

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