/ 27 May 2016

Labour tenants reach shaky agreement with the department

The Hilton College estate is one of the pieces of land that is being demanded back
The Hilton College estate is one of the pieces of land that is being demanded back

Labour tenants fighting for their right to acquire ancestral land have finally reached a memorandum of understanding with the department of rural development and land reform.

But they remain unconvinced that the department will follow through with the conditions set out in the memorandum, despite a Land Claims Court order that enforces the agreement. The Mwelase case, named after Bhekindlela Mwelase (68), the first land claimant in the three-year class action against the department, affects about 19?000 labour tenants, as well as the family members who live in their homes. Most of the claimants are from KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

Suspicions were raised when a critical part of the agreement was amended, without first consulting the claimant’s lawyers. Initially the claimants had asked for an independent specialist — a special master — to be appointed to keep an eye on the department, present regular reports on its activities and ensure that the Labour Tenants Act (1996) was being implemented.

But, according to Thabiso Mbhense, a Legal Resources Centre attorney representing the claimants, the department approached both its clients and the Association for Rural Advancement (Afra) — a nongovernment organisation that advocates for land rights and has been assisting the labour tenants — independently. He said the department’s intent in doing so was to have the agreement changed so that the department could appoint a senior manager from within its own ranks instead.

“They invited our clients to a public speech and they negotiated with our clients on the side without telling us,” he said. According to Mbhense, the department had told him it was unwilling to accept a special master because of fears that it would result in the department’s embarrassment.

“We wanted someone that was going to monitor the implementation of the [Act]. They can’t monitor themselves. A senior person is going to be appointed, but who’s going to monitor the senior person?” he asked. 

Tom Draper, the communications officer for Afra, says that his organisation will continue to “consult with the labour tenants and are soliciting their ongoing inputs into any proposals with the department”. “The labour tenants remain understandably sceptical of the department given their failures in the past,” he added. Mbhense said that he was not “optimistic” that the department would comply with the court order. “I’ve been dealing with the department for a number of years and I know that they don’t comply.”

The Mail & Guardian reported on the case — which has dragged on for 15 years — in March. Some of the disputed land forms part of the rolling green landscape of Hilton College in KwaZulu Natal, one of the most expensive schools in the country.

Meanwhile, the claimants — the majority of whom are elderly — are demanding that their rights are implemented so that they can claim land on which they and their families have lived and worked for generations.