Mbongeni Ngema in bitter land dispute

The South African playwright has been accused of taking land from a group of residents in Melmoth, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal.

The message in South African playwright Mbongeni Ngema’s body of work, whether explicit or by implication, has always been about liberation.

In a song titled Lizobuya, from his acclaimed musical Sarafina, Ngema sings of the restoration of the land to its original owners. Although it can be interpreted in various ways, it’s the kind of song that could be heard as a call to arms to take back the land.

Now, Ngema has been accused of taking land from a group of residents in Melmoth, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal.

The community also alleges that Ngema evicted some of the families from the property – some of whom had lived all their lives there. They allege further that Ngema broke the boreholes, which means the community now has to travel farther than before to get water. In addition, Ngema also allegedly illegally sold the farm’s cattle rather than looking after them, as had been agreed.

The land dispute that the arts veteran is embroiled in has left the community asking itself how Ngema acquired a lease on a plot of land on which they had lodged a claim. They are demanding answers from the provincial department of rural development and land reform as to how Ngema acquired a portion of the farm in December 2016.

Off the main road from the former capital of KwaZulu-Natal, Ulundi, is a long and twisting gravel track. At the end of that, a spray-painted sign reads: “Wintershoek. KwaMadlokovu.” KwaMadlokovu is Ngema’s clan name.

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New Frame spoke to several angry and frustrated community members.

A land claim lodged in 1995

Michael Shandu, 60, said that in 1995 four people were nominated to lodge a land claim on behalf of the community against the Mfule Mission, which was built on the land. These claimants were Sipho Mpungose, Mfanyana Mthimkhulu, Hamilton Sibiya and Welcome Mthimkhulu.

Shandu, a man with soft greying hair, said, “We claimed about 320 000 hectares of the farm which was owned by a farmer named Gavin Calves. He got the farm from his father (Bhukuda), Mr Calves senior, who had gotten the farm from Harris ‘Matanana’.”

It’s been more than two decades since the claim was lodged.

Shandu said that they found out in 2017 that Ngema had moved onto the farm. He said that Ngema did not have a relationship with the community before occupying the farm and so it did not make sense that he had been allocated the land.

“He [Ngema] was given land by the department of land affairs. He doesn’t speak to us and when we want to speak to him he always refers us to the department of land affairs,” said Shandu.

Shandu claimed that Calves left about 400 cows on the property. It is some of this livestock that Ngema allegedly sold.

Despite what has happened, Shandu believes that the matter might be settled one day. “We have hope that this might be resolved, especially before I die. We have been fighting for years for the land,” said Shandu.

The community established a committee, the Bhukuda Doggerkry Land Claim, to assist with its claim. Its chairperson, Otto Mbatha, said the people living on the property were merely guarding the farm.

“I am also helping to guard the farm. I asked Ngema if I could use the farm for my cattle to graze and he agreed.”

Mbatha said the farm should be returned to its rightful owners, the community that was claiming it. “But we cannot get it back because it has been given to someone else. They [department of rural development] said that he [Ngema] had been given the land because they could not find the claim on the system.

“He [Ngema] told us that he was leasing the farm from the state. When we investigated further we found out that our claim does exist but it was hidden.”

Mzwakhe Nxonge, speaking on behalf of the people living on the farm said, “We do not know how he got the farm.”

13 November 2018: Michael Shandu stands outside the farm which is the centre of the land dispute.

Alleged evictions

There are seven families living on the farm currently, he said. Some who are included in the claim allegedly have been evicted from the farm.

“When Gavin [Calves] left he told us that Ngema was placed by the government to look after the farm. Ngema did not buy the farm. This is the same farm that we had claimed as the community.”

Calves had allegedly instructed the community to work with Ngema, according to Nxonge.

“When the white man left in December 2016, Ngema told us that he only wanted five people to work for him on the farm.” As a result many families were left without employment and had to move from the farm.

Nxonge claims that Ngema illegally sold cows which he was meant to look after. “We didn’t get any money. We reported him to the department of land affairs who later said that we must let him be.The department gave us 13 cows per household for the seven families. Ngema was left with 200 cows to look after on behalf of the government.

“He was told that he does not own anything on the farm. The families were subsequently moved from the farm by Ngema and the government and this was done without any compensation.”

The community has been meeting regularly in a bid to understand what happened to their claim and how Ngema allegedly acquired the farm.

Nxonge said: “We do not want him here, our ancestral graves are here.”

Another resident, Dumisani Buthelezi, said: “We protested against former minister [rural development and land reform] Gugile Nkwinti and he promised to sort this matter out but he never did.

“We have hope that one day we will get the land back. The government does not talk to us and this means that the chances of getting the land back are slim. They just want our votes,” said Buthelezi.

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Although Ngema did not answer several calls from New Frame, or return messages sent to him, he told the The Witness newspaper that he was given a portion of the farm.

It was not immediately clear to whom he was referring in his admission. Attempts to get comment from Ngema’s son, Africa Ngema, who was apparently appointed as the farm manager, were also unsuccessful by the time of publication.

The Inkosi in Babanango who oversees Melmoth, Nomvula Ntombela, confirmed that the community had brought the matter to her attention.

“They (the community) came to report that Mbongeni Ngema was on the farm and that he had brought in a stranger (security guard). When we called this person to ask him who gave him permission to be on the farm, he said it was Mbongeni Ngema.”

Ntombela said the community asked Ngema to point out his ancestral graves but he failed to so. “After that we complained to the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, because he could not point out where the graves were. I am aware of the matter and I know that the department is investigating it,” said Ntombela.

13 November 2018: Mzwakhe Nxonge, one of the affected community members, standing at a fence on the perimeter of the disputed farm.

‘Go and ask Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’

The man whom the community claimed was the former owner, Gavin Calves, refused to confirm his name and surname to New Frame. The man alleged, “The government put him there. Go and ask Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma directly. She had him sorted out once before.”

He explained that he did not have a land claim on the farm in question. “I had a willing buyer, willing seller and it (all of this) actually has got nothing to do with me… I do not want to get involved in this nyakanyaka(mess),” said the man, who refused to speak any further on the matter.

Mlungisi Mtshali, the spokesperson for minister in the presidency for planning, monitoring and evaluation, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, said he had no knowledge of what the man was talking about.

Mtshali said, “I do not know anything about this, I think this is something between Mbongeni and the claimants. It is a private matter that we cannot comment on.”

Mtshali later explained that the only land issue that Dlamini Zuma was involved in was the Mkhwanazi land claim in Pietermaritzburg, where the land was handed over to the community last month. “As far as Mbongeni is concerned, I do not remember doing anything with him,” he said.

Attorney William Mpurwana, who assisted the community, said, “My mandate was mainly to create or draft the constitution of the community property association which then the department was going to hand over the ownership once all those processes had been done.”

The department of rural development and land reform was sent questions regarding the matter three weeks ago, but failed to respond by the time of publication.

A lawyer at the Legal Resource Centre, Thabiso Mbhense, said this case was not unique. Mbhense said, “You will find that the farm has already been transferred to Mbongeni Ngema without the community’s knowledge.”

Mbhense said that it is caretakers placed on farms who are usually guilty of abusing tenants and farm workers.

“This is common practice but the community can come to us and we can try and assist them [to] find answers,” said Mbhense.

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