Land reform gone wrong: A black day near White River

devastated This pile of rubble is what was left when 28 houses were demolished at Phumlani VillagePHOTO: Sizwe Yende
devastated This pile of rubble is what was left when 28 houses were demolished at Phumlani VillagePHOTO: Sizwe Yende

When roaring bulldozers and police officers moved into Phumlani Village near White River, Mpumalanga, last Tuesday, it was another chapter of a South African land reform story gone wrong.

This particular chapter, however, had more dire consequences than most land reform failures.

Within an hour, 28 houses had been razed to the ground, including a double-storey mansion valued at about R2 million.

Families who thought they were beneficiaries of the Matsafeni Community Trust found themselves not only homeless, but also hopeless and landless.

The land where their houses once stood is now mass of broken bricks, crushed cement and contorted corrugated iron sheets.

Manqoba Mabuza (29) had stacked a few bricks, about a metre high, to create a wall when City Press arrived near the rubble of the mansion, which was still under construction.

Near the roofless wall was a three-legged pot and a thin piece of foam for sleeping. Over the past few days, Mabuza has been cooking and sleeping al fresco.

He is a relative of the mansion’s owner, Simon Sithole (35), and he worked on constructing the house.

“This is where I’ve been living since Tuesday,” Mabuza said.

In 2003, the story of these families had all the makings of a happy ending. The rural development and land reform department transferred 6 000 hectares worth R62 million to the Matsafeni Community Trust for the benefit of more than 1 000 families after a successful land restitution claim.

The community reclaimed land owned by one of Mpumalanga’s biggest farming companies, HL Hall & Sons, that included citrus, avocado and macadamia plantations and vast tracts of virgin land.

The land included the portion on which the R1.2 billion Mbombela Stadium was built.

Since the land was transferred, there have been complaints about squabbles among the Matsafeni trustees and decisions allegedly taken by trustees without informing beneficiaries.

The 28 families settled on one of the Matsafeni properties, situated west of Msholozi Village which, ironically, came about as a result of illegal land invasions.

“I settled here in 2015,” Sithole said, burying his face in his hands. “I lost all I worked for. I’m a beneficiary of the Matsafeni Community Trust and was given this stand by community trust representatives.”

“I spent all my money on this house. First, I resigned from Telkom after five years and used all my pension money to start building. I’ve sacrificed a lot.”

Sithole and the other families lived peacefully until, according to their version of events, the trust entered into a deal with a building materials company, Afrimat, to mine crushed stone.

They alleged the trust, without consulting them, sold the farm to Afrimat for about R54 million.

The community claimed that according to documents they have seen, the Matsafeni Trust is a 51% shareholder in the business, but no dividends had been shared with them.

“The noise started last year when people were receiving letters from lawyers claiming they were occupying private land and must vacate,” Sithole said.

The trust and Afrimat obtained an eviction order in May.

The families engaged the services of a lawyer too late to rescind the eviction order. They had thought the rescission application would be heard on August 22, but it was not to be.

Ben Mabunda, a Matsafeni trustee, said Sithole and others invaded the land.

“They thought it was government’s land and invaded it. Some were selling this land, even though it belongs to the trust,” Mabunda said.

“Some of that land is under servitude for a proposed road. The trust was also thinking of using some of the invaded land to lease to the government to build schools for Msholozi,” he said.

The evicted families had enlisted the services of a lawyer, Bheki Shilubane, but he said they were too late. Shilubane said he prepared a motion to rescind the eviction order.

“The trust’s lawyers knew that if the matter went to court they would lose, so they acted fast by implementing the eviction order. The beneficiaries will have to get the rescission order, even if they think of suing to have their houses rebuilt,” he said.

Members of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the homeless people closed down Afrimat after the eviction and camped outside its gates under police supervision.

EFF Mpumalanga chairperson Collen Sedibe said the mine would not be opened until the families were given accommodation and their houses were rebuilt.

Afrimat director Anton Combrink was not available to comment.

Since the handover, the Matsafeni beneficiaries been complaining about the trust’s unilateral decisions.

In 2007, the trustees sold 43ha to the City of Mbombela for a token fee of R1 to build the Mbombela Stadium.

The beneficiaries took the matter to court and the municipality eventually paid R8 million.

This feature is part of a journalism partnership called Our Land between City Press, Rapport, Landbouweekblad and Code for Africa to find the untold stories, air the debates, amplify the muted voices, do the research and, along the way, find equitable solutions to SA’s all-important land issue.

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