Durban - A land claims case that aims to resolve a centuries-old dispute in northern KwaZulu-Natal began on Monday.
The right to ownership of 42 000 hectares of agricultural land in Mthonjaneni - a municipal area situated between Eshowe and Ulundi - is being presided over by Acting Judge of the Land Claims Court AJ Canca.
If the claimants are successful in their bid to take back the land, it will change the face of Zululand, possibly ousting multinational timber companies as well as smaller private sugar cane and timber farmers.
The Ntembeni, Makasaneni and Mthonjaneni communities have lodged claims to the land, valued at an estimated R2.2 billion.
About 37 000ha of the farmland belongs to timber companies Mondi and Sappi.
The rest is largely privately-owned land under cane and timber and fruit, such as avocados and citrus, or used for cattle and game farming.
The Melmoth Town Hall has been transformed into a makeshift courtroom, where about 20 legal representatives from eight legal teams are representing the various parties.
The case also pitches a local community against their local traditional leader, Nkosi Thandazani Zulu, who parted ways with his Ntembeni community and is now pursuing the land claim on behalf of the Royal House.
In addition to the legal teams of the three claimant communities and the Royal House, there are separate legal teams representing Sappi, Mondi, the white farmers and landowners, the Ingonyama Trust and the splinter Dudla clan’s Izimbube Trust.
Advocates T Norman and C Nqala are representing the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights.
Several sides in the dispute - such as the white farmers and the Ingonyama Trust - have retained historians to argue their cases.
White farmers in Mthonjaneni claim the land was not stolen or taken through dispossession, but given to them in 1884. In August that year, Zulu Prince Dinuzulu signed a treaty with the Boers allocating 2 710 000ha of land to them, as payment for their help in defeating his rival in battle.
The boundaries were later redrawn by the British government, which reduced the area.
But the claimant communities - and several historians - say the Boers exploited a civil war raging among the Zulus at the time, and Prince Dinuzulu was not king of the Zulus and so not authorised to hand over the land or to sign a treaty with the Boers.
Also central to the court arguments will be the status quo in 1913, at the time the Land Act was passed - that is, what communities were settled on the disputed land at that time.
At present, 1913 is the cut-off date for land claims.
Communities claim they were forcibly removed well after 1913.
Mzumandla Mtimkhulu, deputy chairman of the Ntembeni community claimants committee, said his family was forcibly removed by the apartheid government in the 1970s.
“They came with police and soldiers and loaded us on to trucks. They took us to an open piece of land and dumped us there,” he said.
“They moved only people. We had to leave all our livestock and our property and we lost everything.”
He says the land was later taken over by timber companies Sappi and Mondi.
“Ever since, we have had to get permits from both Sappi and Mondi to go across their land just to visit our ancestors' graves,” he said.
The Ntembeni community is represented by Durban-based lawyer Mbongiseni Ntshalintshali
Last Friday, much of the day was taken up by meetings, in chamber, with the judge and legal teams.
The hearing begins in earnest today when the court and claimants visit sites around Mthonjaneni for a pointing-out.
Claimant communities will be tasked with pointing out graves, the location of old homesteads and so on, to substantiate their claims.
Wednesday has been set aside by the court to negotiate with the communities, to try to unite the claimants and integrate the splinter groups.