Houses go up on contested land in Inanda. Until recently, this and other areas were mainly small-scale sugarcane farms, many of them owned by Indian families who have been living on and working the land since the 19th century. Picture: Thuli Dlamini/Sunday Times
Houses go up on contested land in Inanda. Until recently, this and other areas were mainly small-scale sugarcane farms, many of them owned by Indian families who have been living on and working the land since the 19th century. Picture: Thuli Dlamini/Sunday Times

Almost every day there is a land-grab incident in SA. But few have been as bold as the one taking place on several farms in Ndwedwe local municipality, about 80km north of Durban.

The affected areas include Inanda, Tea Estate, Hazelmere, Redcliffe, New Glasgow, Umdloti, Nonoti, and the outskirts of Verulam and Ottawa. Until recently, these areas were mainly small-scale sugarcane farms, many of them owned by Indian families who have been living on and working the land since the 19th century.

But seemingly well-heeled invaders have moved in, fenced off land and started building luxury homes and rondavels. They claim the land was sold to them by headmen of chief Mqoqi Ngcobo of the Amaqadi Tribal Authority.

The Amaqadi clan claims the farms were developed on ancestral land that was forcibly taken from them by the British colonial and apartheid regimes and sold to the Indian farmers. They say their land claims to these farms and surrounding areas have been delayed by "lazy government officials".

The occupiers say they are going nowhere. Many have piles of building materials on site and bricklayers are hard at work on some of the pieces of land.

Thulani Khumalo, 52, says he paid R30,000 to the local induna for his piece of land in 2016. He has built a modern, five-roomed house.

"We were advised to fence our properties and build proper houses so that it is known that we are serious about settling here. Nobody troubles us … not even the police," Khumalo says.

His neighbour, who asked not to be named, says he also paid a local induna for a plot. "I had about 68 goats, but the Indian farmer sprayed poison on the sugarcane fields and most of my goats died," he says.

Vee Moodley, one of the farm owners whose land is being invaded, says his family bought and owned the 5.5ha property in the 19th century. His farm has been carved into scores of "plots" by land grabbers.

"Generations of my family members have been living and farming this land. In the 1980s, when we could no longer farm the land ourselves, we let it out to farmers to put up their crops for a fee," Moodley says.

"Recently, we were informed by our tenant farmers that they have been chased off the land and their crops have been destroyed. When we went to investigate we were threatened with violence by the invaders.

"The tension is very high and some farmers have been robbed of their cars and belongings. What is strange is that there are white-owned, bigger farms in this area, but people are only gunning for smaller, Indian-owned farms."

The government should buy the land so that small-scale farmers can get some form of compensation, he says.

Umdloti Farmers’ Association chair Danny Naicker says over the past decade their members have been systematically attacked or forced to flee their homes.

"They were attacked, and sometimes killed, on the farms. Many of the farmers left to live in safer areas like Phoenix and Verulam. After they left, invaders came and erected shacks," Naicker says.

He says some members of the association recently won a high court interdict to evict the land grabbers. "But we are still to meet with the local police on how best to enforce it [the interdict]," he adds.

"We are also holding negotiations with Chief Ngcobo so that we can ease tensions between invaders and the land owners. So far we have not come to any sort of agreement. Farmers are living in fear."

Headman Sbusiso Shangase is the go-between for the land invaders and Ngcobo. He denies taking money from the people to whom he has allocated plots on the sugarcane farms.

"I was instructed by the chief to allocate deserving people land," he says.

Ngcobo says he is claiming the ancestral land on behalf of his subjects.

"It is a fact that this land belongs to AmaQadi. We have lodged a land claim but some of my subjects want land now. I cannot stop them when they use the land to build homes," Ngcobo says.

He also denies that people paid his headman for the invaded land.

The luxurious Palm Lakes Estate outside Ballito, north of Durban, has also been invaded by shack dwellers who claim the land was sold to them by a local chief.