Challenging Ingonyama’s stranglehold

Umnini community prepares to take on Ingonyama Trust over land dispute on KwaZulu-Natal’s South Coast.

Umnini is a village nestled into the hills of the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. Its name is taken from the word umnikazi, meaning “owner”.  It sits on a stretch of about 12km of prime land, with gorgeous sea views.

The amaThuli (Luthuli) clan, who live in Umnini, claim Queen Victoria granted them the land in 1858. Their legal right to the land was taken away when the Ingonyama Trust was established on the eve of the first democratic election in 1994 as part of a highly controversial deal between the National Party and Inkatha.

Now the community wants the land back. The Legal Resources Centre’s Thabiso Mbhense is representing them. He confirmed to New Frame that he is preparing to file papers in the land claims court in 2019.

27 August 2018: Some of the prime land near Umnini Dam.

“In the application, we are saying the land they occupied was transferred to Ingonyama Trust and that land was not meant to be transferred when Ingonyama took over.” Mbhense said the community believes it rightfully owns the land, and that the transfer to Ingonyama was illegitimate.

Ingonyama Trust board chairperson Jerome Ngwenya said ownership of land in South Africa is regulated by the Deeds Registry Act. “Proof of ownership could be verified through a deed search at the deeds office. I suggest, before we get trapped into the fake news environment, just do a deeds search for those who accuse Ingonyama Trust. I am too busy with serious national issues not fables. I will respond and make time for things of that calibre. Accusing someone of trespassing needs to have a proper foundation,” he said curtly. 

The ANC flip flops on the Ingonyama Trust

King Goodwill Zwelithini is the sole trustee of Ingonyama Trust land, which spans about three million hectares and was established in terms of the Ingonyama Trust Act. Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi formulated the act while he was prime minister of the Zulu homeland. It was passed by former president FW de Klerk hours before the 1994 elections. 

A high-level panel, led by former president Kgalema Motlanthe and established in January 2016 to assess the impact of several laws of the country’s democracy, found that the Ingonyama Trust Act should be repealed or amended because “it did not” function in interests of the people living on the land. There has also been a pushback by some traditional leaders who do not want Zwelithini to be the sole trustee of the land.  

However, earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa assured Zwelithini the ANC would not touch land administered by the trust after the king reportedly claimed that any attempts to alter the Ingonyama Trust arrangement was an intolerable provocation to “the Zulu nation” and “a declaration of war”. 

Umnini’s claims

A Luthuli elder, Nhlanhla Luthuli, in an interview with New Frame said the clan originated from Eshowe under the leadership of Shadwa Luthuli, an influential leader who later relocated to the Bluff area in Durban. 

“We were given the title deed by the English because we helped them. Dick King’s life was under threat and he ran away and hid in a gravesite in the Bluff area. The amaThuli tribe protected him and his horse … Later, the English asked to build the Durban Harbour … and relocated us to a place called Umnini. It was decided that we be given a title deed so that we can never be removed,” said Luthuli. 

He said: “I was adviser to many chiefs, and we knew we were independent because we already had a title deed. We told them that our land could not belong to Ingonyama Trust.”

Nhlanhla explained that if someone wanted to lease land in the community, they approachedinkosi (chief) Phathisizwe Luthuli, his nephew.

Inkosi will give you a form with the words ‘Umnini Tribal Trust Land’. That application is then sent to Ingonyama Trust offices in Pietermaritzburg. You see, we are being used to steal money that is meant to be coming into our trust. ‘Ingonyama Trust’ does not appear on the application form, and yet leases are paid to it … Our community is being used as a gateway to steal money,” he said. Phathisizwe said he would have to get permission from the tribal council before commenting on the matter.

Nhlanhla claimed Umnini community members were the rightful owners of the land. Local induna Musawakhe Luthuli agreed, saying the clan had the territory before the establishment of the Zulu kingdom. “We are the ones supposed to be collecting lease money from our community, not Ingonyama Trust. We want our money back. Ingonyama can’t issue leases to land it does not own.” Musawakhe equated Ingonyama’s actions to a form of corruption. 

27 August 2018: Two men can be seen fishing on a beach in the village of Umnini.

According to Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, a senior history lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education, “the amaThuli tribe was the predominant prominent indigenous tribe who lived on the Bluff and its surrounds”. When the colonial government was established in 1845, and the amaThuli, according to Ramoupi, was the only chiefdom legally recognised as occupants of the land on the Bluff and surrounding areas. 

“It’s common cause that in 1855, the right to land of amaThuli tribe was established, creating the Mnini Trust in 1858. With that, a system of trusteeship was adopted by which the colonial government granted the Umnini tribe some 7 977 acres of land,” wrote Ramoupi. 


Aninka Claassens, director of the Land and Accountability Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, explained that the “Ingonyama Trust believes that … Zwelithini owns the land… [but he] is actually a trustee and there is a board, and that board is meant to administer that land on his behalf. What the board is doing now is flagrantly unlawful and unconstitutional. A trustee cannot say that he is the owner. He has got to act in the best interest of the people.” 

Claassens was also a member of the high-level panel led by Motlanthe. Having interacted with the community closely, she disputed that the title deed had been taken away, but rather was being undermined by Ingonyama. “The Ingonyama Trust is arguing that it owns the land outright, rather than holding it in trust for the Umnini people as the rightful owners,” she said. 

Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs spokesperson Lennox Mabaso said the department had received a number of complaints pertaining to issues of land in rural areas. “We received a complaint from Umnini pertaining to the allocation of land. We are investigating whether there is substance so that amakhosi are not falsely accused.” 

The department, he said, dealt with issues relating to amakhosi.  But, he explained, “we do not have the jurisdiction to deal with matters involving the royal household or Ingonyama”. 

Amendment, 11 September 2020: Jerome Ngwenya’s title has been updated in line with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s request in September 2020 that he no longer use the title as Ngwenya resigned from the position.

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