/ 9 February 2018

Owner of ruined resort sues Ingonyama Trust

Trust matters: The battle is on between the owner of the Umnini resort and the local inkosi and the Ingonyama Trust Board
Trust matters: The battle is on between the owner of the Umnini resort and the local inkosi and the Ingonyama Trust Board

A KwaZulu-Natal South Coast resort owner who was forced out of his business because of a dispute with a local traditional leader is suing the Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB) for R6.5-million in damages over its role in destroying the historical Umnini holiday resort.

Edward Mpeko, who developed and ran the resort at Umgababa, south of Durban, for 13 years, was forced to stand by and watch as his 21-room facility was vandalised and looted, allegedly in the presence of the police.

Mpeko, who said he “lost everything”, now wants compensation from the ITB and Inkosi Phathisizwe Luthuli, and has approached the high court in Durban for damages. The resort, the first of its kind open to African people during apartheid, is once again derelict.

Mpeko bought the resort, then disused, in 2001 for R80 000 on a 25-year lease. Over time, he built a conference centre, restaurant and 21 guest rooms.

But, after Mpeko became involved in a dispute with Luthuli in 2008, he was ordered off the land, despite the fact that he was paying rent of R8 000 a month to the ITB and a second rental of “several hundred rand” to Luthuli.

Mpeko went to the high court in Pietermaritzburg to challenge the eviction and won but the seven-year legal battle had drained him of money to rebuild the resort. He is now going back to court, claiming that the board chairperson, Judge Jerome Ngwenya, abused his position to wage a personal vendetta against him.

“There are only walls left. I had 21 rooms and an 80-seater restaurant. Everything has been looted. The mattresses, the windows, even bricks from the walls,” Mpeko said this week.

“The ITB chairperson threatened to force me out and this threat was carried out. When they failed legally, they pumped up my rent to force me out using a fake court order. The place was looted in the presence of the SAPS, who did nothing.”

Mpeko said he could not return to the resort because he fears for his safety and he has been wiped out financially by the looting.

“I’m now destitute. Everything I had is gone. The ITB chairperson used his office to destroy me and force me out of my business.”

Mpeko said he had approached the public protector over the role of Ngwenya in the dispute and has raised it with a succession of KwaZulu-Natal premiers.

“Nobody wants to touch the matter because the ITB is involved. The KwaZulu-Natal authorities are scared to intervene,” he said.

Mpeko last year testified before Parliament’s high-level panel on accelerating transformation, which in November recommended that the ITB be dissolved and the three million hectares of tribal land under its control be given back to the government.

King Goodwill Zwelithini and KwaZulu-Natal’s amakhosi have started to mobilise against the proposed dissolution of the ITB and the repeal of the Ingonyama Trust Act. The Act was passed on the eve of the 1994 elections to appease Zwelithini and the Inkatha Freedom Party, which had refused to participate in the poll and had taken South Africa to the brink of civil war.

Mpeko’s lawyer, Charles Reece, said they were waiting for a trial date.

Mpeko’s legal challenge is not the only court action being taken against the trust and the Luthuli chieftaincy.

Members of the Luthuli clan, represented by the Legal Resources Centre, have served notice of their intention to approach the high court to prevent Luthuli and the trust from selling or renting their land.

The Luthuli clan was resettled at Umnini after being moved from Durban’s Bluff area in 1856 . The area remained a “black spot” under apartheid and was not incorporated into KwaZulu but, after the end of apartheid, it was transferred to the control of the ITB.

According to a letter of demand served on Luthuli and the ITB, Luthuli clan members want the board to stop a programme to coerce residents to convert their permission to occupy certificates into leases. They also want Luthuli to stop selling and renting tracts of land to developers and wealthy individuals.

This week clan members wrote to Land Affairs Minister Gugile Nkwinti, asking him to intervene in the matter and complaining about a lack of action by the provincial co-operative governance and traditional affairs department, under which the chiefs fall.

The department’s spokesperson, Lennox Mabaso, confirmed that a preliminary probe into the allegations of corruption at Umnini had been conducted and had unearthed prima facie evidence of the illegal sale of land.

“It was felt that a forensic investigation would now be appropriate as we now need to dig deeper to ascertain if there is forensic proof of any of this. That investigation is now taking place,” he said.

Ngwenya and the trust’s spokesperson, Simphiwe Mxakaza, failed to return calls or respond to SMS messages. Attempts to get comment from Luthuli were unsuccessful at the time of writing.