The curious case of Mala Mala

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about SA’s most expensive land claim is that it should have never gone ahead at all

The 2017 report of the high-level panel on land, led by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, notes that the claim on MalaMala, near Kruger National Park, was settled “despite the finding of the land claims court and an initial decision by the minister that land restoration would be unfeasible. The community, recently formed for the purpose of lodging the land claim, was also not in fact eligible for restitution.”

The original asking price for the land, under the willing-buyer, willing-seller model, was R751m. The government rejected this as too expensive, and the case was set for the Constitutional Court, for a potentially precedent-setting ruling on expropriation of land without compensation.

But in an out-of-court settlement, the state agreed to pay a staggering R1.1bn — effectively wiping out the entire annual budget of the Land Claims Commission. This, in an area that the Wits University School of Public Health once described as among the poorest in SA — where more than half the deaths of children under five are from kwashiorkor or diarrhoea, and 60% of households are child support grant recipients.

MalaMala’s Jonathan Morphet tells the FM that the reserve — now run jointly by the previous owners and the N’wandlamarhi Communal Property Association (CPA) — employs 92 community members.

Morphet says levies are paid to a community development trust, which runs bursary and internship programmes, has sunk a borehole at a local school, and provided equipment to a community education centre.

Though a “strict confidentiality clause” precludes Morphet from revealing numbers, some tidbits have emerged from the parliamentary portfolio committee on land.

According to a Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) summary of a June 2018 meeting, the CPA received R36.2m in rental between November 2014 and December 2017, as well as a R5.5m community tourism levy.

At that point, 15 members of the claimant community had received bursaries.

In addition, the PMG summary suggests the MalaMala joint venture paid a dividend of R40m in its first year, of which 30% went to the community’s investment company (as per its shareholding). Half of this R12m was then paid to the CPA.

The PMG summary of a February 2019 meeting notes: “In 2015, R10,000 was distributed per household for 250 households; in 2016, R60,000 was distributed per household; in 2017, R30,000 was distributed per household; and in 2018, R60,000 was distributed per household.”

But these figures belie the opacity and upheaval that has surrounded the claim since it was settled in 2013. An “outdated” beneficiary list and membership disputes necessitated a new verification process — an attempt that apparently failed in 2016, but seemed to have progressed by the end of 2018. But an attempt to hold an AGM failed twice due to “disruptions”; some community members took the CPA to court (and lost); and others protested against the CPA.

In the February 2019 portfolio committee meeting, Louise du Plessis, the attorney who has control of the CPA’s trust account, was criticised for not being able to reveal how much had been deposited into — and transferred out of — the CPA account from 2016 to 2018.

From the outside, it seems the real beneficiaries of the deal were those who sold the reserve. Among them was David Mabunda, who became a shareholder of MalaMala in 2010 while he was CEO of SA National Parks. When he sold his stake in 2014, it was said to be worth R81m.

An edited version of this article appeared in Financial Mail’s 9 January 2020 edition

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