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A land claims court judge has highlighted the quagmire faced by labour tenants’ applicants whose applications are held up in the government’s bureaucracy and get overtaken by events, such as issuing of mining rights over the same land.

The Sindane family in coal-rich Mpumalanga is facing eviction after losing their multiyear battle with mining group Exxaro to stay on the land they have called home for 60 years. The family’s homestead is situated within 100m of a mining site run by Exxaro Coal.

Exxaro was granted the mining right in 2013 and identified the Sindane family and 31 other families for resettlement as they will be exposed to blasting and ancillary mining activities which pose a danger to their health and safety. 

The JSE-listed group then began a process to relocate and resettle the families. To this end, Exxaro built what is known as Phumulani Agri-Village which is made up of 246ha of residential land and a 166ha agricultural site. 

Exxaro made provision for three boreholes, a sewer plant, prepaid electricity, solar-powered geysers, water tanks connected to gutters to collect rainwater, a multipurpose community centre and a sports field. The resettlement agreement included the relocation of about 150 graves from the mining area.

After a lengthy consultation and construction process, the families relocated in 2019, with only the Sindane family refusing to relocate. The Legal Resources Centre represented the affected families.

Exxaro told the court that the Sindane family patriarch, Frans, signed the resettlement agreement in 2014 in the presence of witnesses, who included his wife. Frans died in 2019. 

His remaining family members said they could not move because Frans had launched a land claim application in 2021 under the auspices of the Labour Tenants Act, which allows for labour tenants to stake their claim to land they had lived on in exchange for their labour. They claimed the claim has not been processed to date.

“This feature of the case brings into focus the potential impact of delays in realising the constitution’s promise of land justice, in this case, to persons who may enjoy the rights of labour tenants, whose land tenure was rendered insecure as a result of racially discriminatory laws and practices over decades,” judge Jane Cowen observed.

“If one postulates what might have been for the Sindane family had Mr Frans Sindane’s application been timeously processed and the affected part of the claimed property awarded, their position may well look different today. Most pertinently, when the mining right was processed and granted in 2013, any dealings under the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act would have had to ensue with Mr Sindane as owner. Indeed, ownership may then have vested in the Sindane family and not only Mr Sindane.”

However, Cowen said the resettlement agreement signed by Frans was valid and ordered the family to vacate the property by no later than the end of January 2024.

“I have reached this conclusion mindful that the Sindane family has resided in their homestead for decades and consider it their home. I have mentioned above the impact of delays in finalising labour tenancy applications. I am mindful that these delays are not the fault of the Sindane family, and they are rightly aggrieved,” her judgment reads.

“Nothing in this order prejudices the rights of any member of the Sindane family to pursue any rights they may enjoy as a result of their status as labour tenants or the application lodged by the late Mr Frans Sindane in terms of section 16 of the Labour Tenants Act.” 

The family will have to move to Phumulani Agri-Village, where Exxaro has made available two houses and access to grazing and cultivation land. Attempts to contact the family were unsuccessful.

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