Despair as once prosperous Songimvelo falls into disrepair
On the rolling hills of the grassy Barberton mountains and its deep valleys is the largest provincial game reserve in Mpumalanga.
The 47,000ha Songimvelo Nature Reserve has the highest recorded plant diversity in the province (with more than 1,400 species identified), four of the big five and 73 other mammals.
Once an attractive tourist destination and key economic contributor to the province, the reserve is now degraded, with dilapidated infrastructure putting a stop to visits by tourists or locals. It hosted former president Nelson Mandela in March 1992.
Songimvelo is one of several protected areas in SA designated for land restitution by the government. The claim was gazetted in 2005 and the claimants were authenticated by the Mpumalanga Land Claims Commission in 2012.
However, the land has not been transferred to its rightful owners and only one title deed has been issued for one of the 27 farms on the land — to Msauli village nestled in a valley below the Ngwenya mountains.
The village was transferred to the 2,500 households that made the claim for Songimvelo in 2010, but the 101 houses that were identified for tourist accommodation lie empty. The houses were abandoned when Msauli, the last asbestos mine in SA, closed in 2001.
"We had big dreams of economic empowerment and improved quality of life, but those dreams have all faded away," says Douglas Nkosi, chair of the Songimvelo Community Property Association, which was registered in 2008 to manage the restored land on behalf of several communities including Ngonini Village, Kromdraai and Hlaba.
With no government support to develop Msauli village and to finalise their claim, Nkosi says they’ve run out of options.
"We’ve tried it all — mentorship, investor mobilisation, business plans, meetings with the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency and the regional Land Claims Commission — and we have gotten no joy," he says.
Much of the anger is directed at the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency for "abandoning" the reserve, killing any hopes of the community one day benefiting from its high diversity of plant and animal species.
"They [politicians] want it for themselves," says July Mazibuko, also a member of the Community Property Association. Mazibuko explains that after the community hit stumbling blocks at every turn to secure their land rights, it became clear that there were concerted efforts by "those in power" to block their access to the reserve.
"We are in desperate need of this development … about 80% of people in our communities are unemployed and it hurts to watch this big asset unused. They should give the land to us," says beneficiary Mapule Mathebula, who works at the reserve as an environmental monitor. The reserve, which used to employ hundreds of people, has only 14 employees today. Last week field rangers, drivers and other employees languished under trees for cover from the smouldering heat of the lowveld spring.
We are in desperate need of this development … about 80% of people in our communities are unemployed and it hurts to watch this big asset unused. They should give the land to usMapule Mathebula,
"I can’t even take pictures of the reserve to advertise it on social media, or encourage people to come here, because there is nothing beautiful to see," Mathebula says.
The condition of the animals in the reserve is unknown. The field rangers’ movements are limited because there is only one faulty truck left.
Nkosi says the Mpumalanga rural development & land reform department says it is still "verifying" whether they are the rightful owners of the land. "They are trying to sideline us," he adds.
The community has also been told that their claim is being disputed by a "concerned group". They know about a group of people living in outlying areas that has been trying to muzzle communities that consolidated their claims in the early 2000s, but they haven’t been informed of any processes to dispute the claim.
"There is now conflict about which committee the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency want to work with. The agency is entertaining both groups … it’s frustrating," Mathebula says.
In its 2015-16 annual report, the agency stated the "contested land claims" were negatively affecting its ability to realise the full potential of the conservation and tourism capacity in the protected areas.
But it later states in the report that it had the legislative mandate and right to use, manage, preserve and develop the reserves — all functions that seem absent at Songimvelo.
Community Property Association member Philemon Maseko says the ANC has failed them. "The government cannot live up to its promises. It failed to return its own land to the people but now wants to go after the white farmers."
Seething, Maseko also says it is ironic that the democratic government had failed where the KaNgwane homeland succeeded. The semi-independent homeland created by the apartheid government in 1981 comprised territories near the border with Swaziland. The reserve was in its jurisdiction, and created thousands of jobs for locals as business boomed.
"Hundreds of people used to fill big trucks to get to work at the reserve and in nearby farms … we thought things would get better but now we are not benefiting from this land and neither is the government. It makes us wonder what the end game is," Maseko sighs in defeat.