Showdown looms between land occupiers and Eastern Cape municipality

Komani Protest Action interdicted from inciting “land grabbing” but vows to defy court order

By Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik

1 December 2023

Residents in Whittlesea Dongwe say Enoch Mgijima Local Municipality demolished a three-roomed house on this site last month, yet the municipality has no plans to build RDP houses or allocate serviced sites to people. Photo: Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik

People occupying land illegally in Komani (formerly Queenstown) in the Eastern Cape have vowed to defy a Makhanda High Court order obtained by the Enoch Mgijima Local Municipality.

The order interdicts Komani Protest Action (a new political party), its leader, Mcebisi Mbengo, and unknown people associated with them, from creating lawlessness, inciting “land grabbing” and “land invasion”, and threatening or intimidating municipal officials going about their duties.

They were also ordered to pay costs if they are unsuccessful in opposing the order being made final by 23 January 2024.

Municipal spokesperson Lonwabo Kowa said that since October the municipality has experienced four land occupations – in Molteno, Whittlesea, Birch Farm and Ezibeleni.

Kowa said the municipality had engaged the land occupiers to explain the repercussions of illegal land occupation. Some sites had only demarcated plots, others had structures, and some had yards as well.

In a media statement issued last week, the municipality said Mbengo and Komani Protest Action were openly inciting “the illicit occupation of municipal land”.

GroundUp was shown a list of 30 sites belonging to the municipality that the KPA has apparently distributed and told residents to occupy.

However, the municipality has no plans for a rollout of free serviced sites or plans to build and allocate RDP houses, admitted Kowa.

Instead, in Whittlesea Dongwe location, land occupiers showed us the foundation of a three-room house built illegally which they say the municipality demolished two weeks ago. Shacks were also demolished.

When we revisited, people in the surroundings were busy re-erecting shacks.

From Kowa’s replies to us it appears that the only plan the municipality currently has is to sell off 110 plots to the highest bidder in various places across the municipality to help it recover from its financial crisis.

The 2021 audit report (the latest available on Municipal Money) found there was “material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt on the municipality’s ability to continue as a going concern”. The municipality had incurred R45-million in fruitless and wasteful expenditure that year and was in deficit.

According to misspending amounts increased massively in subsequent years, and in 2023 fruitless & wasteful expenditure stood at R169-million, irregular expenditure at R117-million, and unauthorised expenditure had ballooned to R427-million.

In the 2021/22 financial year the municipality had a R267-million deficit.

DA PR Councillor Sakhumzi Mkhunqe said the selling of plots was agreed at the council meeting. He said this month the municipality was struggling to pay salaries

“But what is strange is that some of the plots that are put for auction already have houses … meaning there are people who are using them. Last week, I visited three plots and all have houses. Now that tells you that there are chances that the plot will be given to the person who already lives [there], who the municipality already knows. To be honest there won’t be any transparency in this,” he said.

He said instead of building houses the municipality only issues temporary structures and that process is also slow. “The municipality is fighting shacks while they are also adding them with temporary shelters,” said Mkhunqe.

Land sales

On 4 August the municipality advertised the sale of seven sites – with tender numbers – in various areas. The advert said bid documents were available at Municipal Supply Management offices. A R300 non-refundable fee was payable in order to bid.

The perception among residents we spoke to and the KPA is of a process that completely excludes them at the very least and which they allege may also be corrupt.

But Kowa says this is a transparent bidding process and he denied that officials were selling and buying land among themselves.

KPA secretary Axolile Masiza said, “We have been watching them sharing beautiful sites among themselves. We kept quiet. Now residents want their share, and it’s only fair that they allow us to take what is ours, because the land also belongs to residents.”

The KPA says it does not recognise the municipality and therefore does not recognise the court order. It wants the Eastern Cape Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs as well as the Hawks to investigate the municipality, and it to be put under administration.

“Komani used to be a beautiful town, but now it’s full of corrupt politicians. We are here to fix our own town,” said Masiza.

“At this age, me and my siblings and our children are still living with our parents, not because we want to, but because we do not have other options,” a woman who only identified herself as Siyolise told GroundUp.

“In some towns people are getting RDP houses or at least serviced land with toilets and streets. Here there’s no such thing.

“When you go to inquire about land so that you can build yourself a small house, they will give you the highest price, knowing that you can’t afford it.

“Here only the politicians get the sites.”

“In this town we have held a protests demanding service delivery, including houses, but our municipality ignored us. Now that we are taking the land, they run to court to prevent us so that they can continue selling the sites among themselves.

“We will no longer tolerate that and they must know that as Komani residents we are part of KPA and we will continue to fight for our land and better service delivery,” she said.