South Africa's land claims a fraud magnet

Jonathan Erasmus, The Witness

Pietermaritzburg - The KwaZulu-Natal premier’s office, in explaining how the province has recovered over R500 million from corrupt officials, has pointed to large-scale fraud in the land restitution programme.

This comes after Premier Senzo Mchunu, in a statement recently that punted his term as being based on an “anti-corruption ticket”, said the Special Investigation Unit had recovered “R536 500 000 which was stolen” from provincial coffers.

It claimed many of the staff had either been fired, or were facing disciplinary or “court cases”.

His response was to several questions sent to his office by The Witness.

The premier’s spokesperson, Sibusiso Magwaza, said officials within the KZN Department of Land Affairs and Rural Development had manipulated beneficiary lists by including people employed by the state, using the “identities of dead people”, and by listing minors as beneficiaries.

The two farms used as examples were Mbulawane Farm in Ladysmith and Elisabeth Farm in Melmoth. The two farms were seized by the state in March 2014 and November 2013 respectively.

Magwaza said: “One of the common features in the farm matters was that most people whose details were used as beneficiaries or applicants for government funding, were not aware that they were beneficiaries of the farms.”

In the Elisabeth Farm matter he said a trust called Nkayishana Community Trust was formed but the “founding document signatures were also forged”.

“The SIU found that some of the trustees were persons who could neither read nor write.”

While Magwaza did not allude to the scale of the land claim fraud, media reports suggested in February 2014 that four farms with a value exceeding R100 million had been seized by the SIU, which included farms in Melmoth, Utrecht and Vryheid.

Mike Cowling, executive director for the land rights movement Afra, said the high number of fraudulent claims saw “genuine claimants marginalised”.

“We have documented this for years and while we have handed over documentation to the authorities nothing has been done, or if there has been progress, they have failed to inform us.”

The KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu) head, Sandy le Marque, said 60% of claims usually failed in the Lands Claim Court.

“This failure rate has much to do with invalid lodgements being made.”

She said repeat claims on the same farm, some against farms already owned and controlled by black commercial farmers, further compounded the belief that widespread fraud in the land claims process is prevalent.

The Democratic Alliance, while welcoming the recovery, lodged several questions with the KZN Legislature asking for a breakdown of how, when and where the money was recouped.

DA MPL Francois Rodgers said they wanted to know if the money was back with the KZN Treasury. “The premier is waxing lyrical about this achievement. We want to know at what stage the recovery on each incident is currently at, and what action was taken against the implicated officials.”

Rodgers said the party was also calling on the premier to implement a “blacklist” register that would forbid certain government employees from finding work within state organs.

From July 1, 2014 to July 2015 a further 14 602 land claims in KZN had been lodged.

The land claims window was reopened last year and is expected to close in 2019.

There are still outstanding claims stemming back to the first window period, which closed in 1998.

The Witness is expecting further information from Magwaza detailing the status of the various farm investigations.

The Witness