South Africa: Beauty and the beast
Dale T. McKinley
This week legal papers are set to be filed in the Constitutional Court seeking an order to compel President Zuma to appoint a Commission of Inquiry into ‘allegations of corruption and mismanagement’ covering both the Badplaas area and the Mpumalanga Province as a whole.
The pending case is being brought by eco-tourist businessman and whistle-blower Fred Daniel, the Badplaas Ratepayers Association and the Trustees of the Ndwandwa Community Trust in their individual capacities as well as in the public interest. It is the culmination of a decade-long battle against what the papers describe as, ‘serious abuse of power, maladministration and corruption’ which have inflicted ‘legal risks, financial uncertainty, social instability, safety concerns, conflict between citizens, insecurity, harm and suffering on an impoverished community and a fragile environment.’
And what a story it is.
The Barberton-Makhonjwa Mountain Lands (BML) in Mpumalanga is without doubt amongst the most beautiful and precious areas in South Africa, with its aesthetic and natural appeal as one of the world’s greatest bio-diversity hotspots and geological treasure troves. And yet, it is also an area that besides having a long history of human habitation dating back 42,000 years, has historically been an epicentre of intense and often violent contestation and competition revolving largely around issues of land going all the way back to the early-mid 18th century involving the Sotho, Swazi and Zulu peoples and then later the white Boers.
Not surprisingly, given the historically contentious nature of land rights issues alongside the highly fluid and fractious character of post-1913 apartheid induced human movement and settlement in the BML area, there were relatively few land claims lodged by communities before the official cut-off date of 1998. Indeed, up until 2004 the only land claim in the vicinity of Badplaas that had been lodged and settled (without any opposition and/or controversy) was that of Robert Nkosi, founder and Chair of the Ndwandwa Community Trust.
By the late 1990s most farmers in the area had run into serious financial troubles and as a result many were ready and willing to sell their farms for amounts that were well below comparative market-related prices. It was into this mix that a young man by the name of Fred Daniel arrived on the scene with a passion for the ‘origins of life’ and places of rich bio-diversity coupled to a vision he has described as the ‘healing of the earth’. Daniel eventually found what he was looking for in the BML area and soon set out on a ‘mission’ to develop what he has called the ‘Cradle of Life’ eco-tourism based leisure, nature and educational project.
As he proceeded to purchase an impressive assembly of farms, Daniel and his partners followed all the correct legal procedures as laid down in the relevant land and environmental laws as well as closely checking with all the relevant authorities throughout for any legitimate land claims. Initially, the Mpumalanga Provincial authorities and departments enthusiastically embraced and assisted his plans. There was no opposition from any government department and more specifically from the Regional Land Claims Commissioner (RLCC) or the Mpumalanga Parks Board (MTPA).
This all changed in June 2003 when Daniel provided the RLCC with a copy of his comprehensive business plan. From that point on doors started closing for Daniel and thereafter, over a number of years, a range of gazetted land claims began to appear, each time related directly to the exact boundaries of a map Daniel had provided (as part of his business plan) to government authorities that showed farms he already had purchased and was intending to purchase. In every case the claims were attached to the Ndwandwa Community Trust but without the knowledge or approval of the original founder, Robert Nkosi, and some of his fellow Trustees.
As it turned out, from 2003 onwards a motley crew of opportunists, corrupt officials/politicians, land speculators and greedy Ndwandwa Trustees (which included local white farmers, politically connected businessmen and an ANC councillor alongside senior provincial government officials and ANC politicians) went about hijacking the Ndwandwa Trust. They did so as a means to milk the land reform funds with impunity, exploit beneficiaries ruthlessly and launch a sustained campaign against the person and properties of Fred Daniel. Indeed Daniel came into the firing line because he along with Robert Nkosi exposed and blew the lid off what was the biggest land scam in South African history.
In a desperate bid to cover up this fraud, steps were implemented that led to the outright theft of the original Ndwandwa Trust Deed in order to take control of the Trust by circumventing Robert Nkosi and setting up a fake Trust and Trustees. This then allowed the ‘crew’ to continue, over a period of eight years, to control the Trust assets, use it as a vehicle to access state land restitution funds, transfer additional farms into the fake Trust and simultaneously attempt to neutralise and discredit Daniel and Robert Nkosi in order to hide the fraud. Despite damning evidence from three independent and government-backed forensic investigations into the Badplaas land scam (in 2005) that confirmed a R50 million fraud, no one was, or has since, ever been convicted of any crime.
A large part of the reason for this is the ubiquitous practice (and no more so than in Mpumalanga) of conscious political manipulation and abuse of power by those in positions of public power and leadership. The conduct of public entities such as the Mpumalanga RLCC and the MTPA presents a prime example of everything that is wrong with the very public bodies that are ostensibly in existence to positively facilitate, regulate, defend and uphold the laws that underpin their own purpose and existence.
What becomes crystal clear in this intensely detailed story is that the strategy was to simply overwhelm Fred Daniel & Robert Nkosi as well as anyone else who might think of getting in their way, with land claims regardless of their validity or merit and certainly regardless of the say of the real and/or constructed land claimants themselves. At the same time, this strategy facilitated and catalysed a torrent of lies, intimidation and violence at both the local and provincial levels against those who dared stand up and speak out for the truth against this mafia-like gravy train. They were not only denied their rights to access government and receive fair treatment and administrative justice but were subject to harassment, intimidation, fire bombings, threats to lives, destruction of property and even death.
As a result, Fred Daniel and Robert Nkosi were forced to go to the High Court on no less than sixteen occasions (winning each time), to protect their lives, business and basic human as well as constitutional rights; besides having to make endless appeals and requests to various government bodies and politicians to simply do their jobs. While many of the legal cases prevented further unlawful activities and abuse, nowhere more crucially than in respect of the eventual ‘rescue’ of the genuine Ndwandwa Trust only just last year, their importance lies in two specific places: firstly, as a written record of much of what constitutes the Badplaas story over the last decade; and secondly, as confirmation that the resort to legal action is never the first choice of those ordinary citizens – whether at the individual and/or collective levels – who largely rely on the laws of the country to be equally and justly applied by those in power in order to protect and sustain their rights.
If the Constitutional Court does order President Zuma to institute the Commission of Inquiry, and if it does its job properly, then what will be revealed is the accumulated scourge of deep-seated political, institutional, governance and socio-economic problems and strife in Badplaas (and Mpumalanga) which continue to cast very dark clouds across its beautiful landscape. Whether or not such a Commission happens, this story should have an acutely practical and political resonance across our country at this particular time; because at the centre of those clouds is a hybrid political-business mafia who have shown time and again that they are really only interested in one thing; the accumulation of power and money at all costs. It is an unfinished story with many more battles to come.
Let’s hope the beauty can slay the beast.
Dr. Dale McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist. This article was first published by SACSIS.