There is nothing “pioneering” about Pilane’s development model

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The Business Day article “Where all the roads lead, a new city was born” (Nov 27) extols traditional leader Nyalala Pilane’s “pioneering” rural development model. But it is silent on the community’s resistance to unilateral and unaccountable leadership that underpins this model. This model is premised on opaque deals insulated from the oversight provisions in the North West Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2005. These deals disregard customary entitlements and historical land purchases prevalent in the North West.

Bakgatla ba Kgafela is a traditional community that occupies “communally” owned land in Pilanesberg. Like in the case of Bafokeng, there are sub-groups within Bakgatla. Court papers document that some of these groups have challenged traditional leaders’ unilateral actions in relation to mining and other deals on “communal” land. At the core of these problems are disputes over ownership arising from historical forms of land purchase in the North West. Groups of land buyers were forced by racially discriminatory laws to associate themselves with tribes recognised by the apartheid government in order to buy land. Some sub-groups have protested against investments in land on the basis of decision-making that excludes the original buyers and those with specific customary entitlements.

While the article claims that development in Moruleng has benefited the community, acts of resistance paint a more complex picture. People have demonstrated against high unemployment, poverty, and ongoing dispossession. They point to a high-handed approach in the use of the traditional community’s revenue and investments. Through court cases, petitions and protest action, community members have objected to a lack of accountability and mismanagement. There are recurrent demands for access to the books and accounts of the traditional community and previous and current premiers have been petitioned to depose Pilane as a traditional leader. The royal family has applied for court orders that the tribal accounts be audited.

Pilane has successfully obtained several court interdicts to stop community members from meeting, including interdicts against the royal family. One of the villages challenged such an interdict in the case of Pilane v Pilane, and it was overturned in the Constitutional Court. At the insistence of a community interest group, the state prosecuted and convicted Pilane of fraud in June 2008. However, the sentence was overturned on appeal in the Mafikeng High Court. Complaints about his undemocratic and opaque financial dealings involving “communally” owned land have escalated since then.

In June 2012 community frustration led to a violent protest during which vehicles were burned and schools closed. This is after the Bakgatla ba Kgafela Traditional Administration (BBKTA) failed to respond to a memorandum handed to them by community members during a march in May. The memorandum called for a change in leadership, the election of a representative traditional council and for the state to intervene in light of fears of large-scale corruption in the BBKTA. At the root are claims to underlying customary entitlements, including substantive rights to the land, and procedural decision-making powers.

An audit report by the firm BDO Spencer released this year outlines the financial consequences that undemocratic leadership have had for the community, including unaudited books of account since 2008. The report revealed a lack of accounting systems that enabled multi-million rand contracts with non-existent service providers and payments for services not rendered. Some employees were routinely paid double salaries. A criminal complaint has been lodged with the Hawks. While the audit report shows that large sums of Bakgatla revenue fall outside the ambit of the North West government, it has emerged that some revenue continues to be deposited into so-called D accounts that are under the supervision of the provincial premier. However, these accounts have not been audited since 1994 despite the vast amounts of money they hold “on behalf” of traditional communities. These accounts are currently being investigated by the Public Protector in relation to another traditional community, Bapo ba Mogale, and the provincial Select Committee on Public Accounts held public hearings in this regard.

The deals are questionable due to a lack of community consultation and because the institutions undertaking them may not have any legal status. On April 11, 2011 the Department of Local Government and Traditional Affairs in North West issued a circular to all traditional councils stating that the term of office of traditional councils had expired. It warned of the danger that deals contracted by traditional councils after the September 24, 2010 may be invalid as “such traditional councils lacked legal standing at the time such contracts/deals were concluded”. Despite this, community members continue to read about ‘development-related’ deals with investors.

Objections and claims made through violent protest, legal cases and petitions point to an approach that is unaccountable, flouts community oversight and undermines customary entitlements. This is the model of rural development that Pilane is promoting.

opinion-grey Boitumelo Matlala is a researcher in the Rural Women’s Action Research Programme at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town
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