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Bogus land claims are more than just irritants

February 25, 2019 deur Mareli Rall

Dr Eugene Brink, Strategic Advisor for Community Affairs at AfriForum

Notwithstanding the need to achieve sensible land reform in South Africa – especially on distributing idle state land to people who are indeed able to farm and have the desire to do so – the opportunism and corruption that accompany many land claims should be earnestly combatted. Not only do bogus land claims amount to dishonesty and unethical behaviour (whatever the eventual outcome of such claims), they are costly, cumbersome and dangerous, and divert scarce resources away from more pressing priorities.

Although land claims have a veneer of righteous recompense and rectifying past wrongs, the truth is often much more complex and less sympathetic. And the state’s complicity and incompetence in this regard is outrageous.

AfriForum has been opposing various land claims in the greater Tshwane area over the last several years and it has shown, without exception, how farcical these claims, the process and the state’s intentions are. For example, a successful claim in Wallmansthal near Hammanskraal has not yielded any benefit to the claimants. No title deeds were awarded and some of the claimants now illegally occupy nearby land.

A five-year-old claim by the Bakgatla ba Lukhuleni community to vast portions of the east of Pretoria and Cullinan – also opposed by AfriForum – still drags on to this day due to the intransigence and obstruction of the Land Claims Commission. The claim had already been lodged in 1996, before it was legal to do so. It was finally (and quite furtively) approved and condoned by the Commission in December 2014. It has been dragging on since, with no resolution in sight due to the commission’s unwillingness to attend proceedings to attempt to settle the matter.

Moreover, a group of 39 claimants lodged a claim to large swathes of the southern, western and eastern parts of Centurion in 1998. Again, the claim was “resurrected” in 2018 and swiftly approved by the Regional Land Claims Commissioner. It was gazetted late in December 2018 – whilst most of the affected parties (the current owners of property in the claimed areas) were on leave. Yet again, it was surreptitiously done without much fanfare to not evoke much media pressure and opposition.

The claims relate to purported dispossessions that transpired between the 1960s and early 1980s. All but one of the 39 claimants are descendants of the “originally-dispossessed individuals”. Many are the grandchildren of these individuals, of whom all but one are deceased. Their stories were captured in a report by the Regional Land Claims Commissioner and the claimants are claiming both beneficial occupational and tenancy rights, but no outright ownership of the land in question. The claimed areas cover roughly 3 500 hectares and affects some 2000 households.

As if the timing of this claim is not sinister enough, the report that was used to condone the manner in which this land claim was lodged, as well as the acceptance and approval of its gazetting, is extremely dubious and one-sided.

First, it is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors and does not even have the appearance of a professionally-compiled document.

The explanation that was provided for the 20 years it took to eventually accept and gazette the claim was that the Commission needed time to conduct the research and compile the report. The report covers roughly 40 pages, which contain a fair bit of simple generic information and information that had already been provided in 1998. It is doubtful that a relatively short report such as this one took 20 years to complete. If it did indeed take that long, it is another dismal reflection on the incompetence of the state’s part to complete it.

Over and above the technical errors contained in the document, outright admissions are made therein regarding the improper capturing of information in this claim. This might raise some procedural questions when this claim ends up in court. Some of these admissions of omissions read as follows:

In paragraph 2 of the land claim form, the land claimant omitted to mention the Department/ body that acquired the property.

In paragraph 2.1 of the claim form, the claimant omitted to mention the year in which the property was acquired.

In paragraphs 2.2 & 2.3 of the claim form the claimant omitted to mention that nothing was paid to the families as compensation for the property and further that no alternative land or housing was provided.

In paragraph 5 of the land claim form, the land claimant omitted to name the people who might have an interest on [sic] the land claim.

The land claim was lodged by Mr Zulu Kleinbooi Mahlangu in his capacity as the direct descendant, and on behalf of other direct descendants of the original dispossessed individuals, namely his grandparents, Mr Bezwane Geelbooi Mahlangu (deceased) and his two wives, Ms Naskhosana  Mahlangu (deceased) and Ms Nomasangu Skhosana (deceased); and also on behalf of the direct descendants of the other 38 originally dispossessed individuals (all of whom are also named in the report).

Mr Zulu Kleinbooi Mahlangu’s account in the report reads as follows:

Mr Zulu Kleinbooi Mahlangu’s grandfather was employed by Mr MC Opperman as a farm labourer. He worked for three months to guarantee his stay on the farm. He was also financially remunerated for the three months that he was employed. Mr Zulu Kleinbooly [sic] Mahlangu’s family enjoyed residential, ploughing, grazing, burial rights . . . Mr Zulu Kleinbooi Mahlangu’s uncles and aunts worked on the farm as farm labourers.

. . . In 1968 Mr MC Opperman issued ‘trek-pass’ and told his grandparents to vacate the area within the next seven days. Mr Zuluboy [sic] Mahlangu’s family was never given a reason for the forced removal.

“Mr Zulu Kleinbooi Mahlangu’s grandparents hired trucks from a white man known to the family as Mr Masilela.

Apart from an affidavit, no other proof – empirical or otherwise – is offered. It is also extremely unlikely that a white man would have had a name or last name such as “Masilela” in the 1960s.

Many of the claimants’ accounts are accompanied by affidavits, but many are supported by “oral questionnaires”. Moreover, the internal research team that compiled the document relied on “deeds search[es], archival information search[es], obtaining diagrams or topographical images and also conducting inspection[s] of the claimed land”.

Hence, no empirical or proper anthropological research was conducted to prove whether the claims are true. Hearsay and incomplete information from people with a vested interest in a land claim worth billions were taken at face value and accepted as fact. Their affidavits are by no means final proof that their stories are true.

An investigation by the Department of Land Affairs and Rural Development among 22 out of the 39 claimants into this specific claim made some revealing findings. Some 63% – nearly two-thirds – of the claimants are interested solely in financial compensation; 31% opted for a combination of financial compensation and land; and a mere 4% opted only for land.

One could only speculate as to what led to the progression of this land claim. The state, acting on behalf of the claimants, perhaps dusted off a 20-year-old claim in return for some form of kickback when the claims go uncontested and the sizeable pay-out is made with taxpayer money. Mindful of the level of corruption in South Africa and the daily reports in the media in this regard, this is by no means a fanciful scenario.

If claims like these go unopposed and succeed by virtue of a claimant’s opportunism, greed and tall tales, property rights in South Africa will vanish. Nothing will be safe anymore. And if large sums continue to be paid out as part of corrupt and invalid land claims, other much more urgent priorities will inevitably suffer, whilst taxpayer money is wasted.

Ultimately, bogus land claims are more than just irritants. They are a dangerous menace. Let’s focus on what matters to society as a whole, and not entertain the unjustified greed of a few individuals.