Monday. The Indian Ocean at uMnini, south of Durban, is magnificent. There’s not a breath of wind. The sky is cloudless.
The city is only 40km away but the water here is azure. Sparkling. It’s inviting, offering relief from baking heat. It’s just after 11am. Nobody’s moving in this stretch of paradise.
This is prime land. Since the apartheid days, uMnini and neighbouring Umgababa had been the playground of KwaZulu-Natal’s black elite. The holiday resort, the only facility of its kind open to black people under apartheid, drew thousands of holidaymakers every year.
Since the advent of democracy, new money has poured into the area. The land falls under tribal control, so there are no rates and no bylaws to interfere with building. Double-storey mansions abound on both sides of the coastal railway line, in some parts outnumbering the older, more modest homes of the Luthuli clan members, who have lived there since the 1840s. Environmental legislation barring construction on the water’s edge is clearly not an issue.
What used to be Edward Mpeko’s holiday resort is separated from the ocean by a few metres of pristine sand, unmarked by human footprints.
It’s the final day of the school holidays. By rights, the last of the school groups booked in at Mpeko’s Umnini Holiday Resort should be packing up to go home. Teachers should be shepherding stray youngsters on to buses waiting to take them back to inland towns in rural KwaZulu-Natal after the Easter school excursion.
Mpeko’s 21-bungalow resort no longer exists. The conference facilities, which for 13 years were used by government departments, school and church groups and the general public, are gone. The 80-seater restaurant Mpeko built from scratch when he took over the disused facility in 2001 has suffered a similar fate.
The four-bedroom house Mpeko built on the premises after selling his house at Uvongo further down the coast, bought with his retirement package from Telkom, has been reduced to rubble. So has the rest of the resort.
The pathetic remnants of a mural painted on the sea-facing wall of the restaurant are the only indication that this scene of devastation was once a place where people shared food.
There’s the fossilised remains of a ruptured water tank. The parking lot where buses once turned is overgrown with grass. There are several cow pats. Cattle, it appears, have replaced schoolchildren and civil servants.
What was Mpeko’s dream now looks more like a postapocalyptic nightmare. All that remains is broken brick. Every useable or sellable item, every stretch of electric cable, roof tile, light switch or toilet bowl that could be stolen has been. What couldn’t be carried off was destroyed: hacked, burned or smashed. The malice of the mob that forced him out of the premises nearly a decade ago is written all over what little remains.
Mpeko bought the resort, which had fallen into disrepair after it was abandoned during the political violence of the 1990s, from a church for R80 000. Mpeko, a keen fisherman who had spent time in the area while on holiday from Hammarsdale, where he lived, paid the necessary fees to Inkosi Phathisizwe Luthuli, the local chief. Mpeko secured a permission-to-occupy certificate from the Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB). He turned this into a lease, paying them R8 000 a month in rent, along with continued payments to Luthuli. He got the first three instalments of an ambitious seven-phase business plan up and running. He poured almost R1-million into the place.
When Mpeko’s relationship with Luthuli soured, members of the community invaded his resort. Mpeko was physically forced off the premises at gunpoint. He called in the police. They advised him not to come back if he wanted to keep on living. Mpeko complied.
The ITB issued Mpeko with an eviction order because he hadn’t paid rent after being forced out. The ITB then sent in the sheriff of the court to seize Mpeko’s assets without a court order.
He went to the high court and spent what money he had left on legal fees. After seven years in and out of court, Mpeko won the right to return to his resort.
But his victory was hollow — by that time there was nothing left. Mpeko had no money to rebuild the resort. He was ruined.
Last year, he found a lawyer willing to represent him for no money up front. The lawyer served the ITB with a letter of demand for R6.5-million. Now Mpeko’s wait to go back to court begins again.
He looks as damaged by his ordeal as his property is. He’s haggard, emaciated. His shirt cuffs are frayed, his shoes badly scuffed. They destroyed this man when they took away his dream, trampled it, threw it in his face.
Mpeko is impassive as he points to the remnants of his ruined life. His eyes are dry. He doesn’t have any tears left.
His voice cracks for a moment. Then it holds.
“I used to love this place. Now I can’t even look at it. It reminds me of everything I have lost,” he says.
We turn the car and head back to Durban.