Mythical powers of muthi pitted against the law

The mythical powers of muti have been pitted against national environmental laws and World Heritage Site regulations in a court case drawing to a close in the Manguzi Magistrate’s Court this week.

This story was first published in the Daily News

On trial is Muzi Mthembu, a former part-time KZN Ezemvelo Wildlife employee. Mthembu stands accused of building – with the assistance of a man from Secunda, Jan Joubert – three thatched cottages that looked set to become another unauthorised tourism camp in the KwaDapha area of the iSmangaliso World Heritage Site.

The case has brought into sharp focus key objectives of the World Heritage Site Convention Act which state that the iSimangaliso must encourage job creation and promote empowerment and advancement of historically disadvantaged persons living in the park.

The development in Bhanga Nek (KwaDapha) overlooking Kosi Bay’s third lake that led to Muzi Mthembu facing criminal charges in the Manguzi Magistrate’s Court.

As it currently stands, no licensed tourism enterprises operate in KwaDapha. Otherwise known as Bhanga Nek, KwaDapha is a popular tourism destination and protected breeding ground for endangered leather back and loggerhead turtles. The running of rustic tourism camps date back many years and remains the most viable sources of income for residents comprising no more than 39 families. But permissions are now required from iSimangaliso to operate a camp and it is a criminal offence to disturb soil, clear any vegetation, or to build without official approval. These are charges that Mthembu faces.

Roving Reporters first met Mthembu while conducting research into the case of a man, Makotikoti Zikhali, sentenced to five years’ jail for killing an endangered loggerhead turtle in 2011. Interviewed about the case, Mthembu declared his love of nature, turtles included. He said the stiff jail sentence would send out a strong message to outsiders not to come poaching turtles.

At the time, Mthembu was employed by Ezemvelo as a part-time turtle monitor. A few months later, with his own criminal trial looming, Mthembu had changed his views, becoming vocal about people’s rights to kill turtles for food and medicine.

“We are sharpening our knives for a feast this season,” said Mthembu.

Mthembu also demonstrated how he used muthi from turtle fat and parts of a “squirrel like animal” in preparing for court appearances. “You wipe it on your eyebrows so that when his worship sees you he does not see guilt.”

But will such myths stand up to the closing arguments of prosecutor Waldo Smit?

In the dock, Mthembu said he was given land and permission to build a homestead by the local induna, Gilbert Ngubane and the Tembe Tribal Council.

Describing Mthembu as a “man of straw”, prosecutor Waldo Smit argued that Mthembu and his father would never have had the resources to develop the site without Joubert’s assistance.

“Why would Joubert make a contribution to a residential development of the accused. There is no logical explanation except that this was a lodge being developed,” said Smit.

Joubert has already been convicted for contravening national environmental legislation. He was sentenced to a fine of R25 000 or two years in prison, suspended for five years, and ordered to pay R25 000 to iSimangaliso’s Community Levy Trust. The development was subsequently demolished at a cost of more than R80,000.

Smit argued that Mthembu was fully aware of laws governing the park, but had flagrantly disregarded the regulations, even threatening conservation officials.

He cited one occasion when a conservation official, Nkosikhona Zungu, attempted to serve a compliance letter. Zungu was allegedly confronted by Mthembu and two men, all of them wielding pangas.

“Mthembu took the compliance notice, scrumpled it up and threw it in the back of the Ezemvelo bakkie, saying no one should tell them what to do as they had authority from induna and local tribal authority,” said Smit.

Smit said Mthembu had been a very evasive witness.

“He was constantly changing answers to questions, trying to pass the blame for the building of the site on to his father, the builder and Joubert,” said Smit.

He said the nail in the coffin”, proving Mthembu’s guilt was a statement made to police in which Mthembu said: “I had a wish to build a home. I had a wish to start a business to accommodate tourists and I had a wish to one day buy a car.”

Mthembu’s lawyer, Xolani Msimango argued that his client was not guilty of a criminal offence.

“The land was allocated to him to develop by the induna who falls under Nkosi Mabudu Tembe (a former director of the iSimangaliso). If you build a house, you have to build a foundation, so you dig out soil and clear trees. Was the accused  expected to build a home in trees?” asked Msimango.

“And if this is a protected area, people should not be living there. People cannot live in an Africa in which they are not allowed to build,” said Msimango.

Magistrate Martin Groom is expected to deliver judgement on Tuesday.

  • Click here to read to about the court’s verdict in Muzi Mthembu’s case.

“We have a responsiblity to the world” – iSimangaliso 

iSimangaliso has declined to comment on the Muzi Mthembu trial, but states that unauthorised tourism camps in Bhanga Nek amount to ‘economic theft’ and  jeopardise sustainable tourism initiatives that could benefit the community.

“If we did not address illegal developments we would be failing in our commitments and responsibilities to the people of South Africa, to future generations – and to the world,” said iSimangaliso chairman, Mavuso Msimang.

Msimang said once the legal processes around unauthorised developments had been completed, development of KwaDapha “will be rolled out in much the same way as other areas of the Park, where year on year iSimangaliso has spent some R125 million and created some 3 500 temporary jobs.”

  • This story formed part of a Roving Reporters’ case study, Bhanga Nek Developments and Demolitions, sponsored by the Taco Kuiper Trust.