THE BATTLE FOR INGULA
Eskom is fighting to get a Free State municipality to pay R3bn owed for electricity, and is also involved in a struggle to protect an important wetland
Say “Eskom” and “Harrismith” and most readers would instantly add the word “trouble”. After all, the R3bn debt owed by the Harrismith municipality of Maluti-a-phofung to Eskom is the highest in SA.
Eskom is about to launch a series of major power outages to force payment by the municipality, and there is also ongoing legal action against Eskom by Harrismith businesses to test whether other arms of government share responsibility for resolving the tect the wetland and its creatures, while building a now fully commissioned water-based electricity storage project, Eskom’s third hydro-pumped storage scheme, in the area. As part of the project, Eskom has been rehabilitating the moist, high-altitude grasslands to create “an internationally renowned sustainable nature reserve” surrounded by well-run farmlands.
Against this backdrop, recent litigation in the land claims court takes on special significance.
It was brought by Eskom against 26 members of the extended Mkhwanazi family group, living and grazing their cattle and other animals on the edge of the wetland.
As part of the wider Ingula development, Eskom concluded a court-sanctioned arrangement for the Mkhwanazi families to move from the farm in Harrismith where they were living, to a 300 ha farm, Maggies Deel, donated to the extended family by Eskom via a trust. During the preliminary discussions about the deal, agricultural experts established that the land could carry a maximum of fewer than 90 “animal units”, and according to Eskom’s legal team, the Mkhwanazis had undertaken to comply with this limit. Eskom then spent about R3.5m on the relocation and a further R500,000 to put up a perimeter fence, and the family moved across about a year ago.
The problem is that the Mkhwanazis are now overgrazing the farm, stocking it at about two and a half times its capacity, and refusing to reduce the number of animals. Eskom complains that the cattle are also leaving the farm — despite the perimeter fences — to graze areas including adjoining farms belonging to other farmers as well as the critical Ingula wetland area.
Harming the wetland
Eskom’s court papers described the wetland’s “global conservation significance” and said the Mkhwanazis’ livestock, allowed to roam beyond their own fences, are causing “irreparable harm”.
While lawyers for the Mkhwanazis argued that the family had not been told about the strict limits on the animals that could be grazed, the court rejected this, finding that the information had been spelt out in documents that were part of prior negotiations.
The court has now issued an order that the Mkhwanazis have to reduce the number of animals on the land, to conform with the limits set, and remove the excess animals within one month. After that, any over the limit will be impounded. They must also prevent their remaining animals from grazing outside their own perimeter fences. Any of their animals found in the Ingula wetland, or on neighbouring farms, will be removed, impounded and sold.
Whether last week’s tough action to protect the Ingula area will resolve this particular battle it is too early to tell. But clearly Eskom is determined that whatever happens on its R3bn electricity debt dispute, it will not lose the battle over the integrity of Ingula.