Gauteng's land barons keep it in the family

29 June 2014 - 01:45 By Isaac Mahlangu
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now

In property circles it is not unusual for a prospective buyer to hear the phrase "Mia land".

That is because, almost inevitably, a valuable piece of land somewhere in Gauteng will turn out to belong to the descendants of Moosa Mia, an Indian immigrant who arrived in South Africa to work on Natal's sugar-cane plantations.

Mia arrived penniless from Gujarat around 1880, but his extended family today collectively holds vast tracts of land surrounded by some of the most sought-after addresses in Johannesburg in areas such as Woodmead, Kyalami and Midrand.

Along the N1 highway, more than 2000ha of Mia farmland today forms part of what is to become this country's largest new city. This mixed development of offices, residential properties, shopping centres, schools and a hospital is being built at a cost of more than R100-billion.

The Mias are among a handful of families identified as being big landowners through a Gauteng government audit of land ownership.

Motsamai Motlhaolwa, the spokesman for the department of human settlements in Gauteng, said: "The main reason for the audit is to take stock of government-owned land, updating its status and providing advice on its use."

Another government official said the audit identified several families who own 1000ha or more in South Africa's smallest and most highly urbanised province. The findings of the audit will be used to guide planning in the province.

Werner van Rhyn, a director of the Waterfall Investment Company, which manages the Mia property development, said Waterfall was arguably South Africa's biggest construction site with about 6000 people working there daily.

Construction of a 100000m2 shopping centre and about 450 houses is already under way.

"It's an integrated development that includes housing from R500000 for a 65m2 house to R120-million for a house on our equestrian estate," said Van Rhyn.

A widespread belief among property moguls is that the original Mia was President Paul Kruger's tailor and he was given land as a gift.

But Van Rhyn dismissed the story. He said Mia bought a farm from two English brothers, John and James Gibson, who ran a coaching business.

Mia seemingly made his money as a general dealer in Rustenburg in North West before heading to Johannesburg.

Several years after buying the Waterfall land in 1934 - the price is not known - he established an Islamic school on the property .

"Mr Mia was concerned about the education of Indian children ... hence the Waterfall Islamic School opened here in 1940," said Van Rhyn.

Later, when apartheid laws prevented blacks from owning land, the Mia family "donated" the land to the Waterfall Islamic Institute Trust, a charitable institution. Members of the family were still trustees, said Van Rhyn. But no development could take place on the land for more than 50 years, in part because of the politics of the time.

Today, developments on Mia land include the Woodmead Value Mart, the Woodmead Retail Park and CellC's new headquarters along the N1 North.

None of the land at the Waterfall development was being sold and development was allowed only on the basis of a 99-year renewable lease, said Van Rhyn.

The government expropriated a chunk of Mia land for the construction of Eskom's Megawatt Park head office near Sunninghill and for the Allandale-Buccleuch interchanges along the N1.

Van Rhyn said the Waterfall Islamic Institute had entered into development agreements with private partners to develop parts of the R100-billion site.

Members of the Mia family appear to be intensely averse to publicity and would speak only through Van Rhyn as the company representative.

Elhardus Erasmus and his family hold several thousand hectares of land along the R21 corridor, north of ORTambo International Airport.

His family is developing about 1600ha of their land for a mixed-use urban node, including residential, retailing, office parks and light industrial facilities.

"Our development plans are not as big as those of the Mias, but we are also developing mixed-use estates on land ear-marked for growing a sustainable future as part of Ekurhuleni's Aerotropolis initiative," said Erasmus.

Their latest development, Riverfields, follows on the heels of developments in the area such as the Gleneagles Estate and Glen Erasmia, where prices range from R1.5-million to R6-million.

Among the other notable Gauteng landowners are the Van der Bijl, Meyer and Tsai families.

The Tsai family, which runs property development company M&T Group, has acquired vast tracts of land in the Tshwane metro over many years.

The family is behind developments there such as the Highveld Techno Park and a number of residential estates.

"There's probably no other family that has built as many houses in Tshwane as the Tsais," said one Gauteng land expert.

Attempts to speak to Irene Tsai were unsuccessful.

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now