SA wildfires: KZN to probe claims of arson

KwaZulu-Natal minister of agriculture Mtholephi Mthimkhulu has vowed to “get to the bottom” of allegations that killer fires in the province were sparked by arsonists linked to a land-claims process.

“I am flummoxed at claims by organised agriculture that the recent fires that have devastated vast tracts of KwaZulu-Natal agricultural land were the work of people linked to the land-claims process,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I do not believe in my heart of hearts that anyone in their right mind would engage in what is criminal behaviour, with such disastrous consequences, just because they are unhappy with the pace of land claims in this country.”

At the latest count on Wednesday, 34 people were confirmed dead and dozens more injured.

On Monday, the KwaZulu-Natal Agriculture Union (Kwanalu), which represents the interests of commercial farmers in the province, said: “It is alleged that in some areas where these fires started that they are linked to land-claim issues. Frustration levels are boiling over and it is believed that fires could help to push people off their land.”

Kwanalu chief executive Sandy le Marque told the South African Press Association on Monday evening that “this was the message we are getting from the ground [from members]”.

She said the areas where Kwanalu members had reported their concerns were in the Underberg, Winterton and Melmoth areas.

The fires tore through the northern parts of the province over the weekend; most of them were contained by Monday.

Mthimkhulu said he will not allow people’s lives to be destroyed by those with “criminal agendas”.

“I cannot countenance a situation where poverty is made a crime or for those who are addressing their land claims through the legal channels, as allowed in our law, to be treated as suspects in this regard,” he said.

“At the same time we cannot allow a situation where the plight of our people is used by anyone to carry out their criminal agenda.”

The Commission on Restitution of Land Rights cautioned Kwanalu from making claims that could not be verified.

“The commission views this claim in the strongest light. Thus, if Kwanalu has evidence to support the claims they made, they should consult the correct authorities as arson is a criminal offence.

“The commission would like to caution Kwanalu, as statements like these may lead to people getting ideas and actually using illegal ways to get their land back.
The belief that fire could help push people off their land is utterly gratuitous and misleading to the public.”

South African Cane Growers communications manager Jayne Ferguson said: “At this stage, Cane Growers has not received confirmation from any of its affected members that the fires may be related to unresolved land claims.

“It is noted that some of the damaged cane is farmed on tribal land that is not under claim.”

Weather warning
Meanwhile, current weather conditions mean more veld fires could flare up, the Ministry of Water Affairs and Forestry said on Wednesday.

“The conditions that led to the current spate of veld fires still persist and the fires could flare up again,” said Minister Water Affairs and Forestry Lindiwe Hendricks.

She said that according to the weather service the fire danger index for the remainder of the week continued to be moderate to high.

Seven of South Africa’s nine provinces have been affected by more than 100 fires fanned by strong winds.

Hendricks said she was saddened to hear that there were indications that some fires might be the result of arson.

“Together with the police services these matters will be investigated and offenders will be prosecuted.”

Hendricks said hectares of forest belonging to the department had been destroyed in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, where some fires were still raging.

Damage to sawmills and timber in the Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga meant businesses and people’s livelihoods were affected.

She said 13 of the department’s Working on Fire (WoF) crews had been deployed in Mpumalanga and 13 in KwaZulu-Natal. Three crews had been working in Limpopo, four in Gauteng and three in the Eastern Cape.

Although WoF had to sometimes suspend aerial operations temporarily due to strong winds, most fires were now either under control or totally extinguished.

In Mpumalanga, Hendricks said, 13 000ha of forestry had been destroyed in 49 fires across the province.

Free State agriculture department senior manager TJ Masiteng said it was roughly estimated that the province had suffered about R45-million in damages.

He said a total of 47 000ha of land and 253ha of cash crops were destroyed.

A total of 845 sheep, 120 game, 63 cattle and nine horses were killed in the fires.

More than 600 kilometres of fences were damaged and 22 000 bales of fodder destroyed.

CEO of Afri-North West, Boeta du Toit, said the province had suffered considerably less damage than other parts of South Africa.

Between 4 000ha and 6 000ha of grazing land had been destroyed in Groot Marico, but these areas were in rocky and hilly areas and not high-potential grazing land.

Transvaal Agricultural Union regional manager for the north Marie Helm said 30 000ha of land was destroyed in the Vaal Water region in Limpopo. She said the fire had been on a mountain so people just had to let it burn.

It was not yet clear if livestock or wild animals had been killed.—Sapa

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