Fin24.com | Row over land set aside for Chinese

A fight over two parcels of land awarded to Chinese companies to grow rice and build a power station in Mpumalanga could derail the projects.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and communities in Bushbuckridge and Thaba Chweu in the Bohlabela region say this is a form of land expropriation that will benefit foreign companies and could have a negative effect on future generations in the area.

At issue is the decision to grant land in the dry Bushbuckridge region to a Chinese company to start a project to grow rice – a plant grown mostly in water-logged Asian countries.

University of Limpopo’s agriculture expert Professor Joseph Asiwe said that rice can only grow if there is enough water for irrigation. However, the Bushbuckridge area is dry and struggles with water scarcity – even the municipality admits this.

The EFF is having none of this and has labelled the R300 million project as another “land expropriation” project by ANC-led councils in the Bohlabelo region on behalf of Chinese companies.

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EFF Bohlabela regional executive member and councillor in Thaba Chweu, Exodus Maloka, said the party was exploring what legal action could be taken.

“What will happen to locals when land is being given to Chinese companies? These people are getting long-term leases. And what about our children? We’ll see if we can interdict this,” Maloka said.

The EFF’s outrage follows the donation of about 400 hectares by the Thaba Chweu Local Municipality in
Mashishing to the Chinese company CSEEC, which is constructing the R380 million Duma substation on two hectares of land. The rest of the land is being used to build Chinese workers’ houses and other amenities.

Bushbuckridge councillors have approved the proposal by Africa Sino Project and will enter into a long-term lease, not shorter than 50 years, on 100 hectares of land for the rice project and an agriculture hub.

Africa Sino Project also plans to build a five-star hotel, upmarket rental accommodation and a water sports park on 93 hectares of land near the Kruger National Park, according to documents City Press has seen. Africa Sino Project also plans to bring its own rice experts to the country and transfer skills to local communities.

Bohlabela is, according to the ANC’s demarcation, a region that encompasses the Bushbuckridge and Thaba Chweu local municipalities.

Chinese companies’ interest in the two municipalities has been increasing thanks to bilateral cooperation agreements between South Africa and China, as well as South Africa’s induction into the Brics group of countries in 2010.

Bushbuckridge EFF councillor Rhulani Qhibi said: “They’re giving large tracts of land to Chinese companies. This means that our children and grandchildren will have no land because of the long-term lease that is being proposed.

“It’s also worrying that they want to plant rice in a dry area like Bushbuckridge. This project will not
succeed because we are a water scarce area.”

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In minutes taken during meetings, the municipality admits that water availability will be a challenge when it comes to the rice fields.

Africa Sino Project’s proposal says: “The rice plant needs a lot of water to grow and, if possible, it can be harvested twice a year. There’s a huge consumption of electricity in the process because of the machines
involved.”

Asiwe said that, according to a feasibility study he conducted on rice production in 2011, it was possible to plant rice on dry land, but that it had to be irrigated.

“It depends on the variety. There’s rice we call swamp rice that grows in water-logged areas,” he said.

“However, rice production on dry land does need a lot of water and its yield will depend on the number of months the rainfall season lasts for. The yield will be high or small depending on the availability of water … but rice does need a lot of water.”

Bushbuckridge council spokesperson Aubrey Mnisi said the council had asked the department of rural
development and land reform to release land for “mega developments”.

New Forest, Ronaldsey and Cork had been identified as areas for the rice planting project, Mnisi said.

“New Forest has been and it is still an agricultural area. It uses the traditional water canals for watering and irrigation purposes, so water in those three areas will not entirely be a challenge,” he said.

Mnisi accused the EFF of jumping the gun.

“There is no land given to the investment company to date. All relevant stakeholders, including traditional councils, will be consulted and engaged,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Thaba Chweu Local Municipality is at loggerheads with residents because it wants to sell about 170 two-bedroom houses that the Chinese government built in Graskop.

Despite former premier David Mabuza’s promise about two years ago that the houses would be given to poor and disabled residents, the council has decided to sell them to boost its revenue.

Maloka said: “The land given to the Chinese is too much and they’re building houses. This trend is
worrying.”

Thaba Chweu spokesperson Puleng Mapheto did not respond to written questions from City Press.

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