How to steal a game reserve: poach animals, sell plots and threaten those in your way
It was a land claim that could have become a Big Five game reserve in KZN. But greed, incompetence and guns have ensured that the community has ended up with empty hands and a load of grievances.
In 2003, the amaXimba community won a land restitution claim of 21 farms near Camperdown in KwaZulu-Natal. They formed the Mayibuye Land Trust, which opted to develop the claim as a game reserve linked to a commercial residential development.
What should have been the beginning of a financial boon for the community went pear-shaped, then turned into a war zone.
It started so well. Speaking at the launch of the Mayibuye Game Reserve in 2018, then deputy minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment’s (DFFE), Barbara Thomson, said it was “the successful outcome of the commitment by government and stakeholders to work together to ensure a thriving, inclusive and sustainable wildlife economy for the wellbeing of all South Africans”.
The headline of the report on government website Vuk’uzenzele was “Government ‘beams’ with pride over Mayibuye”.
- 186 freestanding homes (several sites were reportedly sold on spec);
- A lifestyle village for the elderly with 120 cluster units and a frail-care section;
- Three lodges comprising 110 suites;
- Appropriate shops and offices;
- A game breeding centre; and
- A game reserve.
According to Pamish director David Bozas, several buildings on the site were converted into a training college and a gatehouse was built. Space was offered free to the Monkey Helpline Primate Rehabilitation and Sanctuary Centre, which made it their base.
However, there were rumblings. According to the Preservation of the Mkondeni Mpushini Biodiversity Trust (PMMBT), a community-based action body working to support projects and initiatives in the area, the deal “seriously undermines the possibility of the amaXimba community enjoying the financial benefits generated by the development”.
A report by Nora Choveaux of the trust — which appears to have been written around 2013 — says “the community does not appear to have a stake in the company that owns these properties [Pamish] and will not benefit financially from the development. If that is the case, the community has once again been dispossessed of its land and the benefits from owning land.” The report was prescient.
In 2017, because of “unforeseen delays”, Pamish was forced to apply for an extension to the five-year validity period for the project, which had been granted by the KZN Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs.
These delays and community politics within the amaXimba community, according to a source who cannot be named for fear of retribution, created the space for a violent “mafia” to consider the Mayibuye Trust to be illegitimate and to disregard the 99-year lease and all other agreements.
This group of men – it’s not clear if they are linked to the original claimants or the trustees – are now allegedly monetising the land by selling plots, having first pulled down the reserve’s expensive game fencing several times, and threatening anyone who objects with guns and violence.
There were several stocked game farms incorporated in Mayibuye and at some stage, there were zebra and blue wildebeest. But all animals have reportedly been poached.
When the police were called because of vandalism, with people flattening fences, according to an informant, they said it was a civil affair and refused to intervene. Pamish got a high court interdict to stop the land invasions, but it required the police to intervene and, according to Pamish, they appeared to be uninterested.
The police were unable to comment without being provided a CAS number.
The municipality, legally bound to uphold zonings and ensure the land is used for the purposes it is required to be used for, did nothing.
Court seeks clarity
In 2018, the Pietermaritzburg High Court appointed Justice Nzimande to try to sort out the mess. He walked into a maze of claims, counterclaims, millions of missing funds, shell companies, illegal property sales and destruction. (By 2023 there was a murder and claims of armed gangs enforcing land grabs).
In 2020, following yet another legal spat between the Mayibuye Trust and the Land Claims Commission, Justice N Radebe of the Pietermaritzburg High Court expressed his frustration with the use of the courts to settle land claim issues.
“The Master has been inundated with a series of challenges in respect of community trusts, which were established with the intention to receive and manage property restored to communities. These properties are often mismanaged by trustees, which creates uproar or disputes among trustees and/or beneficiaries.
“Most of the time, when trustees fight each other, it is motivated by greed, lack of knowledge or deep misunderstanding of fiduciary duties. This nightmare has spilled over into the effective administration of cases in this honourable court.”
In this, Mayibuye is a poster case. Trying to unravel the nature of the “uproar and disputes” is an important lesson for future claimants seeking the same path. Sit tight, it’s complicated – but morbidly fascinating.
Back to the future
After the land claim was settled, 11 trustees were appointed to administer it. One was Welcome Maphanga (who the report said would sell off land for profit). At the time, Zibuse Mlaba, as acting regent, was technically founder of the Mayibuye Trust (he later died in a hail of bullets).
At some point, a buzz of private companies were formed around the claim: Mayivive Dev and Pamish Investments, a development company. Pamish was 50% owned by the Mayibuye Trust and 50% owned by Maputso, which was in turn 50% owned by “elephant whisperer” Lawrence Anthony and 50% by London-based businessman Andy Ruhan. You still tracking?
Another company involved was Viva, owned by Dave Mitchell. David Bozas, who had worked for both Anthony and Ruhan, became a director, and ended up essentially owning Pamish. Maputso was later liquidated.
As oversight goes, Mayibuye’s trustees seem to have been mostly AWOL. Trustee Welcome Maphanga told investigator Justice Nzimande that the trust had no bank account. It turns out it had accounts at Ithala Bank, and one of the signatories was Maphanga. On being questioned, he said he had no knowledge of transactions on that account. That’s hard to believe.
The investigator found that Mayibuye had two accounts. In 2010, one of them received R4,524,133.50, and some time earlier the other one had received R600,000. On investigation, they had been drained: the first had a mere R2,020 left, and the second R38,158. This conduct, said the investigator’s report, “leaves a lot to be desired”. An understatement of note.
At a certain point, there was a property buying spree. Mayivive, the investigator found, bought property from the Mayibuye Community Trust for R1,062,332 and from Shellex for R620,000. Mayibuye bought land from Camperdown Game Ranch Properties for R2,341,000.
The investigator noted that the amaXaba community derived absolutely no benefit from these transactions and questioned its oversight of the trustees.
Other deals were struck.
In 2019, according to the investigator, Maphanga began selling building sites on the land for between R20,000 and R40,000 each. After 24 were sold, the sales were stopped (temporarily, it turns out) by several people including Zibuse Mlaba.
When the investigator asked Maphanga what became of the proceeds of sales of these properties, he said the money was used “to cater for the meals at meetings, travelling costs and Trust expenses”.
“However, there are no records confirming this position,” commented the investigator. “What is disturbing is that the proceeds of sales were not deposited into a bank account. The proceeds thereof were used willy-nilly.”
Several attempts to reach Maphanga via several different telephone numbers were unsuccessful.
Another issue that raised the investigator’s concern was Pamish Investments, headed by David Bozas, which was formed to secure investments for the trust land. It secured a 99-year lease for Mayibuye, which the investigator said was completely inappropriate, a five-year renewable lease being more appropriate.
When the Master of the Court requested the financials of the Mayibuye Trust, he was handed those of Pamish Investments instead, which he said did “not reflect the true state of affairs. Such financials have nothing to do with the Trust and have everything to do with Pamish Investments (Ply) Ltd. It must be borne in mind that the Master requested the financials of the Trust and not those of Pamish Investments”.
Was the trust unable to submit a statement of its financial position, or had Pamish taken over the functions of the trust? The investigator could not discern.
According to Peter Kennedy, who assisted in the early stages of Mayibuye’s development through an initiative called BFT Retail, the trust hasn’t had an AGM, but refuses to hold one as the “community would vote them out”. Unfortunately, the trust agreement failed to stipulate how long a trustee could serve, so technically they are there for life.
Money and death
So where did Mayibuye’s funds come from? That’s equally complex. Both Pamish and an outfit named Earth Organisation raised money for the project, and funds had also come in from the government. Bozas said Pamish was awaiting a R21-million grant from the Department of Environment, but disruptions were holding up payment.
According to Kennedy, an initial development grant of around R25-million came from Andy Ruhan in the UK, a further R10-million from the Department of Environmental Affairs, and around R4-million from Kennedy himself. He says that if you include other grants and land sales, funds poured into Mayibuye’ development could have been up to R40-million which “went into an unlisted hole. It was an absolute circus”.
Then Lawrence Anthony died, Ruhan was ousted from his businesses in the UK and the money stopped flowing. That’s when the heat turned up, says Kennedy, and the trustees demanded R9,2-million. “There were guys on the outside who previously got money. It stopped coming and they became disgruntled.” This included Zibuse Mlaba.
A Concerned Group, including Mlaba and some “strong men” in the community, was set up to investigate goings on concerning the trust. It was this group that prompted the High Court to engage the investigator. It challenged the 99-year lease, which it said had been signed without the community’s knowledge, and also the way the trust was handling its affairs.
Mlaba, an original signatory to the trust account, was removed by a declaratory order. In October 2021, he was assassinated in a hail of gunfire at a shopping mall in Cato Ridge. According to the local ANC, of which he was a prominent member, “the details are still sketchy… and the motive is still unknown. Mlaba was shot dead in full view of the public and he died at the scene.” It cannot be established if his killers were apprehended.
“Nothing is confirmed,” said an informant, who declined to be named, “but if you add it all up, Mayibuye is a valuable asset to contest, it has commercial rights. People here have died for a lot less”.
Following the money trail drew a blank. In trust correspondence, the investigator found that trust financials had never been audited. Auditors named Manase & Associates, Whitaker were said in trust correspondence to have been appointed, but the investigator found that this firm did not exist. He found that the community had not received any benefit from the activities of the trust.
Investigator Nzimande concluded that all Mayibuye trustees should be disqualified and the Trust Deed rewritten to ensure limited terms of office. Given the present situation, this is unlikely to happen. The investigation should have kicked off a criminal investigation but, until now, it hasn’t.
In all of these shenanigans, there’s a sad side issue with a silver lining. Monkey Helpline, which cares for about 300 rescued primates on the property, has been caught in the crossfire. Owner Steve Smit says they have been hanging on by a thread.
“We’ve been confined to a strip of land about 250 by 40 metres, a little island in the middle of the development. It can’t last. We’re just collateral damage in a wider issue. To get to our centre, we have to drive up a narrow track between fenced developments.
“Often there are five to 10 guys with R5s and shotguns guarding some or other heavy looking over his new source of income. Staff are asked when we’re leaving. People wander between our cages to get water from our tank.”
However, Smit has been thrown a last-minute safety line. Monkey Helpline found a property in Summerveld between Durban and Pietermaritzburg and has secured a R5.4-million grant from the EMS Foundation to relocate and rebuild.
“It’s a huge relief,” says Smit. “We’ll escape just before we’re overwhelmed by guns, buildings and bulldozers.”
There are wider implications than financial and political chaos within a single reserve… and lessons to be learned.
All over South Africa there are land claims where successful claimants see the benefits of developing the areas for tourism and conservation. There are hugely experienced developers able to do this to the benefit of both nature and the communities. There are also generous government grants and private funders willing to support these projects.
But watching land claims dissolve into infighting and counter-blaming, and seeing the ease with which men with guns can undermine leases and projects with no control by the municipal or justice system, anyone putting funds and effort into community conservation projects will now be thinking twice, especially if they’re in KZN.
Under present conditions at Mayibuye, it is clearly impossible for it to become a game reserve. DM