Land has been ceded after a dispute involving relatives of former president Jacob Zuma and a local Roman Catholic parish in Mbongolwane, a small town in the King Cetshwayo District Municipality in western KwaZulu-Natal.
The dispute began in 2014, when the family of controversial businessman, Sibusiso Deebo Mzobe, who is related to Zuma, claimed that a portion of the land on which St Joseph Parish Church was built, was an ancestral graveyard.
Mbongolwane is situated a few kilometres from Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. The plot on which the church is built is administered under the Ingonyama Trust, of which Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini is the sole trustee.
The luxurious Mzobe family mansion, towering over the sprawling village, has the modern finishes of a suburban home. It is in walking distance from the parish. The Mzobe family allegedly used its name and association to Zuma to bully the parish into giving them the land. The parish finally gave in to the family following a bitter, two-year spat.
According to one source, who was at the time very close to the matter, the Mzobe family tried to claim a portion of the land on which the parish cultivates sugarcane. “They came in 2014 claiming that a portion of the land on which we were growing sugarcane was their ancestral graves. The plot we are talking about is about 10 hectares. They said on that section laid the remains of their forefathers,” said the source, who preferred not to be named.
The source told New Frame that although the family was not certain where the graves were, and could not point them out, they went ahead with the claim. The claim was not official in that it did not involve government, with only the church, the family and the local chief involved.
“They believed that the spirits of their loved ones were disturbed every time we burned the sugarcane before harvest time. They said every time we burned the sugarcane, it was like we were burning the remains of their loved ones,” said the source.
Land needed for ‘growing clan’
According to the source, the family also wanted to be compensated with four goats. The matter was escalated to the bishop of Eshowe, Xolelo Thaddaeus Kumalo. “He [Kumalo] came and a meeting was held between the family and the church. A member of the family said they wanted the land back because ‘the Mzobe clan was growing’.”
The bishop then agreed that the family should be compensated for their claim, despite there being no investigation into the claim. About four days after the meeting, members of the family went to the church to collect the four goats. They then ring-fenced about 50 square meters of the land after the compensation.
“Before giving into their demands, we asked for a forensic team to be brought in to dig up the graves so that we could be certain that indeed their ancestral graves were on the property, but the family refused,” said the source, who added that the relationship between the church and the family had, over the years, soured because of the land dispute.
The incumbent priest at the parish, Father Lungisani Bongisa Masondo, told New Frame that the matter had been escalated to the bishop. “Please contact him as I am not authorised to speak about that matter,” said Masondo.
Inkosi Sithembiso Ntuli of the Ntuli clan in the area confirmed that the family received the portion of the land they claimed from the church. “Although I am not 100% sure, the church was built some 100 years ago. I am not sure which came first between the construction of the hospital and the church but I know that the nurses that were employed at the church were nuns from the mission church.
“The church was run by Germans who came into the area and also ran the mission church. I am not sure where the dispute is now but it looks like it is over because I have not received a complaint from either of the parties involved.”
Ntuli said it would be impossible for the Mzobe family to entirely remove the church from the plot. “This is because they form part of the history of Mbongolwane. I would say all is okay for now because I have not heard any complaints,” he said.
The Mbongolwane ward councillor, Thokozane Jiyane, said he was not sure where the matter is currently because he has only been councillor in the area since 2015. “I know that there were issues with the Mzobe family wanting that land on which the church and the hospital is built on. The Mzobe family and another family are in the process of claiming that that land is their land but I think the matter is now settled.”
Setting a dog among the goats
“They hate us,” said an elderly woman who works at the church, referring to the Mzobe family. “You see the missionaries got the land from them about 100 years ago and then those people died. Now the living relatives say they want the land back.”
The woman said the family intended turning the church into a community hall. “I am not sure for what.” The woman alleged that the family recently brought a dog on to the property that then killed the goats in the neighbourhood.
“They hate us. Please do not write anything that will cause trouble,” said the woman. According to her, the family forefathers told the Mzobe family to leave the nuns and the church alone. “They say the nuns are no good, they said that we are naughty,” she said.
Bishop Kumalo confirmed that the matter had been settled. “The squabble which a Mr Mzobe had with the church, in which the local inkosi was called in, was completed there and then,” he said, adding that he was unaware of any “new issues” that might have arisen.
Sibusiso Deebo Mzobe, who is the family’s spokesperson, confirmed that the family’s relationship with the church had improved so much that, just two weeks ago, Father Masondo approached the family asking for a donation in the form of a sheep, and the family gladly obliged.
Long history of co-operation
Explaining the history of the relationship between the family and the church, Mzobe said the church, which turned 105 this year, was welcomed by the original leadership of the Ntuli clan.
“The Mzobe family are an important pillar of the Ntuli chiefdom. When the church [Germans] came, they asked for a plot of land to build a church. Then Inkosi Mavumengwana [the first chief] showed them where to build the church but they were not happy.” said Mzobe.
The Germans then moved in with the Mzobes at their family homestead. Mzobe, who is the fifth generation of the clan, said his great-great-grandfather moved out of the homestead, leaving the Germans on the land that spanned about 400 hectares.
“They built a church there and my grandfather moved next door to the church, which is where the hospital was later built. My grandfather’s grave is located on the hospital property. Before the Mbongolwane Hospital was taken over by the government, it was run by the nuns from the church. They also ran the schools in the area,” said Mzobe.
It was the Mzobe family that allowed the church to develop, “so there is no ways they can claim that we are bullying them”, he added.
He explained that after the land dispute was settled, there were tensions between the two parties when dogs in the community mysteriously killed several of the community’s livestock grazing on communal land.
“The community suspected that it was the nuns who sent the dogs to kill the animals. Inkosi was called and we called a meeting where the nuns admitted that they had sent the dogs to kill the livestock. But that matter was resolved,” said Mzobe.
According to him, the family felt uncomfortable when the church, at some point, failed to acknowledge the role that the family played in the church. “The church cannot erase history and the relationship that we share. That is our church and we get jealous when they try to become independent.
“We know that the sisters can be a bit manipulative and when we decide to deal with matters, they are quick to say that we are trying to claim the land back. There is no land claim,” he said, adding that the church and the family are inseparable.
“If the church can continue to respect the history that we have together, then we will respect the church,” said Mzobe.