The lie of the land claims

2009-06-10 00:00

Frustrations are mounting in the Bishopstowe area at delays over a land claim involving around 100 properties, ranging from large sugar-cane farms to smallholdings, in an area just over 3 000 hectares. Farmers and residents claim they have had to put their lives on hold since the claim was gazetted nearly three years ago on November 10. Landowners often bear the blame for slow delivery of land but this is not the case with the Bishopstowe claim according to local property owners who say that while they have been helpful in trying to get finality on the claim, the Land Claims Commission is dragging its feet, does not respond to requests for information and arbitrarily changes the rules of the game. What follows is a chronicle of the claim to date.

THE claimant is Tilongo John Zimu. However, what exactly he is claiming is unclear. The claim lodged by him on September 16, 1998, describes the land being claimed as “Rural — Bishopstowe Farm — Pmburg”. It says: “Farmer, a Mr W. H. Schroenn” acquired the land in 1947 and that no compensation was paid to Nqbhongo Simon Zimu (the father of Tilongo John Zimu) who, together with his family, was forcibly evicted.

In a validation report prepared by Simphiwe Ngcaweni of the regional office of the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights at the Regional Land Claims Commission in Pietermaritzburg and dated February 15, 2006, it is stated that the claim is a “community claim” and that “the community that was removed from Slangspruit farm is known as Foxhill”.

However, this validation report contradicts another validation report also dated February 15, 2006, and also prepared by Ngcaweni. This states that “the community was removed from Bishopstowe-Ekukhanyeni farm”.

To add to the confusion, in an undated handwritten affadavit from Zimu, he states the farm name as Bishopstowe and the subdivision as Faulklands. The Faulklands property is outside the claim area.

Further, while Zimu claims to have been removed in 1947, an inter-departmental letter states the year as 1965.

These documents raise a number of questions. Firstly, how did a claim made by an individual become a community claim? “According to the oral history furnished by the claimant community, it transpired that there were other people residing on the farms in question,” the Land Claims Commission says in a document responding to questions from The Witness.

As to why there should be two validation reports for the same claim, the commission responded: “There is only one validation report that the office is using as its negotiating tool and that is for Bishopstowe.”

Regarding the difference in areas being claimed the commission says that “when there is a claim it is the community that goes and identifies exactly from where they were removed and we map what they have identified, thereafter we conduct our own investigation to ascertain the facts furnished by the claimant community.”

The Bishopstowe Land Owners Association say their questions regarding the validity of the claim have gone unanswered by the commission, only being told that the claim was correctly lodged.

The association has tried without success to find out more about the claim. On two occasions it has requested in writing details of the property on which Zimu’s father lived, a copy of his death certificate, who the claimants are — as it stated Zimu’s father is the only claimant on the original land-claim form — and which community they come from. The association has also requested names and identity numbers of these claimants and details of where they had resided.

They also requested clarity on how the size of the area being claimed was determined and also asked if the claim was an individual or community claim. No answers to these questions were received from the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights.

At a meeting in 2008, commission personnel stated that requests for information had to be submitted on a prescribed form. Subsequently, two attempts have been made via the Access to Information Act to obtain this information. These requests were received by the commission and stamped receipted copies are held by the Bishopstowe Land Owners Association. To date, only minimal information has been offered by the commission. In answer to similar questions asked by The Witness, the commission said the information requested “can only be made available with the consent of the affected individual, particularly if it is required by a third party”.

As the Zimu claim moved forward, individual properties in the Bishopstowe area — farms and smallholdings — were valued by Mills Fitchet during March and April 2008.

Thereafter a letter dated June 11, 2008, was sent to owners of affected properties informing them that the Regional Land Claims Commission had completed valuations and owners were requested to come individually to 200 Church Street, on either June 19 or June 20. Each person or company was allotted a 10-minute time period in which to negotiate the offer being made by the commission. However, the “hour” used by the commission appeared to be a metric one, as times allocated went — in 10-minute increments — from 9 am to 9.90 am, 10 am to 10.90 am, etc. According to the association, a hand-delivered request to the commission, which was stamped at reception, to reschedule these meetings was ignored.

When this was queried by The Witness, the following response was received from the commission: “It is not our practice as an office to ignore requests or allocate 10 minutes in a negotiation process … we would then be in negotiations for months on end. Basically, the purpose of the said meeting was to issue the offers, and land owners were afforded the opportunity of 14 working days to respond to the offers in writing.”

The figure presented to the smallholders was R500 000 less than the figure arrived at by Mills Fitchet, and R1 million less for the larger properties. When it was pointed out by owners that the valuations of the properties were low (some had employed professional valuators to get comparison figures), the offers were raised to the value originally provided by Mills Fitchet, irrespective of what value the landowner had in mind or had obtained from a valuator.

This does not sound like a negotiation process. Asked to comment, the commission said: “We buy land at market-related value which is largely dependent on the valuer’s report. Moreover, the valuer’s report is an opinion that we use as a negotiating tool to reach a settlement. Landowners are more than welcome to do their own valuations but that does not mean that their report will have any influence on ours.”

Since these negotiations took place, the commission has claimed that most farmers and smallholders accepted the offers. However, written proof exists that this is not the case: the majority of landowners did not want to sell, as either the valuation was not acceptable or they did not accept the claim as valid. A letter to this effect, signed by about 60 farmers and smallholders, was hand delivered to the commission on July 4, 2008, and a stamped acknowledgment obtained.

Those who did accept offers in June 2008 were told they would be paid by December. This has not happened. Asked why, the commission says: “The S42D [a report leading to settlement of the claim] was drafted and routed for approval. It was sent to head office in October 2008 and it came back to the [local] office in November 2008 for corrections … It has been corrected and sent to the director of operations for further processing. It will only be after the approval by head office that we can pay individuals concerned.”

Following the June negotiations, a letter in Zulu dated July 27, 2008, was distributed in the Bishopstowe area appealing for representatives to form a committee to represent the “community”.

Then, in an apparently arbitrary move, the rules of the game were altered. Owners were informed by Sunjay Singh, from the commission’s offices in Pretoria, at a meeting in the Bishopstowe hall on January 22 this year that the nature of what was being claimed had changed. Singh told the meeting only properties of 25 hectares and above were wanted, as properties smaller than that are not viable for financially productive farming. It is unclear whether this applies to the Bishopstowe claim only, as Singh implied, that the 25-hectare stipulation was now the national rule.

Singh said the original list gazetted in November 2006 would be amended, however, as yet no one in Bishopstowe has been officially informed whether they are on or off the claim. According to the commission, there was a follow-up meeting at the RLCC office on March 3 to inform the affected landowners about the process that will be used to settle their land. “Further to that, the office drafted a letter to amend the gazette notice on all the Bishopstowe-affected small holdings,” says the commission. “Individuals who needed that letter came to our office and it was made available to them.”

At the time of going to print there has been no further movement on the Bishopstowe claim.

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