Linah Nkosi, 62, has lived on the same plot of land in the village of Maphaya in Jozini, northern KwaZulu-Natal, for most of her life. She is a member of the local tribal council. But now she is boycotting the Ingonyama Trust, which governs her plot.
Nkosi claims community members were misled by the trust into signing 40-year leases for their plots. “They [representatives of the trust] told me that if I get a lease, I can use it to get a loan from the bank so that I could start a business if I wanted to,” said Nkosi. She claimed that community members were deceived into signing leases and paying rates with an annual increase of 10%.
Community members are now rejecting the leases. Most of them are unemployed and cannot afford to pay the annual rates. Many families in the village have always lived on the land, which was allocated by the local chief, without having to pay leases or taxes.
“I was told that I could not get a lease because I was a woman and needed a man to take it on my behalf,” said Nkosi, who then sought the assistance of her former partner. When she finally received her lease in 2014, she was shocked to discover she had to pay a once-off fee of R669 to the trust’s account.
“I did not pay and the trust used to call me, but it has since stopped. In 2016, I went to the tribal council and asked if it was possible to cancel the lease because I did not understand the purpose of it. We later found out that if you do not pay Ingonyama Trust, it can take your home.” Nkosi has begun the process of cancelling the lease so that she does not have to pay the trust for the rest of her life.
Sifiso Myeni, the local chief, explained that leases were signed before he took office. “The people who had problems with the leases came to the tribal council and I helped them to cancel the leases, and I am still doing that. If someone says they have a lease and they are struggling to pay, we cancel it. The information I received is that some people wanted leases but they did not know what the purpose of the lease was.”
Myeni said he had explained to the residents that leases were meant for people who owned businesses. “Some people are still coming to the tribal council to apply for leases because they say they want a document to prove that they live in the area. I cannot refuse them, but I explain the positive and negative consequences of having a lease.”
Siyabulela Manona, director of Phuhlisani, an organisation in Cape Town that focuses on direct land tenure and administration, said that in other former homelands, by law, the land belonged to the state and the people living on it.
“In terms of the law, the land actually belongs to the people who have historically lived on the land. It means that if you have a plot for a household, the land belongs to that household even though you do not have a title deed or anything formal as a record. If anyone does what Ingonyama Trust is doing, it is actually dispossessing people of their land.”
It is structural dispossession, said Manona – people think they are securing their tenure while they are being denied the land.
King Goodwill Zwelithini is the sole trustee of Ingonyama Trust land, which spans about 3 million hectares and was established in terms of the Ingonyama Trust Act. The act was formulated by former Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and passed by former president F.W. de Klerk just 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 on the country’s democracy, found that the act should be repealed or amended because it does not function in interests of the people living on the land. There has also been 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 that 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”.
During the commemoration of Umkhosi weLembe (formerly King Shaka’s Day) in September, Zwelithini reportedly again asked for Ramaphosa’s assurance that Ingonyama Trust land would not be touched. He was quoted saying he wanted Ramaphosa to travel to KwaZulu-Natal with something in writing to confirm this.
Ingonyama Trust board chairperson Jerome Ngwenya dismissed the community’s claims. “I am now beginning to ask myself who you take me for. Your last enquiry was about the so-called community. And this one as well. You are rehashing what the Centre for Land Accountability has tried and failed.
“Do you seriously think I have time for faceless lessees? I hope, if you wish me to ever respond to any of your queries again, you will give me the names, copies of documents, the purpose of the enquiry and the exact nature of the complaint.
“I also expect of you to undertake a similar exercise with the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, which issues leases…If you cannot give me facts, not sweeping statements, please consider yourself blocked from my communication,” said Ngwenya to New Frame.
Another fed-up resident, Hluphekile Mabuyakhulu, 76, said: “To be honest, I do not care about this land issue. They can take the land if they want. They can evict me as well. It really doesn’t matter.”
Mabuyakhulu shares a mud and stone house with her two young granddaughters. There are two other outbuildings on her plot of land. She relies on her monthly government pension of R1 700, and grows cabbage, onion, pumpkin and spinach in a small garden behind her house. Sometimes she sells the vegetables to the community to supplement her income, but said she would never let a community member go to bed on an empty stomach if they couldn’t afford her vegetables.
She also refuses to pay. She said when some community members went to get the leases from representatives of the trust, they discovered they had been misled. “No one ever came to the community to explain what a lease was … They did not say anything about paying because they knew that we wouldn’t have agreed to it,” said Mabuyakhulu, who could not recall exactly when the leases were introduced.
According to Mabuyakhulu’s 21-page lease agreement, which is unsigned, she would be required to pay R1 500 rent per month, which would increase by 10% each year. Mabuyakhulu said nobody explained the details of the lease to her, and that she could not understand the legal wording of the document. She cannot read English. The agreement was set to commence on 1 July 2012 and be terminated on 30 June 2052.
The lease allows for an extension by way of written consent from the traditional authority, and states that rent can be paid either directly to the trust in Pietermaritzburg or via a bank deposit. If the tenant defaults on their rent, outstanding payments will accrue interest at a rate of prime plus 2% on the outstanding amount.
Another resident, former policeman Bongani Zikhali, said the community was called to attend a meeting and told to bring their IDs. This is where they were allegedly forced to sign leases.
“We trusted the monarch. We did not know that he was misleading us. We thought the leases operated like a title deed. This is nonsense, I refuse to pay … I am even prepared to go to war over this matter,” said Zikhali.
The spokesperson for the provincial cooperative governance and traditional affairs department, Lennox Mabaso, said: “We have not received any complaint relating to this matter. If you want to discuss issues of land, please contact Ingonyama Trust.”
Michael Neocosmos, emeritus Professor at Rhodes University, said there is a similar trust in Swaziland that is supposed to belong to the King Mswati III. “If they hand out land to people to settle on, they can be removed at any time because the land is not theirs. The chief may even ask people living on the land to provide resources in return for giving them land, and then the people are under traditional authority.”
Neocosmos said this is how the king, chiefs and headmen are able make lots of money, and why people living on tribal land are frustrated. “That land, which is supposed to be under traditional tenure, is not supposed to be bought or sold on the market. But what is happening here is that the land is becoming more and more like private property. It is like the king’s private property, where he can do whatever he wants on the land.”
Neocosmos added that the governing party is likely to continue heeding Zwelithini and the chiefs’ demands because it needs the rural vote, especially as the country prepares for the 2019 elections. “The reason Ramaphosa promised to not touch the land is because as soon as these guys start jumping up and down, as soon as Zwelithini says we [the Zulu nation] are breaking away from South Africa, then the president rushes over there and says, ‘No, no, no, we are not going to touch the land’.”
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.