Landowners take MTPA to court for alleged illegal construction along the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail route

The construction at one of the geotrail


16-05-2024
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Lowvelder
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The urgent court interdict application was filed on the first week of May by the owners of the properties on the geotrail, located on the Barberton/Bulembu road between town and the Josefsdal Border Post to eSwatini.



Despite an interdict application against it to stop alleged illegal construction work at viewpoints along the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail Route, the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) is continuing with its activities.



An urgent interdict to stop the MTPA and its contractor, Siphelele General Trading (SGT), would be heard in the Mpumalanga High Court on Tuesday May 14.
This court action comes while there is already an internal investigating against the MTPA on the instruction of Barbara Creecy, the national minister of forestry, fisheries and environment.



The urgent application was filed on Friday May 3 by the owners of the properties where nine of the 13 geotrail viewpoints were built in 2013. They are the Mountainlands Estate Owners Association, Sappi, Simply See, who are the owners of various farms, and the Barberton Chamber of Business (BCB), who built the geotrail.



The trail is a popular tourist attraction that exploits the unique geology and natural attributes of the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains. These mountains were proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 2021. The geotrail is on the Barberton/Bulembu road between town and the Josefsdal Border Post to eSwatini.



According to court documents, the application follows after it was recently discovered that construction workers were busy at three of the viewpoints, demolishing structures and digging trenches for new foundations. This work is happening without the consent of the applicants nor the Mpumalanga Department of Public Works, Roads and Transport.



In his affidavit, Nico Oosthuizen, a representative of the applicants, said he first discovered in December 2023 that a construction site was erected at one of the viewing sites. It was then also established that SGT, belonging to Sabelo Mashaba, was awarded a multimillion rand multiyear contract by the MTPA in September 2023, which had been signed off by its CEO, Mduduzi Vilakazi.



The landowners immediately objected and an urgent meeting was called with the MTPA to establish the facts. In this meeting on January 17, Vilakazi undertook on record that the MTPA will suspend the R12.1m contract until all legal requirements were met and the consent of the landowners obtained.



Other documents attached to the urgent application indicated that Oosthuizen had discovered on April 29 that alleged illegal construction work was continuing, despite Vilakazi’s undertaking.



In a letter written by the applicants’ lawyer, Richard Spoor, to the MTPA and SGT the next day, the owners demanded that all construction must cease and all personnel, materials and equipment removed. He also called for the damage to the geosites to be repaired, and he asked for a written undertaking that the MTPA and SGT will suspend the project.



Since there had been no response from the respondents, the applicants filed the urgent application on Friday. The MTPA indicated that it would defend the application and file opposing documents by Tuesday May 7. It could not be established by the time of going to press if the documentation had been submitted.



Spoor filed a supplementary affidavit from Oosthuizen when it was found that construction work was continuing despite the interdict application served on the MTPA and SGT.



Lowvelder independently established in the meantime that the competency and performance of the MTPA under the control of Vilakazi are being investigated on Creecy’s instruction.



In a letter from Creecy to the Mpumalanga Department of Economic Development and Tourism in February, which Lowvelder has seen, she states: “I decided to appoint an investigator in terms of the World Heritage Convention Act to investigate the matter [of mistrust between the MPTA and the geotrail operators].”



In a letter from the MEC for economic development and tourism, Nompumelelo Hlophe, to the chairperson of the MTPA board, Victor Mashego, she says she expects the MTPA’s full co-operation with the investigator.



Lowvelder has also established that there has been a flurry of projects being hurriedly implemented by the MTPA since the announcement of the minister’s investigation. The upgrade of the geotrial is one of them, and the building of a R380m visitor centre outside Barberton is another.



Tourism role players have questioned the economic justification of the centre and how only the ‘renovation’ of the geotrail can now cost R12m, when it cost the BCB only R4m to build it from scratch in 2013.



Linda Grimbeek, the COO of the Kruger Lowveld Chamber of Business and Tourism, says they want to know how and to whom these massive projects were awarded. “We also want to know why there was no consultation with the tourism industry.”



 

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