Farmers and politician at odds over proposed R7.8-bn city

Papi Nkosi stands on the edge of a rocky hillside in Daantjie, in eastern Mpumalanga, his feet planted firmly on the ground. He points across the road to where he used to grow tomatoes on sandy soil between the thorny bushes. Grey hairs on his arm peek out from his sleeves.

The area is set to be taken over by massive development. Much of the land — used by farmers to graze their cattle and to plant groundnuts, sweet potatoes, maize, juko beans and okra — will make way for Nkosi City, an “agri-city” that will include a much-needed hospital, schools and housing. The city is estimated to cost almost R8-billion to build.

The department of rural development and land reform donated 968 hectares of land under the custodianship of the Nkosi chieftainship for the development in 2019.

The man pushing to develop the land is the Mpumalanga MEC for co-operative governance and traditional affairs, Mandla Msibi.

The announcement by Mpumalanga premier Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsipane that the development will go ahead early next year has triggered a last-ditch effort by a farming association in the area to be included in the provincial government’s plans. The battle has culminated in a complaint to the public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane.


Papi Nkosi. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The MEC

Msibi’s career trajectory, from ward councillor to being touted as David Mabuza’s possible successor as Mpumalanga ANC chairperson, has been littered with allegations: of malicious damage to property, assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and even attempted murder. He has refused to answer questions about these allegations. 

Now Msibi has become embroiled in an investigation by the public protector into the events that led to the approval of the Nkosi City development, allegedly without consulting the farmers using the land. 

In 2009, when Msibi was a councillor, he was also the chair of the Nkosi City Communal Property Association (CPA), a legal entity registered by community members to enable them to hold and manage the property under the CPA Act. 

Eight years after establishing the CPA, Msibi and one Phillip Kleijnhans joined forces to set up the Dovetail Foundation, nestled under the Dovetail Property Group — the development company spearheading Nkosi City. Msibi is also listed as a director of the Nkosi City development.

However, one of the company’s three directors, Joel Mbatha, denies all knowledge of the foundation’s work or the Nkosi City development. “I have never sat on the board. I have never attended any of the meetings … I know nothing. I have never familiarised myself with any of its projects.”

Mbatha resigned for this reason in 2018. Mbatha said he was approached to be a part of the foundation in 2009. The foundation was only registered in 2017. He said he has no relationship with Msibi, though they met years ago. Mbatha also said he didn’t earn a cent through his involvement with the foundation.

Estelle Swart, who is also listed as a director, said that though she drew a salary — because she worked for Kleijnhans prior to the foundation being established — none of the other directors did. All the outreach work done by the foundation was bankrolled by Kleijnhans, she said. 

“Mandla was the speaker [of the City of Mbombela municipality] at that time and we met regularly, about once a week. He and Phillip were the architects, so to speak, of the whole Nkosi City. They’ve known each other for years. And they are also very good friends, other than business associates,” she said.

In response to questions by the Mail & Guardian, Msibi denied that there was a conflict of interest in his involvement as an MEC, a member of the Nkosi City development project, and as a director of the foundation that forms part of the company that will develop the land. Msibi’s spokesperson, George Mthethwa, said the MEC’s view is that “the project is within his area of residence and he has a responsibility to participate in the activities of his area”.

But some disagree. Mothusi Montwedi, who serves on the parliamentary portfolio committee on agriculture, land reform and rural development, said: “There are so many conflicts of interest. The provincial executive committee decides what CPAs or which projects to fund. This guy is conflicted starting from where the decision is taken on whether to fund or not.”

Montwedi said a secondary conflict exists because the MEC has connections with both the CPA and the development company. “You can’t be a player and the ref at the same time,” he said. “How is he going to make sure that those who are tasked with the development of the area do so in a correct manner, if he happens to be a beneficiary there and a beneficiary on the other side? It’s nonsense.”

When plans for the development were first announced in 2009, Msibi was a ward councillor for the area. He made the announcement alongside traditional leader Sicelo Nkosi and Dovetail’s Kleijnhans — who said that claims of a conflict of interest against Msibi are baseless. 

Kleijnhans said: “He is the spokesperson for the community. He lives in the community. It is his community. When I started this project 10 years ago, he was a ward councillor and later on the Nkosi City CPA. So that’s old, it’s historic. It’s been there for years, and he has declared it.”

The premier’s office did not respond to questions about a possible conflict of interest.

The complaint

However, members of the community who farm the land now under the CPA have taken the matter to the public protector. According to the complaint filed in July this year, a meeting was convened in 2016 between the Tilimeleni Farmers’ Association (Tifa), the then minister of rural development and land reform, Gugile Nkwinti, Dovetail Properties and the Nkosi City CPA. Msibi attended the meeting in his capacity as chair of the CPA. 

Though the Tifa executive did not oppose the development, they expressed concern over what would happen to their farming activities. No consensus was reached at the meeting. After the meeting “what then followed was numerous threats which are alleged to have come from politicians”, the complaint reads.

The minutes at a second meeting, in May 2016, show that the farmers expressed dissatisfaction over the consultations and asked about the farms they would be relocated to. They were also unhappy with plans to exhume some of the many graves that are dotted around the area, some hidden behind large boulders. 

According to the complaint, Nkwinti’s office wrote a report critical of the project after visiting the land. But the report was only shared among the developers, the CPA and the provincial department of rural development and land reform. Tifa has asked the public protector to investigate the rumours that the Nkosi City CPA lied in a report to the minister, saying an agreement had been reached with the farmers’ association. 

Zanele Sihlangu, chief director for Mpumalanga provincial shared services in the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, said the department is not aware of the existence of any report disapproving of the Nkosi City project.

Sihlangu said affected parties, including farmers, were consulted on the proposed development. The farmers were also verified, she said. Msibi declined to comment on the complaint, saying that the matter is now with the public protector, who “must be given the space to deal with the complaint to its conclusion”.

Threatened: Jackson Nkosi, as well as many other farmers who share the surname, farm sandy soil in Daantjie, Mpumalanga, but will have to move elsewhere when construction starts

The farmers

Meanwhile, Papi Nkosi says his only hope is that farmers will be offered a viable alternative if they choose not to be a part of the agri-city. 

“They must come up with a plan on what to do with us — how to integrate us if they want to integrate us in this project. How?” he says. He adds that the farmers must either be relocated or compensated for vacating the land.

Nkosi is accompanied by the current executive of the farmers’ association. They are a motley crew, all over the age of 50 except for Nkosi’s son, Patrick. Because all but one of them bear the same last name, they call each other by their initials.  

As Papi talks, Shibongo Nkosi rests on a nearby rock, still leaning on the battered hockey stick he uses to help him walk. Tekeleni Simelane watches on as Jackson Nkosi, whose athletic build makes him appear far younger than his 58 years, effortlessly scales Papi’s water tank.

Standing at his father’s side, Patrick Nkosi says he felt as if he was dreaming when the premier announced that the Nkosi City development would start next year. “We feel like we are nothing. Are they going to build these houses on top of our heads? They are burying us alive.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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