/ 7 February 2020

Ingonyama axes top managers

About-turn: The land affairs department has withdrawn as a co-respondent in the challenge to the Ingonyama Trust Board’s administration of land. The trust works on behalf of King Goodwill Zwelithini.
King Goodwill Zwelithini. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB), under pressure from Parliament over poor corporate governance, has suspended five of its top managers — including its recently-appointed chief executive, Lucas Mkhwanazi.

On the instruction of the board’s chairperson, former judge Jerome Ngwenya, the five were ordered out of the ITB offices in Pietermaritzburg last Friday and told to hand over cellphones and laptops belonging to the entity.

They are corporate services head Siphiwe Madondo, head of legal services Bongani Ngcobo, internal audit head Amin Mia, real estate head Phumlane Mkhize and Mkhwanazi. The only executive not to be suspended is land and tenure management services head Thembeka Ndlovu, the sister-in-law of King Goodwill Zwelithini.

Mkhwanazi was appointed in late 2018 after the resignation of the former chief executive, Fikisiwe Madlopha, in April that year.

The five executives have been placed on two months special leave, pending the outcome of an investigation, the subject and content of which is not known at this time.

According to staff at the ITB, the five were given letters informing them that they were being placed on special leave “pending an investigation”.

“They were not told what they were being investigated for, just that there is an investigation. Nobody knows what for or why. Their phones and laptops were taken from them,” said a staff member who asked not to be named.

An acting chief executive officer, Bheki Gabela, has been appointed to act in Mkhwanazi’s stead.

The Mail & Guardian was unable to contact Mkhwanazi or any of the other executives placed on special leave. But a close associate of one of them, who asked not to be named, said they believed the suspension was spurious. “Things are bad at the ITB. There is a lot of pressure because of what has been going on. If this matter gets to court it will all come out.”

The suspensions follow the resignations late last year of two members of the board, deputy chairperson Jabu Bhengu and Tshitshi Mbatha. It is not clear whether the two have been replaced.

It also comes at a time when five senior staffers, who were suspended by Ngwenya in 2016, are still sitting at home on full pay because of the failure of the ITB to conclude its case against them. The five — deputy real estate manager Duncan Pakkies, community liaison officer Bheki Zondi, survey officer Nono Msani, real estate officers Nompumelelo Ndlovu and Lungile Sibiya — were suspended over issues relating to leases issued by the ITB.

But they claimed at the time that they were being purged because of their failure to “co-operate” in the issuing of a number of disputed leases.

ITB spokesperson Simphiwe Mxakaza undertook to transmit questions about the latest suspensions to Ngwenya for comment. Ngwenya had not done so at the time of writing and did not answer calls from M&G on his cellphone.

The ITB controls about 2.8-million hectares of land in KwaZulu-Natal on behalf of Zwelithini in terms of the Ingonyama Trust Act, passed on the eve of the first democratic elections in 1994.

Its leadership has been under intense scrutiny from Parliament’s land reform portfolio committee over corporate governance, having received a series of unfavourable audit outcomes from the auditor general.

Last year, the land reform committee ordered Ngwenya to provide a breakdown of how much of the R90-million a year it raised was from leases and how much was disbursed to communities and traditional authorities on ITB land.

On Monday, Ngwenya addressed a gathering of about  300 amakhosi from KwaZulu-Natal, who have been mobilised in support of the ITB since it came under the scrutiny of presidential and parliamentary panels
in 2017, ahead of a high court challenge to its lease programme next month.

The amakhosi at the meeting undertook to attend the court hearing, to be held in Pietermaritzburg on March 25.

Two nongovernmental organisations and several residents on ITB land have applied to the court to have the lease programme, under which permission to occupy certificates have been converted to 40-year residential leases, declared unlawful. The applicants, who include the Rural Women’s Movement and the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, also want the ITB to return all revenue it has collected from residents since the lease conversions programme started in 2013.

On Wednesday, ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe said the party had not backtracked on dealing with
obstacles to security of land tenure posed by the ITB’s continued existence.

Mabe said the ITB had not been discussed at the recent ANC national executive committee and Cabinet lekgotla, because the immediate priority was land expropriation.

“There is the expropriation Bill that is going back for public engagement. Once all of those issues are all completed, we would then be coming back to this. When we are done with expropriation, all other subsequent issues that have to do with land ownership will effectively be attended to,” Mabe said.

Last week, the M&G reported on the apparent move by the government and the ANC to place the ITB on a back burner and avoid a showdown with the king and his supporters ahead of the 2021 local government elections.