Irregularities in Land Restitution in Mpumalanga: briefing by Minister

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AGRICULTURE AND LAND AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
10 March 2005
IRREGULARITIES IN LAND RESTITUTION IN MPUMALANGA: BRIEFING BY MINISTER

Chairperson:
Mr N Masithela

Documents handed out:
Presentation by the Minister


SUMMARY
Ms A Didiza, Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, updated the Committee on investigations into irregularities in land restitution in Mpumalanga. Upon learning of possible mishandling in these land claims cases, the Department had called for an internal audit of the Regional Land Claims Commission and an independent valuation of the affected farms, which determined that there had been misconduct. The finalised report would be available soon and its recommendations would be implemented. Members expressed their displeasure at these abuses of the programme and hoped that the report would be finalised quickly so that further problems could be prevented and land restitution could continue.

MINUTES
The Chairperson said that the Minister would brief the Committee on investigations into irregularities in land sales in Mpumalanga that were taken up following a newspaper article. Once the report was finalised, the Minister should return to brief the Committee on what had been done and how far they had gone in correcting the problem.

Ms A Didiza, Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs said that she could not release the report because of pending charges and further investigations. A newspaper article in City Press had alleged that there had been irregularities in the claims process in Mpumalanga and that farmers had been paid more than the value of the land. The Department first checked with the Regional Land Claims Office in Mpumalanga to see if they had been aware of this and then undertook an independent investigation. They hired an independent evaluator to evaluate the affected farm and four other sample farms and conducted a forensic audit of the Regional Land Claims Office. The Regional Land Claims Officer and the Project Manager were suspended, and the independent evaluators report determined that market valuation standards had not been adhered to or had been misconstrued. It was found that an original evaluators report had been manipulated by a second evaluator and co-signed with the farmer’s appointed evaluator. It was also found that after the farm had been bought, it was leased back to the seller, who then sub-let it at a higher price, even though no lease-back arrangement had been articulated. The report suggested that the Department look into criminal investigations into the use of grants and developing controls for appointing properly qualified evaluators. Other recommendations were to appoint an advocate to preside over disciplinary hearings for officials involved, to consider civil and criminal action and to increase the human resource capacity in Mpumalanga to deal with these issues. They would also work to engage the evaluators association to raise concerns about professional conduct and to engage the farmers on the manner of collusion between the farmer and the evaluator to prevent the restitution process from being used for personal gain.

Ms E Ngaleka (ANC) commended the Minister and the Department on actions taken, said that land restitution was a genuine programme and that all involved had a responsibility to make it run smoothly. The law must deal with those involved in wrongdoing as it affected the community and the whole process.

Mr A Nel (DA) congratulated the Department on its actions and hoped that transgressors would meet with the full force of the law. He asked when the full report would be released and whether Members would have access to the slide show presented by the Minister.

Mr J Bici (UDP) said that it was unfortunate that people would try to destroy the aims of a process that was trying to help people. He asked when the article had been in City Press, how fast the Department had responded to it and intervened, when the officials had been suspended and whether they were on full pay, what gaps in the report the Minister had referred to and whether there was any investigation against the farmers leasing back the land.

The Minister thanked the Committee for its own investigative work on the process and said that she would make the slides available, but that the full report would be released after the State Attorney’s Office had briefed all parties involved. The article had appeared in City Press in October 2004 on a Sunday. The Department asked for a report from the Regional Land Claims Office on the Monday, which they received on the Tuesday. It was this report that contained important gaps, such as the absence of previous sale history of the land being evaluated. The Department then acted as soon as possible to appoint the independent evaluator and suspended the officials with full pay two weeks after the original story broke. There was nothing wrong with the farmers leasing back the land. The community had been alienated from the land for a long time, and in the time it took for them to take over, it was preferred to lease the land back to the farmer who was leaving rather than letting it lie fallow. The problem lay in the fact that the terms of the lease agreement had not been met because the subletting had not been disclosed.

Mr M Ngema (IFP) asked whether the Department was contemplating measures to detect similar occurrences in the future instead of depending on the media.

Ms B Ntuli (ANC) asked the Department to try to speed up the investigations so that the process of land restitution could continue and asked whether there was a way to inform the beneficiaries about what was happening so that they did not become frustrated with delays.

The Minister said that they planned to increase finance and lease management capacity in Mpumalanga and nationally to prevent this type of occurrence. They would also engage with the evaluator assessment board, the farmers organisations and the communities affected. There were other areas besides Ndwandwa that the same evaluators had worked in, and these farms had to be re-evaluated. They would try to let the beneficiaries know why there were delays and would improve control and preventative measures.

The Chairperson said that it was disturbing to receive the report and that those who had abused the system did not understand the broader aim of what the government was doing. Those involved had marred the names of farmers organisations that wanted to do good work, so a meeting between commercial farmers organisations should be called quickly to prevent a negative impact on their image. The farmers should be appealed to and informed that if they were not ready to work with the government, they should stand aside. The Land Claims Commission should convene meetings with claimants to inform them of delays and none of the evaluations that had been done by the implicated evaluators should be used. The role of the media was pivotal in keeping the public and government informed. Once the report was finalised, the Committee would be able to debate it further.

The meeting was adjourned.

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