A Limpopo community has taken a huge step forward in land ownership but Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni finds the people are desperate for reform that yields timeous results

ON most days the Limpopo sun stings as it burns through the skins of those who are brave enough to withstand its sweltering heat. It was in this sweltering heat that the community of Masisi gathered in the yard of the Awelani Eco Lodge for the official handover of this tourist treasure to the community.

Deputy minister of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, Makhotso Sotyu, and the Makhadzi of the village of Masisi, open the plaque of the Awelani lodge in Limpopo. Photo: Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni

The mood was jovial and festive as government leaders, community members and traditional leaders gathered for this momentous occasion. The Awelani Eco Lodge is owned by the Mutele community, which made approximately 1 800 hectares of its land available for conservation and tourism associated projects that are aimed at addressing high unemployment rates in the community.

Although the lodge was officially opened on November 13, 2020, it has been operational since 2013 and is officially owned by the local community through the Awelani people’s trust. With land reform being such a massively contentious issue in the country’s current political discourse, the recent handover has been hailed by many as a positive step towards inclusive land reform which will benefit communities like Masisi.

The safari tent in the Awelani lodge in Masisi, Limpopo, gives visitors the opportunity to experience glamorous camping accommodation. Photo: Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni

The lodge is set within a remote village and is secluded from a lot of urban spaces. Masisi is also a typical South African village, where the cattle and donkeys congregate on the roads as if to remind outsiders to slow down and assimilate to the pace of the space. It is as perfect a place for a secluded holiday as it is for an exemplary land programme such as this one.

The festivities of the launch day started off with a walk about to show off the lodge itself. Deputy Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Makhotso Sotyu and her entourage were led through the various facilities of the lodge and showed the many ways in which the more than R50 million investment by the government has been used to build the space.

The lodge boasts multiple facilities that make it a stand alone tourist attraction, such as safari tents, a camping facility, bungalows and a cave where guests can enjoy dinner under the northern stars of Limpopo.

The outdoor eating area at the Awelani lodge. Photo: Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni

The lodge is three star-rated and has potential to become a formidable tourism and conservation treasure in South Africa. The biggest highlight of the day’s events was the official handover of the lodge by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to the community’s traditional leaders. After a few short, mandatory speeches, and with a few short words Vhembe district municipality councillor Josephine Mukwevho and Sotyu, handed over the lodge to the villages which are represented by the Awelani community trust.

The lodge also received a donation of four vehicles from the Vhembe district municipality. The moment when the lodge was officially handed over was noticeably modest, there was not big pomp and circumstance except the elation of traditional Tshivenda dancers.

Deputy minister of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, Makhotso Sotyu, inspects the Awelani lodge in Limpopo. Photo: Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni

The general mood of the event was fairly festive, it seemed as though in Masisi, the government had finally achieved the seemingly improbable task of inclusive land reform in the form of such business ventures.

The spirited voice of Matorokisi hitmaker, Makhadzi, thunderously blaring songs of celebration through the speakers painted the image of an elated community but upon closer inspection one would notice signs of discontent and visible frustration from some in attendance.

When asked how he felt about the handover of the lodge to the community, Calvin Munzhelele expressed sheer disappointment and sadness.
“They keep saying this lodge is our lodge but as the community we don’t see that. We are very sad because they said this project must benefit all the people from four villages but we are not included as the community members. They took only 15 people from every village to attend today but there are so many other government people. They brought us here because they know that as the community has many questions about this lodge,” – he complained.

A traditional dancer puts on her regalia before the official hand over ceremony of the Awelani lodge. Photo: Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni

Work on the lodge began in 2005 but villagers allege that they have not received any report since its inception and are not included in decision making processes. Munzhelele claimed that, while the government has hailed the move to hand the lodge’s ownership over to the villagers as a positive step towards land reform, they are yet to see any real results from this.

“If we own this lodge then we should be the ones working on it, there are 23 employees here and most of them are outsiders, why is that?” he continued.

Munzhelele saìd many people in the village were disgruntled because they believe that the real beneficiaries of this lodge are using it to take advantage of traditional leaders and their limited western education.

Nancy Dzarawi, who is one of the Tshigombela dancers who provided entertainment for guests said: “I am not happy, not even a little bit because I am not benefiting from this thing. We are dying of hunger but we are owners of a lodge, how is that possible?” Many of the villagers in attendance shared these sentiments.

Dzarawi also claimed that they have made many attempts to seek clarity and understanding on how the community will benefit from owning a space like this but they have not taken it seriously. She said that residents just wanted jobs as this was their land.

The safari tent in the Awelani lodge in Masisi, Limpopo. Photo: Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni

The move to hand Awelani over to the community is an unprecedented move towards finding solutions on the issue of land and ownership in South Africa. This venture has reflected many challenges and chief among them these is the fact that communities who have lived in poverty for many years, like the village of Masisi, are desperate for land reform that yields timeous results in the form of employment and economic growth.

While the terms of the ownership are not yet clear, there seems to be a discord in how government, traditional leaders and villagers must venture forward in this new terrain. While Sotyu’s message to the community was filled with optimism and buoyancy, it is yet to be properly received by the people.

Land, it seems, with its many historical connotations is an issue where the intersectional complications of race, class and the historical violence of colonialism clash. It is thus vital that when such a venture is undertaken, any discourse and decision making about it must be inclusive and accessible to the people it is meant to benefit, and this seems to be the blind spot that the government has missed.

The history of exclusion from villages like the Awelani lodge was also permeable on the day of the launch, villagers lamented the fact that they had no real access to the lodge because it was so unaffordable to them, and this was once again a reminder of the unseen borders and demarcations that must be addressed on land ownership matters.

While there is still much work to be done inside the Awelani lodge, it seems there is just as much more work in its outskirts and in the hearts of the villagers who are said to be its owners.

In her closing remarks Sotyu raised the matter of the state of the roads that lead up to the Awelani lodge.

“If they want to attract tourists they must fix these roads otherwise people will not want to come here,” she said.

The handover came as Parliament is busy with hearings into the constitutional amendment that will see the state able to expropriate land without compensation. The process is already facing legal challenges from groups representing land owners. – Mukurukuru Media

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