High price for land reform

The national government on Thursday ordered an urgent independent forensic investigation into 14 contentious deals in Mpumalanga that have cost the taxpayer R72,1-million.

Chief land claims commissioner Tozi Gwanya has instructed senior independent property valuer Derick Griffiths to verify whether sales prices for the 14 vegetable and dairy farms in Mpumalanga’s Badplaas valley were inflated or otherwise manipulated by land speculators and government officials.

The investigation follows revelations that the government paid up to 300% more for the properties than their last market value. The most dramatic increases saw government pay R2,2-million for the 171ha Engelschedraai farm in June this year.

The previous owner, the Winterberg Family Trust, only paid R650 000 for the land in 2002. Three other portions of Engelschedraai sold for R4,1-million each, after they were purchased for R2,6-million each in 2002.

Griffiths and other government investigators will also probe whether government-appointed valuers acted ethically during the deals, and whether there was any conflict of interests for landowners to also serve as government advisors during negotiations.

The ambitious Badplaas land restitution project is designed to compensate the fragmented Ndwandwa community of about 30 000 people for their deprivation under colonial and apartheid regimes. Mpumalanga land-claims commissioner Nceba Nqana says white settlers used racist laws to systematically acquire ownership of the land, forcing the dispossessed tribes to provide child labour on farms before eventually evicting the Ndwandwa and related clans from the area.

Nqana wrote to Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs Thoko Didiza, warning that the scattered communities were in danger of complete disintegration unless they urgently regained ownership of at least some of their motherland. Didiza therefore approved a R71,6-million budget earlier this year to purchase 35 commercial farms, totalling 15 247ha, for restitution to the Ndwandwa community.

All the properties would, Nqana said, be purchased as going concerns that will immediately provide the Ndwandwa with livelihoods and security of tenure. Nqana appears, however, to have already overspent his approved budget on just 14 of the properties covering 6 500ha of the targeted land.

The deals have primarily benefited prominent local land speculator and farmer Pieter Visagie, who is chairperson of the local land reform and development forum that advises the government on local land-claim priorities and economic development opportunities.

He is also tipped to help the Ndwandwa communities take over commercial farming enterprises on their new land as part of a R8,8-million additional support contract signed by Nqana and supported by community leaders.

Visagie concedes that the government paid “a premium” for the Ndwandwa land, but insists nothing underhanded occurred and that the deals are good value for money. “Any investigation will prove this. We put a hell of a lot of work into this land reform thing. We hope to eventually see the government buy 40 000ha in the valley for the Ndwandwa community,” Visagie told the Mail & Guardian.

“These are really good farms, with excellent water, and we have worked hard to ensure that they are fully operational businesses for the new owners.”

His business partner, Tony Kennet, added that criticism of the deals are “absolute hogwash”. Kennet has himself sold one farm, Engelschedraai portion six, to the Land Claims Commission for R2,2-million.

“What outsiders fail to understand is that there has been a dramatic change in local circumstances in Badplaas over the past three years. Local farmers who traditionally concentrated on tobacco and sheep could not survive, and have made way for tourism, which has taken off in a big way,” said Kennet.

“Property prices have therefore increased.”

Kennet says that a switch to potato farming, with yields of up to R6 000 a hectare a month, was also transforming the local agricultural industry.

“I think we have, therefore, actually undersold ourselves to the commission. We should have held out for more money. But you can say we sold in the interests of land reform,” he said.

Nqana also hit back on Thursday, coming to Visagie’s defence in a statement that dismisses criticism of the deals as “sour grapes” by farmers opposed to land reform. The statement also stresses that substantive improvements had been made to each of the 14 properties purchased so far to warrant the dramatic price increases. Improvements have, Nqana said, included new irrigation dams and pipelines, game fencing and livestock enclosures, and gravel roads.

National land claims commission spokesperson Hilgard Matthews said on Thursday that Griffiths and other investigators would, however, review the improvements to ensure the properties had been properly valued.

“The investigation will effectively … determine how the prices were arrived at. The exact terms of reference are still being determined by the minister and chief land-claims commissioner,” said Matthews.

The controversy comes just weeks after the commission announced serious budget shortfalls that could derail plans to settle all land restitution cases by December 2005. Matthews confirms that the commission has only been allocated R4-billion for restitution and says planners believe they need at least R9-billion more. “[We] will be approaching the National Treasury to pursue the availability of funds,” he said. — African Eye News Service

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Justin Arenstein
Justin Arenstein works from Africa. Investigative journalist & #CivicTech strategist. Manages innovation fund tech labs across Africa. Founder @afriLEAKS @Code4Africa @AfricanCIR @HHAfrica Justin Arenstein has over 7519 followers on Twitter.
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.

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