Development Dispute Over Prime Land Bordering

Coen Espach, director of the Mthimkulu Development Company (Pty) Ltd and developer of the Mthimkulu Wildlife Estate, says he is tired of government delays that may cost him thousands of rands already invested in a proposed development on the banks of the Klein Letaba River, bordering the Kruger National Park. Not all interested and affected parties agree with him.

The proposed development has raised many concerns, and the Kruger Park Times is aware of at least two urgent meetings held between officials from the Kruger National Park (KNP), the department of land affairs (DLA), provincial environmental affairs, Limpopo Tourism and Parks and other parties to discuss the way in which the development is moving forward.

According to Espach, Tua Conserva conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on the proposed Mthimkulu Widlife Estate in May 2006. He expects the record of decision (ROD) will be issued this week - "anything from Monday December 19 to December 23, 2006".

The Kruger Park Times visited Mbaula Ranch, where the proposed development is situated in August and was promised the full story and results of the EIA in September. This has not happened. MP Seshoka, of the Limpopo department of economic development, environment and tourism (Ledet) confirmed that the ROD could not be issued yet.

The proposed Mthimkulu Wildlife Estate, according to its website, is situated on approximately 14 000 hectares of "supreme real estate right next to the Kruger National Park. The development consists of 156 stands, each about two hectares in size and offered at between R3 to R4 million each, of which some lie adjacent to the rivers and some have been placed on higher ground for spectacular views over the bushveld."

The project has been marketed on the internet since August. The website explains how the "local communities invited the Mthimkulu Development Company about four years back, to establish a joint venture between the parties with the main aim to improve the quality of living and to establish a working relationship between the previously disadvantaged and the developers. This is the first time in history that a development company will donate 50 percent of the proceeds of a project to the community."

Restitution Land Claims

According to the DLA the government is the legal owner of the land. The Kruger Park Times has information that there are conflicting land rights and potential land claims over the area. The DLA informed the Mthimkulu Development Trust in about July this year of the restitution claims and expressed its concerns about the proposed developments on Mbaula.

"The DLA is a strong supporter of development projects for local communities, but the correct procedures have to be followed and the necessary approvals must be in place," says Chris Schalkwyk of the DLA. He says neither the DLA nor the Land Claims Commission have approved any land claim or any development on the land in question.

Many Agreements

It seems the community has over time entered into many agreements with several people, institutions and organisations. Not all of these agreements had been legitimate. Hosi Ngove Mabunda of the local traditional authority says the land, which was known as Mbaula Ranch Game Reserve during the former Gazankulu homeland era, was never proclaimed as a provincial reserve even though it was administered as one.

He says that, although the land is communal land, it is managed by Limpopo Tourism and Parks on behalf of Ledet. This is based on an agreement between the traditional council and Limpopo Tourism and Parks. He says there is no other agreement with any other parties or individuals concerning the development of Mbaula.

Mthimkulu Development Trust

The Mthimkulu Development Trust, with C Mathebula, W Mabunda, BM Mkansi, RB Mathebula, JC Mashale and Tim Nkuna, trust manager, says otherwise. The Trust claims it represents the Mthimkulu community and as such has entered into a memorandum of agreement with Espach's Mthimkulu Wildlife Estate (Pty) Ltd to develop the Mthimkulu Wildlife Estate. He says the land belongs to the community and the tribal authority, under the leadership of Hosi Ngove Mabunda, is the custodian of the land. "The letter we received from theDLA says we have to get community approval for the project," he says.

He believes the Trust has informed the community about the project, but it was not a formal process as prescribed by the DLA. "We need to invite the land affairs people, they must take a register, we must advertise the meetings and so on. We still have to do that."

He says the chief is not the owner of the land, only the custodian for the people and will be informed about the community's decision. "We do not by-pass the chief and inform him of everything. If he wants to block us, the law of theland must take its course."

A Previous Agreement

It appears there was yet another agreement for the same piece of land between the Mabunda Tribal Authority and the Gerhard Bolt Trust. That agreement expired in November 2006. Bolt had the option to renew for another 10 years, but Bolt was allegedly murdered before the lease came to an end. This agreement, between the Bolt Trust and Hosi Goliath Mabunda, was signed in the 1990s. Since Bolt's death, the Trust's affairs are being continued by a company comprising five shareholders.

One of the shareholders, Theo Pistorius, says their contract with Goliath Mabunda was successfully contested in the high court when another would-be developer, Dr Ntsevisane, had built a lodge on the land without following appropriate procedures, including an EIA. The partially built, and now abandoned structure has been left untouched ever since. Pistorius is not happy. He has been trying to obtain a court interdict against Espach who has occupied the cottage on the land. "I hope to get a date in January 2007."

"We cannot do anything on the land, due to the land claims and here comes Espach, moves in and does what he likes," says Pistorius. Pistorius says they warned Tua Conserva when Espach's EIA began not to continue, as the entire process is illegal. This was ignored. The Mthimkulu Develoment Trust maintains it does not acknowledge this agreement as the contract has expired and was never renewed.

Kruger National Park

According to Sue Eber, environmental manager for the KNP, Tua Conserva never consulted with the Park when conducting its EIA. The Park is not registered as an interested and affected party. "We have reported the matter to Ledet twice, yet despite this, it has continued to evaluate the application," she says.

Removal Of Fence

Earlier this year, the western boundary fences of both Mbaula and Letaba Ranch were upgraded and the Kruger National Park removed several kilometer of fence along the Klein Letaba River. When the Kruger Park Times visited the reserve in August the sites had been set out already and the register indicated several visits from estate agents such as Homenet and Property 100.

Game, inlcuding buffalo and elephant, were moving freely from the Park into Mbaula. According to the constitution of the Mthimkulu Wildlife Estate, the Mthimkulu Wildlife Development Company (Pty) Ltd "who owns the remainder of the land as stipulated as well as all the game on all the properties that constitutes Mthimkulu Wildlife Estate has been irrevocably appointed to manage the nature conservation, management of game, roads and fences."

It states that excepts for the duties listed under the expenses incurred to fulfill the nature conservation function, all other expenses will be borne by the Mthimkulu Body Corporate. According to the constitution, "the Mthimkulu Development Company (Pty) Ltd will be responsible for the management of game on the reserve which is open to the KNP. This includes the purchase and breeding of game for its own account. It also includes the capture of game and and control over all game in the reserve through means which could include culling if deemed necessary.

The Mthimkulu Development Company also warrants the minimum number of game and stipulates that the management of game includes, but is not limited to the supply of water for the game. Espach says the latter agreement will only be in effect until the development of the estate is completed, whereafter the agreement to manage the estate will be revised. According to the agreement with the Mthimkulu Development Trust, Espach has the right to occupy and develop the land for 10 years.

He shall have no right to renew the agreement, but will have an option to become one of the holiday home-owners under a new agreement. According to the website, in terms of the current agreement prospective buyers are required to pay a non-refundable deposit on the signature date. The balance of the purchase price shall be paid on transfer date.

Where To From Here

On Tuesday, December 19, before going to press, Seshoka and Victor Mongwe from Ledet indicated that they have scheduled a site visit at Mbaula Ranch and the nearby community, "to find out what the situation is on the ground." It is hoped that this and other meetings will set the foundation for all interested and affected parties to allow equal access to a public participation process as a vital building block for community development in the area.

By Lynette Strauss

Kruger National Park - South African Safari