'Millionaire land grab' in Stellenbosch

Landowners refuse to remove fences put up on town's public land

12 May 2019 - 00:00 By BOBBY JORDAN
EFF councillor Derrick Hendrickse alongside Stellenbosch's treasured millstream, an historic canal at the centre of an encroachment dispute.
EFF councillor Derrick Hendrickse alongside Stellenbosch's treasured millstream, an historic canal at the centre of an encroachment dispute.
Image: Esa Alexander

Wealthy landowners in Stellenbosch are refusing to remove fences erected over the town's original public canal, prompting a political furore and accusations of a "millionaire land grab".

The Stellenbosch municipality confirmed this week it is battling to dislodge several landowners bordering the town's historically significant meulsloot (millstream) who ignored an ultimatum to remove their fences by the beginning of this month. Only one has complied and the others have been threatened with legal action.

Several other affected landowners, including former Springbok rugby coach Andre Markgraaff and the Anton Rupert Family Trust, have not been issued with ultimatums to remove their fences because they are protected by "encroachment agreements".

Some of the meulsloot runs across property owned by Stellenbosch University, which many years ago signed encroachment agreements with some neighbours wishing to incorporate it as part of their gardens. The council initially tried to reclaim these encroached areas too, but had to back down.

The exemptions have prompted an outcry from the EFF, whose councillors claim wealthy residents are being allowed exclusive access to public land.

The Stellenbosch Ratepayers Organisation has also criticised encroachments on the meulsloot, which powered the town's mills in the late-1700s and 1800s. Parts of it have been declared a national monument.

IN NUMBERS

5 Meulsloot “hijackers” were given ultimatums

4 failed to comply

The university confirmed the encroachment agreements, including one with the Rupert trust. Remgro chair Johann Rupert, who is the university's chancellor, said through spokesperson John Loftie-Eaton, who responded to queries for Johann Rupert and the Anton Rupert Family Trust that a municipality inspection last year found the trust property "does not exceed or infringe on the so-called meulsloot land". However, the municipality declined to confirm that the case was closed.

Markgraaff said landowners with enclosed meulsloot land on university property were no longer part of the controversy. "We have formal official lease contracts [with the university]. We are not affected any more," he said. "When we bought the properties those fences had already been there for ages. Nobody tried to steal land or incorporate it illegally."

In 2016 the council sent letters to affected landowners - including the Rupert trust and Markgraaff - alleging "unlawful utilisation and encroachment" of the corridor.

"The Stellenbosch municipality conducted a survey of the millstream corridor, and we have reason to believe that you are utilising erf 1771, Stellenbosch, unlawfully," it told the Rupert trust. "There is an unlawful steel fence erected onto the land which encloses a private garden area."

The university this week confirmed agreements with some residents and denied there is any dispute. "Although there are certain property owners ... that have agreements in place with the university with regard to small sections stretching onto university property, access is not blocked and the public is free to walk or cycle along this trail," said spokesperson Martin Viljoen.

"The university is on record as saying that it has and still is willing to participate in constructive discussions."

But EFF Stellenbosch councillor Derrick Hendrickse said the university was not immune to bylaws. "They can't just do whatever they like," he said. "What they are saying is that the entrenchment of white privilege can continue on Stellenbosch University land even though it is public land.

"It shows why some consider Stellenbosch University to have been the cradle of apartheid. While the government was busy with forced removals of black people in the 1950s, here in Stellenbosch whites were helping themselves."

Documents in the possession of the Sunday Times include a 1999 council report on the meulsloot land, which confirmed encroachment on, and fencing of, public property, "often without permission".

The municipality is also trying to resolve a much larger land invasion issue on the other side of town, near Kayamandi, where about 1,200 shacks have been erected on a hillside belonging to a wine farmer.

Documents show the municipality has offered to buy the land for R45m after spending almost R2m unsuccessfully trying to prevent what has now turned into the informal settlement of Azania.

Municipal spokesperson Stuart Grobbelaar said the municipal manager was due to brief the council about Azania later this month and would "divulge detailed information on the matter after reporting back to council".

Hendrickse said the council's recent actions in relation to the meulsloot and Azania show it is pandering to landowners at the expense of the general public.

"They handle the rich owners with kid gloves," Hendrickse said. "They let the wealthy guys enclose public land and spend taxpayers' money chasing the poor off private property. What is that all about?"


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