KZN church won’t move for pie-in-the-sky promises 

A private company is attempting to claim a piece of KwaZulu-Natal land that a church congregation bought for its own purposes. 

The date of the official opening of the Ukukhanya Kwevangeli Church in KwaZulu-Natal has been stalled ever since a local development company abandoned a bid to build a shopping centre and petrol station on the church’s land.

Pastor Bafana Sibiya, 65, who started the church, says the matter dates back to 2012, when a start was made on the construction of the church. Sibiya hails from Bhamshela in uMvoti, near Upper Tongaat in KwaZulu-Natal, close to the land in question.

“I got land from the Khoza family in the area,” he remembers. “It was their land, and I paid a khonza fee of about R1 300 because I came from land governed by inkosi Ndodi Gcwensa.”

A khonza fee is a customary tax imposed on residents living on land overseen by a traditional council. Residents who wish to live on land not governed by their inkosi are ordered to pay this fee, which varies from one traditional council to another.

“During the foundation phase of the construction of the church, I was approached by a man of Indian descent who claimed to come from a company called Timocento,” the pastor explains. “The man asked to have a meeting with the church, and in the meeting he asked if the church could be built on another building site.”

This land in exchange for a new church

Sibiya says the congregation was told the company wanted the particular plot for a business venture. “They promised to build us a church with a kitchen, plug points and toilet facilities,” he adds. “The [congregation] then agreed we would hand over the land once a new church had been built for us. The agreement was based on the company finding us alternative land to build the church on.”

But the promise was never fulfilled. Instead, the man left and never returned again, says Sibiya. “We waited and waited and waited, and he never came back. Construction of the church, which had stopped, continued during the four-year waiting period.” He explains that during this long wait, the church services were held in his house. But after the building was completed, the church became functional.

Shortly after moving into the new premises, the church received a letter from the Durban High Court summoning Sibiya to appear before the court. Sibiya remembers the presiding judge asked him to provide evidence that he did indeed legally acquire the land upon which the church was built.

“I did that. I also gave the lawyers the evidence because I had received a letter from the tribal authority and witnesses from the community that I lived in the area and that I had got the land legally.”

Many postponements

Sibiya says that when he brought further evidence before the court, the matter was postponed for further investigation. “I am not sure what happened to the matter. We were never told why the matter was still on the court roll. It just kept getting postponed and postponed indefinitely.”

Following the court appearances, Sibiya explains he was approached by another man who claimed to be from the same company. That man asked for a new agreement to be made. “This man was accompanied by an induna, a councillor and a representative from the Ndwedwe Municipality. They said they came to see me because I was anti-development in the area. There were several talks; one day I arrived at church to find peg markings on the borders of the church. You could see that something was about to be done.”

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Sibiya said he was surprised by this, and he went to the induna to investigate further. “He told me that someone from the Ingonyama Trust came and placed those pegs, but they told him that it was nothing to worry about. He said we should not pay attention to it.”

The matter gave Sibiya sleepless nights because he took it very seriously. “I took the matter to the local chief and the tribal council, and they too were surprised. Inkosi investigated the matter further and confirmed that it was my land. While all of this was happening, I was again summoned to appear before court where they again asked for evidence to prove that I owned the land.”

Sibiya complied. But he remembers: “While all of this was happening, we lost some of the building material that was on the plot. The church was vandalised and the toilets were ruined.”

Broken promises

“I think they could see we had evidence that we owned the land and that we were not going to hand it over to them,” says Sibiya. “They tried to take our land without building us the church on alternative land as they had promised us initially.”

Sibiya sought legal advice from the Legal Resource Centre (LRC) and the matter was not brought up again. “They left the plot in a mess because they had brought in tractors that dug up the land and then never repaired the mess they made.” There are gaping holes at the entrance where a parking lot was meant to be built.

“I think they wanted me to sign documents quickly without following proper procedures,” says Sibiya. “By signing I knew I would be handing over the land to the company. As a rural community, I think the problem is that we do not have someone or a structure that protects us from such behaviour because we are poor and that is why some people end up losing the land. They take advantage of the poor because we do not have money to pay lawyers to fight this for us.”

The church still continues to congregate in the building despite the disturbances allegedly caused by the company.

Involvement of the Khoza family?

Two independent sources close to the matter say the Khoza family was involved in the initial allocation of the land to Timocento (Pty) Ltd. It appears the family sold the land to two people, which might have led to the dispute.

“The Khoza family sold land to Timocento,” says one of the sources, who wished to remain anonymous. “The land they allocated to the company included the land which had already been sold to the church.”

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Timocento approached the Ingonyama Trust for a commercial lease on the allocated 1.809 hectare land, says the source. In March 2013, this lease was ratified, giving the company permission to go ahead with the construction of a shopping centre and petrol station. New Frame has seen a copy of the lease.

In June 2016, however, the matter became complicated when the traditional council changed its mind, apparently withdrawing its consent to the Ingonyama Trust’s lease. This prompted the trust to investigate why the council had made such a decision and to advise on the implications of the withdrawal.

A letter written in isiZulu dated 16 September 2013 reads: “The chief together with the traditional council have previously said no construction should take place on the Khoza site until such time that it is determined as to who is the legitimate owner of the site.”

The LRC weighs in

This is when Sibiya and his congregation approached the LRC to ask them to represent the church in court. According to a Mail & Guardian report, the handling of this matter formed the basis for the suspension of five Ingonyama Trust employees. Deputy real estate head Duncan Pakkies, community liaison officer Bhekisihle Zondi and real estate officer Nompumelelo Ndlovu were charged with gross misconduct.

LRC lawyer Thabiso Mbhense confirms he filed an application opposing the company’s actions. “We were contacted by ubab’Sibiya and others,” he says. “When we got involved in the matter, there was an interdict application in the high court already, and we opposed the application. After opposing the application, they disappeared.”.

Mbhense believes the company was being opportunistic in trying to force the land away from the church. 

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