/ 20 October 2020

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

Land Under The Ngonyama Trust Kzn Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Land administered under the Ingonyama Trust. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The forensic audit and investigation into the Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB) appointed by the land reform minister, Thoko Didiza, last month has begun its work, despite threats of legal action from its chairperson, Jerome Ngwenya.

The audit is investigating the finances of the ITB and allegations of bribery of traditional leaders levelled by a number of amakhosi in different parts of the province, as well as claims that Ngwenya used his position — which he has occupied for almost 15 years — to enrich himself.

It is expected to wrap up its work by December, ahead of the expiry of the current term of office of the board; in August its tenure was extended by Didiza until January, because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ngwenya is the nominee of King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu to the ITB, which administers about three-million hectares of land in KwaZulu-Natal on the monarch’s behalf. The ITB is funded by the land reform department to the tune of R28-million annually, and raises an additional R90-million a year from mineral rights and commercial and residential leases.

Late last month Ngwenya wrote to Didiza threatening her with legal action should she proceed with the audit, arguing that he was accountable to the monarch, and not her, and that the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) did not apply to the revenue raised by the ITB.

In the letter, Ngwenya said he would inform the monarch about Didiza’s actions, threatening that her continued attempts to exercise control over the ITB — or him — would result in a “collision”.

Didiza’s spokesperson, Reggie Ngcobo, said he was unable to comment on the investigation this week, but two independent sources with intimate knowledge of the process said that it was well underway.

“The investigation has already been going for some time. It should be finished with its work by December at the latest. The new board will be appointed in January, so it has to have done its work by then,” said one source, who cannot be named because they are not authorised to speak to the media.

“The minister wrote to the chairperson and to the king at the time as a courtesy to inform them of her actions, not to ask Ngwenya for permission to investigate him. His majesty is aware of the allegations regarding his nominee and of the investigation into them. The probe will actually assist him when it comes to choosing his nominee when the new board is constituted,” he said.

The audit was appointed in response to a series of complaints by “a good number” of traditional leaders, who accused Ngwenya of bribing some of their counterparts, while withholding the traditional authorities’ share of revenue raised from residents of their land.

“The investigation is looking at how much money was actually allocated to traditional authorities. It is also looking at the finances of the ITB across the board, [including] payments to officials and board members,” a second source said.

The move to impose financial accountability on the ITB comes after a series of negative audit findings by the auditor general’s office and attempts by Parliament’s land reform portfolio committee to have the ITB leadership account for this failure of governance.

The ITB’s residential lease programme is being challenged by residents, backed by several nongovernmental organisations, in the Pietermaritzburg high court next month, and the state entity faces at least four other court challenges from residents and businesspeople who were allegedly dispossessed of their land by the ITB.

Reports from two panels appointed by the presidency and Parliament have recommended the dissolution or repeal of the ITB, sparking a backlash from Ngwenya, some traditional leaders and the monarch.

Since then, the government appears to be focusing on trying to reform the ITB and ensure that it benefits communities living on land under its control, rather than dissolving it.

In August, Didiza appointed lawyer Linda Zama and businesswoman Zethu Qunta, a specialist in managing public entities, to the interim ITB. The move appears to have been aimed at ring-fencing Ngwenya — who has historically dominated the board — with board members capable of enforcing good corporate governance.

Ngwenya did not respond to email and phone queries about the investigation. He has also blocked the M&G on his phone.

Ngcobo said he could not comment on the probe.