Os­car’s un­cle booted off land

Vil­lagers re­voke Theo Pis­to­rius’ lease over prime hunt­ing prop­erty, claim­ing he did not keep his prom­ises to im­prove their poverty-stricken lives

CityPress - - News - BIÉNNE HUIS­MAN bi­enne.huis­man@city­press.co.za

A20-year lease agree­ment be­tween busi­ness­man Theo Pis­to­rius (pic­tured be­low) and a ru­ral com­mu­nity in Lim­popo has ended in a bit­ter row over miss­ing money and al­le­ga­tions of ex­ploita­tion. Pis­to­rius, an un­cle of the dis­graced Par­a­lympian Os­car, has been called the “Jan van Riebeeck” of Lim­popo by the Mthimkhulu com­mu­nity, who say they of­fi­cially booted him off their prime tro­phy-hunt­ing land this month. Vil­lagers want hunt­ing banned there, as they say the rich prof­its it makes do not trickle down to them.

But Pis­to­rius main­tains that the ter­mi­na­tion of the 20-year game-hunt­ing lease con­tract is in­valid, and he will lodge an ap­pli­ca­tion in the North Gaut­eng High Court to con­test it.

This is the very court where Pis­to­rius and his wife, Amanda, sup­ported Os­car dur­ing his mur­der trial last year for killing girl­friend Reeva Steenkamp on Valen­tine’s Day in 2013.

The 70-year-old Pre­to­ria ty­coon is one of four broth­ers who head the mul­ti­mil­lion-rand Pis­to­rius fam­ily em­pire, which has in­ter­ests in min­ing, tourism and prop­erty de­vel­op­ment.

A deed search shows he is the di­rec­tor of hos­pi­tal­ity ven­tures in Botswana and Mozam­bique, a lo­cal air-char­ter com­pany and three South African big-game hunt­ing com­pa­nies. This in­cludes the Mthimkhulu Game Re­serve, where tro­phy-hunt­ing ex­cur­sions are hosted at a bush camp dec­o­rated with ele­phant skulls.

The con­tested 6 500 hectare area sprawls be­tween the Letaba and Klein Letaba rivers and is home to the vil­lages of Mbaula and Pha­laubeni.

It is a ver­i­ta­ble gold mine, with in­ter­na­tional tourists pay­ing up to R600 000 to shoot an ele­phant.

This lu­cra­tive patch of lowveld land has sparked a feed­ing frenzy, with de­vel­op­ers and hun­ters fight­ing for a share of the pie, while the vil­lagers – the gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed cus­to­di­ans of the rich land – re­main ex­tremely poor.

This week, City Press met Letta Mabunda (51) un­der a tree out­side his tiny house in Pha­laubeni. Mabunda is a mem­ber of the lo­cal royal fam­ily and worked as a gate­keeper at Pis­to­rius’ Mthimkhulu Game Re­serve for nine years. He was earn­ing R750 a month when he quit in April.

Mabunda car­ried his own drink­ing wa­ter 10km to a ron­davel at the re­serve’s gate, where he worked 12-day shifts.

“Pis­to­rius, he gives me a pain in my heart,” said Mabunda as chick­ens for­aged at his feet. “He promised us things. De­vel­op­ment and train­ing, to hire more peo­ple. Schools and bridges, wa­ter. But it didn’t hap­pen.”

The con­tract, signed in 1995 be­tween the com­mu­nity, rep­re­sented by Chief Go­liath Mabunda, and Pre­to­ria busi­ness­man Ger­hardus Bolt, states that the land will be used to “con­duct hunt­ing sa­faris, wildlife tours and eco­tourism, to trade in game prod­ucts and cu­rios…” Soon af­ter, Bolt was mur­dered and Pis­to­rius took over the con­tract with Bolt’s son, Deon. As of this year, rental for the rich tract of land is a mere R11 600 a month.

The fight be­tween Pis­to­rius and the Mthimkhulu com­mu­nity came to a head in April when they re­fused his em­ploy­ees ac­cess to the re­serve. Cen­tral to the spat is R4 mil­lion in hunt­ing com­mis­sions owed to the com­mu­nity.

Lourens Jooste, who man­aged the Mthimkhulu Game Re­serve for Pis­to­rius, in­sists the R4 mil­lion – which con­sti­tutes the com­mu­nity’s share of the hunt­ing spoils – was paid to the com­mu­nity’s lawyer. But they say they did not re­ceive it. While the depart­ment of ru­ral de­vel­op­ment and land af­fairs launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the miss­ing cash, Jooste tried to patch up re­la­tions with the com­mu­nity’s lead­ers, beg­ging to be al­lowed back on the re­serve.

City Press is in pos­ses­sion of a heated 30-minute tele­phonecon­ver­sa­tion record­ing be­tween Jooste and com­mu­nity lead­ers Conny Mbodi, John Manyanyi and File­mon Tsakata, which took place in April.

In the call, the com­mu­nity lead­ers ac­cuse Pis­to­rius of not keep­ing his prom­ises of im­prov­ing their lives. They in­sist that they warned Pis­to­rius and he did not lis­ten.

“What Pis­to­rius is do­ing takes us back to the time of Jan van Riebeeck, when he came here and gave our fore­fa­thers a mir­ror, tak­ing away our cat­tle.

“This re­serve was sup­posed to bring jobs to our youth. They have noth­ing, many are al­co­holics, while all of you are bil­lion­aires,” a leader says to Jooste dur­ing the call.

Jooste blames mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion, not Pis­to­rius, for the prob­lems and prom­ises to make changes.

Pis­to­rius also hired lo­cal com­mu­nity and busi­ness­de­vel­op­ment con­sul­tant Ni­cholas Malatji in Jan­uary to look into the soured re­la­tion­ship.

This week, Malatji ad­mit­ted to City Press that, apart from a R500 000 crèche, Pis­to­rius had not put enough money back into the com­mu­nity.

“I had to es­tab­lish the facts about why the re­la­tion­ship soured. I re­alised a lot of things were not done prop­erly. Some of the money should have been chan­nelled back to the com­mu­nity. I mean, these peo­ple are the poor­est of the poor,” said Malatji.

The com­mu­nity has now given the Mthimkhulu con­tract to un­Earth Letaba, an up­lift­ment pro­ject that has re­hired Mabunda and the other gate­keep­ers for R2 400 a month.

un­Earth Letaba will ban hunt­ing on the land and aims to de­velop eco­tourism en­ter­prises to cre­ate jobs.

PHOTO: PETRO NELJOEN

PRIME SPOT The dis­puted land at the con­flu­ence of the Greater Letaba and Klein Letaba rivers, where the bound­aries of the Kruger Na­tional Park, Letaba Game Re­serve and Mthimkhulu Game Re­serve meet

PHOTO: MUNTU VI­LAKAZI

TRICKLE Tourists pay a for­tune to hunt at a nearby game re­serve, but the land's gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed cus­to­di­ans have re­mained poor

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