Family feud over land halts Umbumbulu development

A piece of land that could be developed to benefit the Umbumbulu community near Durban has instead been unused for years because of a protracted dispute.

Vusimuzi Aaron Makhanya’s dream of turning a derelict school building in the eThekwini municipality into a multimillion-rand development has ground to a halt because of a dispute over who owns the land on which it was built.

Makhanya’s mother donated the land, in Umbumbulu southwest of Durban, to the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education as a site for building a school that has since been moved to bigger premises.

Makhanya and his immediate family want the land back for a R20 million development of businesses that can benefit the local economy. But a feud between Makhanya’s immediate family and Inkosi Khethukuthula Makhanya, a distant relative, has put paid to the plans thus far.

“Three years ago I put in a request at the Sobonakhona Tribal Council in Umbumbulu, which is led by Inkosi Makhanya. I told the traditional council that my mother donated the land to Masuku Primary School … until the school could find suitable land to build a bigger school. The school operated until it found alternative land and it moved,” said Makhanya.

“I spoke to the school principal at the time, who told me that the school was moving … with its site number and that meant that that piece of land was no longer considered a school and that it would be returned to the Makhanya family. The principal wrote a letter stating that the land was given back to my family.” 

16 January 2020: An unmarked grave behind the primary school that Makhanya says belongs to a member of his family.
16 January 2020: An unmarked grave behind the primary school that Makhanya says belongs to a member of his family.

The matter was referred to the council because the site is located on land administered by the Ingonyama Trust, which controls almost three million hectares in KwaZulu-Natal. King Goodwill Zwelithini is the custodian of the land.

“The council did not dispute the matter. It said because the school had left I had the right to use the land freely. After they agreed, Inkosi Makhanya needed to sign a supporting document that would allow us to develop the land, but he sent me from pillar to post. He still has not signed the document till this day,” said Makhanya. 

“He told me that he will not be told how to do his job. He said he was the key in this matter and I wondered whether he was the key that would open doors or close doors for me.”

Conflicting points of view

Makhanya eventually gave up trying to liaise with the inkosi and sought legal advice. He also reported the matter to the KwaZulu-Natal departments of education and co-operative governance and traditional affairs.

A letter from Makhanya’s lawyer, Justice Nzimande, dated 10 April 2012, informed the Masuku school governing body (SGB) and the Department of Education that Makhanya was taking over the site because the school had relocated. A letter from the school, dated 17 August 2017, confirmed the relocation and that it had been built on Makhanya’s land. New Frame has also seen a permission-to-occupy document stating that Makhanya is the rightful owner of the land. 

The Ingonyama Trust, in turn, confirmed receiving a letter from the tribal council requesting to use a site over which Inkosi Makhanya has jurisdiction.

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The former principal of Masuku Primary School, Kwenzokuhle Cele, said although he wrote a letter informing the family that the school was moving, only the education department had the authority to officially return the land to the family.  

“I am not sure why they are not able to sit down together, because they are members of the same family. But what should have happened is that Makhanya should have approached the department and he would have got what he wanted.”

Cele also confirmed that Makhanya’s family had donated the land to the SGB. “At the time, the governing body even built them a house next to the school. The school then moved but that did not mean that [the land] should return to the Makhanya family because it still belonged to the department.”

Cele believes the dispute could have been avoided had Makhanya approached the department directly. “By the time I left, the matter had not been resolved because the department had to get a permission-to-occupy document to prove that it owned the land.”

Development would be welcome

A local businessman, who asked not to be named, said the development would complement a Boxer store nearby. It would create construction jobs in the short term and opportunities for employment in the stalls and shops in the long term.

He said he approached the Makhanya family about the proposed development three years ago. “We had prepared a lease application to submit to the Ingonyama Trust, but we required the signature from the inkosi in order for them to process the lease application. And that is where we became stuck because we couldn’t go any further without the signature of the inkosi.”

He acknowledged that the land falls under the jurisdiction of the inkosi even though the Makhanyas have a permission-to-occupy document. “I think there have been a number of people who have been trying to develop on that site but have been unsuccessful because of the Makhanya deadlock,” he said.  

16 January 2020: A grave with a slab and headstone bearing the name Makhanya lies behind the school.
16 January 2020: A grave with a slab and headstone bearing the name Makhanya lies behind the school.

The councillor for ward 96, Thembelihle Makhanya, said he doesn’t know what is happening between the inkosi and the Makhanya family. “What I know is that the Department of Education or any government department would never use land under tribal authority without some sort of agreement being reached. This is done to avoid a situation whereby a person changes their mind on giving away the land.”

He added that the original agreement would have to be investigated to find a solution. “I am not against or supporting what the family is saying, but if we need to start a process of calling the department and the tribal authority to look at the initial agreement in order for everyone to present all sides, that would resolve this matter.”

Apology all that’s needed

Indunankulu Mbongeni Makhanya, who speaks on behalf of the inkosi, said he is aware of the dispute. He said he had advised the Makhanya family to ask the Department of Education for permission to use the land for development. 

“I further advised that they go to inkosi to tell him that [they] had an intention to use the land for development that would benefit the community. I told them that inkosi would give them his blessing by writing a supporting letter stating that this is what the family intended to do and that he had given them permission to do so.”

Instead, the spokesperson said, the family went to the Ingonyama Trust’s board and asked for documents allowing them to take over the land.

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“When they returned to the tribal court, inkosi felt undermined and disrespected because he was younger than the claimants. They just need to apologise to inkosi so that the development can take place.”

KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said the land still belonged to the department because it had been a donation.

“If we hadn’t built a new school, the school would still be operating and the pupils would still be attending there. However, with that said, we will engage the family so that we can have an amicable solution because they did a good deed by donating land to us so that we can build a school there.

“We would want to return the favour because they had a good heart and we want to do this in an amicable and peaceful manner until the matter is concluded,” said Mahlambi.

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