Hilton land claimants finally get their day in court

A class action suit by 18 000 labour tenants, which seeks to quicken the labour tenant claims process, will finally be heard on Thursday in the Land Claims Court in Johannesburg.

The primary applicants in this case – referred to as Mwelase & Afra (Association for Rural Advancement) and Others vs the Director General (Department of Land Reform and Rural Development) – occupy land on the Hilton College Estate in KwaZulu-Natal, which stretches from the school to the commercial farmland and all the way south to the Umngeni River. They lodged claims for acquisition of the land in 2000, a process that stagnated after initial negotiations.

The Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act 3 of 1996 was designed to provide security of tenure to thousands of labour tenants spread across South Africa’s agricultural land. Section 16 of the Act empowered labour tenants to apply for acquisition of ownership of the land they were entitled to occupy as labour tenants. 

The case has been plagued by delays, with the department of land reform and rural development failing to comply with most of the timelines and extensions granted by the court. 

One of the claimants, 56-year-old Thanda Mwelase, said the estate had offered to relocate residents – initially about a hundred families – to Howick. “We prefer our own houses because they’re bigger than the ones we were offered,” said Mwelase. “Those houses [they built] are like RDP houses and don’t even have kitchens.”

He said pressure had been put on the remaining 30 families to vacate the land. “The school, Hilton Intermediate school, was closed because they considered it a non-viable school. There were children going there, we heard it was Hilton that decided it must close.” 

‘White people’s land’
“In neighbouring farms, people have cowed to pressure to leave. We didn’t have reference numbers and they didn’t file our sections 16. We found out we needed reference numbers and certain stages of process were not adhered to. If we had meetings, the land reform guys would start at the school, have a long meeting and then come to us and say, ‘this is white people’s land, you have to leave’. Nobody would talk to us about our rights,” Mwelase said. 

Siyabonga Sithole, a paralegal at Afra, one of the applicants, said: “When the window to lodge for land tenure rights opened, I don’t think the government foresaw how difficult it would be to process them on individual or per family basis. The process proposes that each family gets a piece of land per farm that they’re dwelling on.

“There might have been the pressure to adhere to Constitutional prescripts but there was no capacity to do so. There is also the issue of no political will, which is very problematic because under the Labour Tenant Act it does not mean that the owner has to leave the property, the people simply revert to the space that they had before 1994.

“But the processes are not necessarily easy to implement. Issuing section 16 and section 17 [which deal with applications of the tenants and the notification of the owners], all those processes involve the landowner; he must agree to recognise the status of the dwellers as labour tenants. If he disputes that, the process is further prolonged,” Sithole said.

Part of the Hilton Estate has been turned into a game farm, which has increased the pressure on them to move, according to the residents. 

The department of rural development and land reform did not respond to written questions. 

In court papers, the department cited a lack of budget for external professional services – professional valuers and land surveyors – and a shortage of staff that prohibits it from adequately performing its stately functions. 

It said that “one of the problems identified with the filing system in the department is the fact that labour tenant files which have been transferred to other land reform programmes cannot readily be identified for statistical purposes. The reason for this relates to the fact that a central register was never compiled at the time, when the labour tenant claims were lodged, being the period between 1996 and 2001”.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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