Our Burning Planet

DURBAN’S VIRGINIA BUSH NATURE RESERVE

BLF acolyte drives plan to turn ‘vacant’ eThekwini nature reserve into elite eco-estate

BLF acolyte drives plan to turn ‘vacant’ eThekwini nature reserve into elite eco-estate
The Virginia Bush Nature Reserve is a sanctuary for wildlife in the heart of Durban North/La Lucia. It’s home to more than 170 species of trees and other natural vegetation, small antelope species, genets and numerous birds. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

A consortium of local entrepreneurs is pressing three levels of government to sanction the development of more than 200 luxury homes and apartments in the middle of Durban’s Virginia Bush Nature Reserve.

The plan to build elite homes and three five-storey high tower blocks within a gated private estate is being driven by ZC “Zah” Dlamini, a Durban businessman, partner in an undertakers firm and KwaZulu-Natal provincial chair of the Black First Land First (BLF) political group that recently allied itself with Jacob Zuma’s breakaway MK party.

Dlamini, with 15 or so unnamed partners, is promoting the plan as a “low impact, eco-conscious” residential development that would impact only “about 10%” of the reserve – but a brochure leaked on social media by local activist Pete Graham tells a very different story.

eco-estate nature reserve virginia bush ethekwini

Architect impressions of the proposed Northwoods ‘eco-estate’ development, which includes three five-storey tower blocks. (Photo: Northwoods brochure )

Architect impressions of the proposed Northwoods ‘eco-estate’ development, which includes three five-storey tower blocks. (Photo: Northwoods brochure )

eco-estate nature reserve virginia bush ethekwini

Architect impressions of the proposed Northwoods ‘eco-estate’ development, which includes three five-storey tower blocks. (Photo: Northwoods brochure )

eco-estate nature reserve virginia bush ethekwini

An aerial view of the Virginia Bush Nature Reserve, a haven for wildlife surrounded by suburban housing in the Durban North/La Lucia area. (Photo: Supplied )

This document lays out plans to cram 100 “luxury houses” and a further 130 townhouses into a 38ha section of the proclaimed nature reserve in Durban North, along with a clubhouse, restaurant, swimming pool, sports field, tennis courts, putting green, gym and other facilities – with residual space for a “wildlife sanctuary” with small antelope species, birds and fish.

But eThekwini council officials, who have rejected Dlamini’s application, note that the Virginia forest and nature reserve is an integral part of the city’s open-space network and suggest that the housing plan could destroy or degrade up to 70% of the reserve’s protected natural habitat. 

eco-estate nature reserve virginia bush ethekwini

Proclaimed officially as a nature reserve in 2018, Virginia Bush has been managed as a wildlife sanctuary for decades and features several hiking trails, a public picnic site and a bird hide. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Dlamini, a senior partner of the Durban-based Ikhaya Funeral Home business, does not appear to have any prior experience in property development, but is hoping to sell “executive houses” in the proposed Northwoods estate for up to R8-million each.

He appears to view the proclaimed nature reserve as “vacant land”, ripe for private development. But the plan, germinating behind the scenes since 2019, has now prompted opposition from numerous residents and raised concern about political pressures that could jeopardise the future of other urban nature reserves in Durban and elsewhere.

The concern is that Dlamini and his partners are intent upon “leapfrogging” the standard development approval process by city planners by putting pressure on more senior local, provincial or national government officials to back the project on the basis that it would create jobs, spur economic development and swell municipal rates coffers.

Although eThekwini’s real estate department and other branches rejected the plan in writing in March 2023, Daily Maverick has confirmed that there have been further engagements between Dlamini and eThekwini officials as recently as last month – apparently after interventions by the provincial and national government.

Last year, Dlamini wrote to national Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) Minister Barbara Creecy to voice his “frustration” about the rejection of his application. Creecy wrote back to Dlamini in August, indicating that developments within a nature reserve “are not necessarily prohibited”, but such developments had to be undertaken with the necessary approvals and in compliance with legal requirements.

In response to our queries, Creecy’s office said Dlamini wrote to her department seeking to “understand the procedures and processes used by other developers who had managed to build houses in similar protected areas”.

As the declaration of protected areas was a concurrent function of provincial and municipal government, he was advised to approach the relevant authorities, “specifically the KwaZulu-Natal MEC as well as the eThekwini Municipality on the matter, as the DFFE has no direct jurisdiction on property development matters”.

Now Dlamini claims to have received support for his plans from Siboniso Duma, the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (Edtea).

Duma, who is also provincial chair of the ANC, has a dual mandate as MEC to promote economic development, while also safeguarding the environment.

“We had a meeting with the MEC [Duma] in December and, luckily, he understands things better. I explained everything to the MEC and he supported our project,” Dlamini claimed.

eco-estate nature reserve virginia bush ethekwini

Officially proclaimed as a nature reserve in 2018, Virginia Bush has been managed as a wildlife sanctuary for decades and features several hiking trails, a public picnic site and bird hide. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

In response to queries from Daily Maverick, Duma’s spokesperson, Ndabe Sibiya, confirmed that the MEC had “advised both Mr Dlamini and eThekwini Metro to further engage on the matter”.

“It is worthy to note that the MEC’s intervention was a result of the correspondence which came from Minister Barbara Creecy on this matter. We are obliged to guide all entrepreneurs as it is our responsibility. Edtea is facilitating the engagements between Mr Dlamini and eThekwini Metro. Edtea does acknowledge that the matter falls within the mandate of eThekwini Metro.”

Dlamini is no stranger to elevating complaints to higher authority. Rather than instituting civil court proceedings, he lodged a complaint in 2017 with newly appointed Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane over apparent delays by the Road Accident Fund (RAF) in reimbursing Ikhaya Funeral Home for claims involving the burial of indigent road crash victims.

Seemingly dissatisfied with the outcome of this complaint, he later wrote to the National Assembly’s portfolio committee on transport, urging members to “intervene on my RAF matter”.

“It is disappointing to have such government, especially parliamentary members, ignoring a South African instead of assisting. I still need assistance from all of you,” he wrote.

In response to the current backlash over the Virginia property development plan, Dlamini claims that opposition is due to “racism”.

“That land is owned by the government … It’s vacant. These bushes are all over the province of KZN,” he told Daily Maverick.

“They were used as boundaries [between white and black suburbs] … Now people are saying these bushes are giving them clean air. But we don’t have such things in our farms and locations … People must understand that there must be transformation. People must adjust. This is about race because nobody said anything when there was a white guy with us. Immediately after he left [in February] we are getting attacked.”

eco-estate nature reserve virginia bush ethekwini

On paper, the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’MOSS) covers almost a third of the Ethekwini municipal area, but only about 3% of that area enjoys effective conservation protection. This includes urban nature reserves such as Virginia Bush, Pigeon Valley, Burman Bush, Palmiet, New Germany, Kenneth Stainbank, Krantzkloof and Springside. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

How does he explain assertions that up to 230 new houses and allied developments can co-exist with a nature reserve?

“Yes, they can. But what species are protected? The municipality has failed to say. Is it a tree, or a cat, or a mouse? That land is zoned as open space. Why must areas be vacant while we are packed in our locations?

“We are going to explain all this … I am not even a member of the ANC so I don’t understand why they [objectors] are thinking that we are corrupt with Duma. Of course, you are correct [in your questions] that I am a member of Black First Land First.

“The government must close it down [Virginia]. People must just sit down and engage. These people are treating us like we are corrupt.”

Asked to clarify whether the project was to benefit poor or rich families, Dlamini said: “It doesn’t matter. We all want to be rich. We are not stealing … They are supposed to listen to us. But there are also people who are supporting this and want to be part of the project.

“We are still going to talk to the government. Elections are in two months. There will be a time when they have to choose. Low-cost houses will be built.

“We will deal with this Pete [Graham] politically. He must call us in a hall and we will explain. That place [Virginia Bush] will not be there too long. These nature reserves must be reassessed on why they are nature reserves. This is not our system. Before 1652 the whole of the country was a nature reserve. Why are they undermining us – because we are black!”

But, he suggested, “if you look at the houses, we don’t want to use the whole nature reserve – only about 10%. The whole nature reserve will be a private nature reserve that will be managed better in partnership with the government. We are talking to government as black people in poverty and in business – that open land must be given to us. We’ve been waiting too long.”

On whether his group would conduct an environmental impact assessment and public consultation process, Dlamini said: “We are still explaining to government how this will help the community and that people will get jobs for five to seven years.

“Then there will be a time when people will be called. We will give them time to think about it and then we can agree. But they must not claim that because they are rich there can be no development and that their word is final.”

Property development experience

Asked about his experience in property development, he said: “That’s just a fancy name. We want to build houses. I’ve built a house before. But we are working with people who are specialists in environment and estates. There’s a team. There are about 15 of us, but I put everyone together.

“Unfortunately, the white guy is no longer with us. But we will consider other people in the area. I won’t mention their names … [but] white guys are interested and it’s better that way. I don’t like people who are using racism.”

Asked to comment on claims that he had “elevated” his dispute to the Presidency, he said: “No. That’s not correct. But what we’ve done is that we have written to the president to speak to the provincial government to release land. But we never got any response.

“We are talking about only land owned by the government. They are custodians. They have been promising us. Land is everything. It can liberate us. If government wants to make sure that we are part of the economy they must start by giving us land.”

In response to Daily Maverick’s queries, the eThekwini Municipality confirmed that it received a long-term lease application for residential development at Virginia in January 2019.

“On the basis of the site choice, the submission was not supported and the applicant at the time was not in a position to furnish the municipality with his relevant details. The name and contact details of the applicant are known to the municipality, however, such details are subject to the Popi [Protection of Personal Information] Act, and the decision whether to make such details known may be subject to Paia [Promotion of Access to Information Act] application process.”

Subsequently, in February 2023, the relevant departments provided their final input on the application, which was used by eThekwini’s real estate department to decide on the application.

Application denied

The applicant was advised that the lease application was not supported for a number of reasons. These included the fact that Virginia Bush was a proclaimed nature reserve and had been a core component of the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System since 1999.

The municipality was concerned that the proposed Northwood development would have a significant negative impact on the Virginia Bush Nature Reserve, one of the few remaining natural green spaces in the Durban North area.

City spokesperson Gugu Sisilana said the municipality had made its position clear and did not wish to be drawn into further debate about Dlamini’s approach to Creecy.

On whether the city had received any communications or instructions from Duma, the city said:

“The application, including the position of the municipality from an environmental perspective, was discussed in December 2023. The MEC is the delegated authority to NEMPAA [National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act] for proclamations in KZN even though the municipality is the designated management authority. The proclamation of Virginia Bush Nature Reserve and others was gazetted by the MEC. In that regard, the municipal officials were requested to provide guidance to the applicant on the application.”  

Asked to comment on perceptions that attempts were being made to “bully” the city into revising its decision, Sisilana said: “Officials of the municipality are obligated to serve all members of the public and when requests for meetings are submitted then these are accepted.

“During any engagement the officials carry out their responsibility in a fair, firm and professional manner. The assertion that the municipality has gone to extraordinary lengths – more than it would with other applicants – is not true and is rejected.”

Jane Troughton, chair of the Durban North Conservancy and member of the Enviro Fixers group, expressed concern that developers were “seeking to destroy our city’s beloved Virginia Bush for narrow private gain.”

As a proclaimed nature reserve, it was legally protected from any commercial activities, she said.

“The fact that Minister Creecy herself is corresponding with the developer raises suspicion of political involvement. We wish to raise the alarm for all South Africans – if this goes ahead, it sets a precedent for the private embezzlement and destruction of all our green spaces. What’s next? Krantzkloof Nature Reserve, iMfolozi, Kruger National Park?

“We intend to do whatever is necessary to save this space for the people of Durban. We are taking legal advice which we will action if necessary.”

Heinz de Boer, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on environmental affairs in KZN, said Virginia Bush had served as a safe refuge for small mammals and remnant coastal forest for decades and hosted hikers and nature enthusiasts daily.

“How developers expect to procure, develop and gain environmental authorisation is beyond comprehension,” he said. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charles Butcher says:

    Once again the thieving anc governmunt wil let its bbee affirmative action cadres get their way NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS TO THE ECOLOGY OR THE COUNTRY S A WHOLE because its mostly a HOLE like the potholed roads

    • James McMichael says:

      Correct and this is how pitiless crime networks operate. They have yet to work out that greed is a “disease of the soul” but which “our people” are busy discovering every day as they get more poor and more desperate.

  • Barry Messenger says:

    This is outrageously inappropriate and must be stopped at all costs.

  • drew barrimore says:

    The only vacant element here is the ANC brain.

  • Lynda Tyrer says:

    Some just dont have a clue about how important these green areas are, its all about greed and of course tossing in the race card which is so pathetic in this day and age. Its developers like this who are destroying this country maybe he should stick to burying bodies instead.

    • J vN says:

      You just knew that, as these cadres are wont to do when challenged, the totally meaningless race card is going to be hauled out. The minute the magic little r-word gets used you have to start looking for corruption and malfeasance.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    Heinz de Boer, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on environmental affairs in KZN, said …“How developers expect to procure, develop and gain environmental authorisation is beyond comprehension,” he said

    The normal SA way. Corruption, bribes, backhanders

  • Lavinia Schlebusch says:

    This man sounds like a bully, intent on getting his way and screw the environment or any sane and scientific based objections
    the mampara immediately pulls the race card. Typical. No consideration for all the vital, natural services this green reserve performs for humans.
    Once you start hacking up a reserve it never ends with just one development.

  • Ian Gwilt says:

    He probably knows where a few bodies are buried, hence his leverage.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    Another lying politician. Under the populist guise of working for the liberation of poor landless people, Dlamini clearly has no aim beyond his own enrichment. Why does anyone believe, and vote for, such blatant rubbish?

  • SavageGas says:

    Tired of this Dbn nonsense, I’m moving to CPT. And from there I either get pushed into the sea or if I’m lucky, catch a plane elsewhere.

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    If this is the way things are going in eThekwini then thank goodness my children and grandchildren all live overseas and my wife and I are 86 and 88 years old respectively.

  • Patrick O'Shea says:

    I wonder what they’ll use for water and electricity in these cadre palaces.

  • Penny Philip says:

    Dlamini says the townships are over populated & people need land. So how will this luxury development remedy that problem? This is greed at work, hand in hand with corruption.

  • Jo Redeker says:

    Keep your sticky, thieving fingers out of our few remaining natural spots.

  • Daniel Mohakane says:

    It is important for the municipality to seriously look into the legalities of such an application, advise accordingly and provide proper guidance to the applicant particularly that the property is said to be vacant and probably underutilized.

    • Ms B says:

      It is not “vacant” and “underutilised”. It is a nature reserve.
      Do you want the whole world covered with concrete? No plants, birds or animals left?
      We need nature reserves.
      Besides, Dlamin wants to build a few luxury homes. That will not benefit the majority. Any jobs created by the building project would be short term.
      The only people who stand to benefit from Dlamini’s plans are Dlamini himself, maybe a few corrupt people that he pays off, and some already rich people who could afford those homes.

    • J vN says:

      While you’re at it, lets “develop” the KNP and all other national parks too, and invite in millions of skwattas.

  • Ms B says:

    Siboniso Duma “has a dual mandate as MEC to promote economic development, while also safeguarding the environment”. Hahahah. The wolf “guarding” the sheep.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    “These bushes are all over KZN” – well, there you are. Truly depressing.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Can you just imagine! The greed just knows no bounds!

  • Ritey roo roo says:

    What the hell is Creecy sticking her paws into this for

    • Skinyela Skinyela says:

      To be fair, she referred the guy to the provincial and municipal authorities… Saying that it’s under their jurisdiction, not hers.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    The BLF spokesperson or driver of this application, Mr Dlamini has been the victim of being separated from his heritage through apartheid. His forebears traditionally valued nature and wild spaces with “bushes” more than settlers. And its sad that he has become so removed from the wisdoms that had revered the value of the natural land. Only now has the global north begun to count the real economic value of these open natural spaces and often, these spaces yield uncountable economic value for all. It would indeed be sad if one self-serving group were to take that value all to themselves and forever it be lost to the children of tomorrow. Apartheid really screwed our society.

  • Gavin Hillyard says:

    ANC – Annihilate, Neglect and Consume.

  • Anthony Krijger says:

    No doubt, the plan was refused as the developers expected to get it for nothing, to quote “the land is doing nothing” as “we are talking to government as black people in poverty and in business – that open land must be given to us.” In reality they are not poor, they are extremely wealthy businessmen trying to play the race card and con their way into free land so they can make even more money.

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