The unanimous decision is a vindication of the findings of the high-level panel into land reform, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe in 2017, which raised questions about the legality of the trust’s lease arrangements while noting that the revenue raised appeared to do little to benefit the wider community. Millions of people reside on the trust’s lands, which are spread across 30% of KwaZulu-Natal. Applicants in the case included the Rural Women’s Movement and several mostly elderly women residing on trust land who felt their rights were being trampled upon.
“It is declared that … (the trust and the board) acted unlawfully and in violation of the Constitution by concluding residential lease arrangements with persons living on the land held in trust by the Ingonyama who are the true and beneficial owners of trust-held land under Zulu customary law,” the judgment reads.
“… the trust is obliged forthwith to refund any and all money paid to the trust and the board under the lease agreements,” it rules. That might not be so easy as much of that money has probably already been spent and the trust’s audits are always “qualified”.
The court also found that Thoko Didiza, the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development had “breached her duty to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the constitutional right to property of the holders of IPILRA [Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act] rights.”
The minister must also report to the court every three months to provide an update on what is being done to protect people’s land rights and security of tenure.
“This ruling vindicates that the people living on the trust land are the owners of that land and cannot be made into tenants by the trust. Its attempts to downgrade them from owners into tenants was unlawful,” Aninka Claassens, chief researcher at UCT’s Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC), told Business Maverick.
The ruling could have implications for South Africa’s other former homelands, apartheid relics of rural poverty where security of property tenure remains tenuous, hampering agriculture and other development. There could also be political consequences as the ANC has courted traditional leaders as a core base of electoral support.
And it comes at a troubled time for the trust, with its staff reportedly preparing to go on strike and amid contestation for the Zulu throne claimed by King Misuzulu in the wake of the death of King Goodwill Zwelithini. The Zulu monarch is the sole trustee of the Ingonyama Trust. Its feudal-like arrangements may not prove to be such a cash cow anymore, lowering the stakes in this unfolding Game of Thrones. DM/BM