Nokwanda Sihlali and Sithembiso Gumbi
The Ingonyama Trust Board has failed to get its R22-million budget allocation from the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development because it was unable to submit a budget to parliament in time.
The reason given to a parliamentary portfolio committee meeting on 5 May was that there had not been enough time to finalise the budget since the state’s allocation of ITB funds for the 2020/21 year was less than the R52 million board had been planning for. In addition, the Board’s new acting ITB Chief Executive, Mr Sandile Gabela had been appointed only in February.
The missing budget is yet another failure to account on the part of the Board.
Rural citizens and land rights activists had been hoping that the meeting (a joint session of the Committee on Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development and the Select Committee on Land Reform, Environment, Minerals and Energy) would give them clarity on how rental revenues collected by the Board have been spent – and how much of the money has gone to the communities it is meant to be benefitting. However, once again the board did not account.
The citizens find themselves in limbo. A legal challenge to the lease system has also been delayed.
The citizens find themselves in limbo. A legal challenge to the lease system has also been delayed – this time by the measures instituted to protect SA citizens against the coronavirus. The case against the Trust was set to be heard on 25 and 26 March 2020 but was postponed just days beforehand.
This was not the first interruption: in November 2019 the case was suddenly postponed just days before it was scheduled to be heard at the Pietermaritzburg High Court. This was much to the surprise and dismay of the community applicants in the matter and rural activists who have been waiting for the Trust to answer for its violations of the land rights of many who live on Trust administered land.
The case relates to the Trust’s policy of inducing rural citizens to convert their customary land rights or Permission To Occupy certificates (PTOs) into 40-year leases. These leases, introduced since 2006, weaken the land rights of rural residents and contain onerous clauses such as an annual rent increase of 10%.
Instead of responding directly to criticism of the impact of leases on the rights of people, the Trust’s public rhetoric in response to the litigation has been to claim that the case is an attempt to attack the Zulu nation. This is simply not the case: the litigation is the end result of numerous failed attempts to hold the Trust accountable for operations that violate the rights of rural citizens.
The Parliamentary committee charged with oversight of the Ingonyama Trust has long asked questions about the qualified audits and controversies generated by the Ingonyama Trust Board. The Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Portfolio Committee has recently attempted to put the Ingonyama Trust Board under the microscope for its failure to report on its financial spending to benefit the beneficiaries of the Trust. Law and regulations require that the Trust spend 90% of its income on its beneficiaries and only 10% of its income on administration costs, but the Trust’s reports to Parliament indicate that the balance of spending is the other way around. Board chairman Judge Jerome Ngwenya told the meeting the ITB was under no such obligation.
The Trust has also come under fire from the 2017 Kgalema Motlanthe High Level Panel Report for its failure to spend money generated from lease revenues for the benefit of communities. The Panel’s report recommended the amendment or repeal the Ingonyama Trust Act. This position was later reaffirmed by the 2019 Presidential Advisory Panel.
In its February 2020 presentation before the Portfolio Committee, the Acting CEO of the Trust explained that the Trust had not been able to spend the entire R5,5 million budgeted for its second quarter under the Traditional Council/ Community Support Programme because there were no “significant requests for disbursements”. This is an extremely concerning response because the Trust is meant to use this money to train and capacitate traditional councils with skills and resources that are meant to improve the lives of people living on land it administers. If this money has not been spent, then nothing has been done to ensure traditional councils are able to respond effectively to challenges faced by their communities. This was the second time the Trust reported a failure to spend this money.
Committee members asked why this process had been demand-driven instead of being managed through a proactive approach on the part of the Trust. Some MPs suggested that the Trust’s outreach strategy could be reworked to encourage communities to reach out.
Portfolio Committee chair, Honourable Mandela, asked that the Trust present information about its community outreach projects in the form of a report summarising all that it has done for the benefit of individuals and communities living on land it administers since 2014. Mandela had also previously requested this report at the October 2019 Portfolio Committee meeting.
The report was finally scheduled to be presented at the 5 May meeting, but when it came to it, the ITB said the material was not ready.
“Due to time constraint, as well as the pending court case, this information is being prepared in consultation with the lawyers and is as yet to be finalised since it is part of the dispute in the pending matter,” the ITB stated in its presentation. The information is due to be sent to the Committee as soon as it is available.
Other issues about the operation and capacity of the Trust were raised by other members of the Portfolio Committee at both meetings. At the February meeting Honourable Mbabama, wanted to know when the new Acting CEO, Mr Sandile Gabela, had been appointed, as at the last presentation in late 2019 there was a different newly-appointed CEO. Judge Ngwenya explained that the previous Acting CEO, Mr Lucas Mkhwanazi, who was appointed in late 2018 after the resignation of former CEO Dr Fikisiwe Madlopha, had been placed on special leave. No further details were provided. This trend of low employee retention has become all too common with the Trust.
The Trust’s capacity for efficient administration is hampered by a pattern of suspensions, protracted investigations and unresolved disciplinary actions against staff. Five employees have been sitting at home on full pay since the middle of 2016. Protracted disciplinary proceedings have been under way since then to assess allegations of offences relating to commercial leases issued by the Trust, insubordination, falsification of information and negligence. In early 2020, under pressure from Parliament over poor corporate governance, the Trust suspended another five of its top managers. They too have been placed on ‘special leave’ pending the outcome of an internal investigation. These suspensions follow the resignation in 2019 of two members of the Board.
Even though this global health crisis is demanding that we manage our systems differently, we must still hold government institutions to account. It is deeply concerning that yet again we have been left with more questions than answers.
* Nokwanda Sihlali is a land researcher at the Land and Accountability Research Centre at the University of Cape Town.
* Sithembiso Gumbi is an associate researcher at the Land and Accountability Research Centre at the University of Cape Town.