Park plans bring ‘grief’

A pioneering R175-million game park development inspired by former president Nelson Mandela has run headlong into a court challenge by evicted farmworkers.

Marakele National Park, near Thabazimbi in Limpopo, is a public-private partnership widely seen as a model for the African continent, where many impoverished national parks are under severe threat.

The man behind it is billionaire Hollander Paul van Vlissingen, whose family fortune was founded on Makro retail outlets. Van Vlissingen became involved in Marakele

after Mandela told him private-public partnerships were needed to help African game parks survive.

However, 22 farmworkers evicted from farms incorporated into the park are now suing Marakele Pty Ltd, South African National Parks (SANParks) and the former owners of the farms for about R3-million in compensation.

In papers served last week in the Land Claims Court, the workers claim that their right to tenure security under the Extension of Security of Tenure Act was violated when they were removed from the farms in 2001. The land in question now forms the Contract Park jointly run by Marakele Pty Ltd and SANParks.

The Marakele model is now being exported to countries such as Zambia, Malawi and Ethiopia by the African Parks Management and Finance Company, of which Van Vlissingen is also a founder member.

But farmworkers such as Nagvoël Mokwena say in their court papers that the trail-blazing project has brought them only grief.

They say that ”during or about September 2001 the workers were unlawfully evicted from the farms”, property was bulldozed and their ancestors’ graves demolished. They insist SANParks approved the evictions.

Van Vlissingen told the Mail & Guardian he had handed over money to accommodate the workers when he bought the farms.

”We would offer a price to the farmers way above market value, but in return they had to take care of all the legal obligations that came with the farms, including those involving workers,” he said. ”Unfortunately, a number of farmers behaved appallingly and just left the workers on the farms when they moved.”

Pieter van Schalkwyk, a former farmer who is one of the respondents in the case, said Marakele Pty Ltd insisted on buying ”clean” farms — with no legal complications, such as farm workers occupying the land.

”But we told them we weren’t going to do that. When we left, many workers stayed on the farm, but some of them also went back to their houses in Thabazimbi.”

He insisted that he acted legally at all times, even going so far as to hire a labour consultant to ensure that every aspect of the sale, including the dismissals, was handled according to the law.

”We organised meetings with the workers where everything was explained,” Van Schalkwyk said. ”Even today I have an excellent relationship with my workers. It is the parks people they are unhappy with.”

He admitted the farmers had been paid above market prices for the farms, but said this was because of the ”expropriation nature of the deal”.

In 1998, Mandela convinced Van Vlissengen to come join unique public-private partnership to rebuild the neglected Marakele National Park in the Waterberg area, which in 2001 was declared a world biosphere reserve by the United Nations.

The billionaire approached SANParks management in 1999 with a plan to help fund the acquisition and development of 20 000ha of private farmland to add to the existing national park. Marakele Pty Ltd now leases the land to SANParks, as part of their partnership.

In the past three years Van Vlissingen has converted the derelict farms to wilderness, stocked them with game, dropped the fence to Marakele and negotiated eco-tourism contracts. SANParks has a one-sided call option to buy his 22 000ha over the next 30 years.

But Louise du Plessis, a lawyer from the Legal Resources Centre, which is representing the farm workers, said environmental concerns had eclipsed people’s rights.

”These people made a happy living on the farms before Marakele Pty Ltd came along. Now they are worse off then ever before,” she said. ”Absolutely nothing came of all the beautiful promises SANParks and Marakele made beforehand.”

Du Plessis said a few workers were employed on a four-month contract. When this ended, they went back to Thabazimbi where they were now struggling to survive.

”Their graves were just discarded without any meaning, and their property bulldozed into oblivion,” she said. ”The fences were dropped and these people had to face the additional hazard of being eaten by wild animals.”

Van Vlissingen argued that the workers now had more job opportunities and were being paid better wages.

”Some of the farmers paid their workers less than R300 a month; we pay them more than R1 000,” he said.

After Marakele Pty Ltd found farmworkers still living on the farms, Van Vlissingen said, he purchased land outside the park to house them. Sixteen houses were built, and full title was given to the people.

”Those who did not want to live in the village were paid a lump sum of about R15 000 to enable them to find alternative accommodation. An important point to consider is that only long-term workers on the farms benefited.”

Peter Anderson, who set up the original deals with the farmers for Marakele Pty Ld, said that the agreement to purchase covered packages to be paid out to the workers.

”The workers were the farmers’ responsibility,” he said. ”They were aware of the conditions under which we bought the farms.”

Van Vlissingen said the Marakele project had given value to both the farmers and their workers. His offer for the 15 farms raised land prices from R1 200/ha to R3 000/ha, giving farmers a good deal on farms that in many cases were struggling to survive.

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Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.
Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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