A steal: R6k for a slice of Coffee Bay

Residents of Eastern Cape’s Coffee Bay have been selling their family land at dirt-cheap rates for holiday homes — a pattern that is being repeated across the Wild Coast as a result of weak land governance laws and poverty, according to a property consultant and a land researcher.

Colen Cingwana inherited a plot of land in Jonga village in Coffee Bay. His land is located just 300m from a cliffside that drops on to an isolated beach, and was sold off for a meagre R6 000 to East London insurance broker Wayne Herman.

“I [sold] my garden for R6 000, and my brother [sold the land] from my garden down to the river [banks]. My brother got R8 000,” Cingwana told the Mail & Guardian this week.

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Herman dismissed Cingwana as “bipolar” and insisted that the deal was struck fairly.

He denied paying R14 000 to the Cingwana brothers but would not disclose the actual amount. “It’s a fair price. I never paid R6 000. But that’s sort of between you [as the buyer] and the owner. Even when you go to the community meeting, that [price] is not really discussed. Because their traditional beliefs are that land is given; it’s not bought,” he said.

Mike Coleman is a property consultant who co-authored a report with independent land researcher Mike Kenyon on rural Eastern Cape land. Speaking about the cheap sale of land in and around Coffee Bay, Coleman said: “Yes, I’ve found that pattern before.

“What’s happened is you’ve had 20 years of government doing bugger-all, so there’s a vacuum. So traditional leaders have climbed into that vacuum and they had a role in land allocation, but only a partial one. They have legal rights to make customary allocations to their own people. It’s up to the headman to allocate that land.”

Coleman says that there cannot be any sale of the land because “there is no such thing as land as a commercial object [in that area]. The whole concept is one of usage. It’s the person who has the right. The first clause in the permission to occupy [the right to live on certain rural, communal or unsurveyed land] says the land cannot be alienated; it’s a formalisation of customary allocation.”

The department of rural development and land reform is responsible for the system “but the government has ceased to administer it”.

Coleman and Kenyon’s study was commissioned by Redi3x3, the Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth, funded by the treasury and affiliated to the University of Cape Town.

Cingwana’s land is on the banks of the Mapuze River mouth and is surrounded by lush vegetation and a hillside, which tourists from around the world visit for its spectacular views of the ocean and to watch whales.

On Tuesday, a group of Israeli tourists was having a picnic at the cliff’s edge and observed a whale breaching the ocean surface, causing a huge splash. They gasped at “this untouched piece of nature”.

Cingwana, however, pulled hard on his cigarette and cringed, looking out to the ocean. His decision to sell was a “big, big mistake”, he says.

“Yoh, this guy, he gives me too much stress. I never used to smoke but now, you see,” he said, taking another drag. “This anger can be with me my whole life. I made a big, big mistake.”

Cingwana was eight when his father died in 1991 and his mother decided not to send him to school. Instead, he spent his childhood herding the family’s cattle, seldom leaving the village, until his mother died in 2002.

Cingwana’s older brother, Jacob, inherited the larger family homestead further up the Mapuze River. Colen received the other piece from the Bomvana chief: a one-hectare plot overlooking the ocean near the edge of the cliff.

For 12 years he lived in his one-room mud hut on the property. He worked his vegetable garden and farmed chickens and goats. Despite owning prime beachfront real estate, he didn’t realise the value of the land because he had barely been exposed to the city, he said.

And so the arrival of Herman in 2014 appeared to be heaven-sent, he said.

“I was suffering really, really bad,” Cingwana said. “I didn’t go to school, you see; I can’t do these things,” pointing at this reporter’s notebook and pen.

“So when this man came he said: ‘Colen, I was sent by God. I want to help you.’ I [thought] my suffering was finally over.”

On several occasions in the past four years he has tried to reverse the deal and give the money back but said he fears being taken to court because it was approved by the headman and Cingwana’s signatures are on the official document.

The area’s communal land is held in trust and cannot be sold but it can be allocated by the headman in charge.

Herman said of Cingwana this week: “I’ve had hassles with him before, shouting and swearing at us, like the first time I had my family here. Look, to put it bluntly: I think the oke’s bipolar. One day he’s shouting at me, the next day he’s crying in my arms … He doesn’t wanna work. He’s walked off this job three times, swearing at me, and how can you do that to your boss?

“It’s unfortunate because if I had known at the time that I was going to have hassles with this person, I would have bought somewhere else,” Herman said.

The negotiations over the “sale” were arduous. Cingwana said he originally asked for R20 000 but lowered the price when Herman offered to build him a house and buy him cattle — promises that did not materialise, he said.

To “sell” land in Jonga, the seller has to convince the headman and chief that the buyer is now part of his family and, by extension, part of the Bomvana tribe.

But Coleman said the sale is illegal. “The sale is bogus. He [Herman] knows perfectly well it’s illegal.” He added that the first kilometre of the area from the coast inland is governed by the department of environmental affairs.

“Essentially, they are the last remaining authority in that area and the Green Scorpions [the department’s equivalent of the Hawks] regularly traverse the coastline to burn down cottages built in that zone.”

Coleman says there are properties in the area selling for more than a million rand. “But [there are] those also going very cheap. People work on the fiction that they are not selling the land but they are selling the right of occupation.”

Herman is certain the headman will support his claims about legitimately buying the land but the headman has since been ousted — he was chased away by angry Jonga villagers for selling land without the community’s or the chief’s blessing.

“That headman used to speak very good English and would sell land, and then you wake up and find you have a new white neighbour,” his replacement and new headman, Khetekile Nonyawo, claimed.

Nonyawo’s interpreter, Zuko Mvimbo, explained that Nonyawo was elected because he only spoke isiXhosa, and this had reassured Jonga residents.

“So when we see him with someone who can speak good English we know he is up to trouble, because headmen don’t get paid a salary; you just get stuff from the community,” he said.

Cingwana’s situation is not unique in Jonga. Just one hilltop away and even closer to the beach, another “white outsider” has built a shack, Mvimbo says.

The sale of ancestral land worries Nonyawo, who now only allows rentals. “Because if you sell, you get paid once, but if you rent, you can get money for the family forever.”

But the headman also has no idea how much the land in Jonga is worth, and says no one has ever come to do a valuation.

Mvimbo acquired a right to occupy his own plot in partnership with his friend, another “white outsider”. He is still building his rondavel and is staying with family further up the river. But when he takes the M&G to see his new home, he is shocked to see someone else — another white man — in the rondavel.

“I don’t want you here; you are trouble. Get the fuck away from here,” the man says to Mvimbo as he approaches. “This is my fucking land; take your fucking journalists and get away here,” the man yells.

Unsure of what’s going on, Mvimbo quickly leaves the area.

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Coleman and Kenyon say the unregulated sale of land is not a surprise considering the absence of any “land governance”. Their study found that trying to formalise land ownership in the area would be met with resistance.

Herman appears confident that he did no wrong to Cingwana, and says he agrees with the proposal to expropriate land that was stolen.

“If people have stolen land, it needs to be returned, but if land was bought legitimately and it was handled through the right processes, then it should stand. But take that Sun International deal in KZN [KwaZulu-Natal], there where they are paying, like, R2 000 for prime property on the beachfront. That’s like classic exploitation,” Herman said.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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