Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

SWAZILAND: Resurrecting Bulembu

Mantoe Phakathi

Bulembu, SWAZILAND , Jul 16 2009 (IPS) - In 2005, Bulembu was a ghost town. The once-prosperous mining town’s population had fallen from 10,000 to just 100. The beautiful houses that used to accommodate company staff and their families, schools that had been among the best performers in the Kingdom, shops, clinics – all fell quickly into disrepair when the asbestos mine closed.

Bulembu's revival is threatened by a dispute with govt over ownership. Credit:  Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

Bulembu's revival is threatened by a dispute with govt over ownership. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi/IPS

Bulembu Havelock Asbestos Mine closed down in 2000 after almost seven decades as the underground resource was exhausted. Thousands of people were left jobless.

“When the mine went into liquidation, Bulembu was stripped of the beautiful infrastructure which used to define this place,” said Thoko Shongwe, a resident of Bulembu whose husband used to work at the mine. Today she works as a cleaner at the newly-refurbished Bulembu Christian Academy.

The mother of three recalls that after the mine shut down, the few remaining residents of the town struggled to even get transport to go to the neighbouring town, Pigg’s Peak, 18 kilometres away.

But now the town is coming back to life. The people cutting the grass and those chopping down the trees, the trucks carrying loads of timber, the children playing in the playground, and the tourists with their binoculars are signs that Bulembu is slowly coming to life. The population of this town in north-eastern Swaziland is again rising, presently about 1,800.

Bringing a town back to life

Bulembu Ministries Swaziland has so far rehabilitated 400 of the town's 1,500 dilapidated housing units, many of which now accommodate 180 orphans and vulnerable children, a key component of the organisation's plan for the town. Others have been rented to traders who run shops in the village while others are occupied by the over 400 BMS employees and their families.

The executive houses have been turned into a lodge which is drawing tourists by the droves. BMS has also refurbished and re-opened the school and clinic.

General manager Andrew Le Roux said the organisation has invested more than six million dollars on Bulembu - spent on buying the town - which stands on private land - rehabilitating some of the infrastructure (which includes water, sewage, electrical, houses) and kick-starting some of the enterprises which includes the dairy project.

"We have offices in the United Kingdom and Canada whose existence is solely to mobilise donor funding for BMS," said le Roux. "We estimate that by the year 2020 we would have spent $40 million to achieve the goals of the Ministry."

"Bulembu is supplied by spring water and we maintain that system while the Swaziland Electricity Company supplies electricity to a certain point and we redistribute it throughout the town," said le Roux.

Faith-based charity

The town’s revival is thanks to the efforts of the Bulembu Ministries Swaziland (BMS) a faith-based charity organisation formed by a team of seven entrepreneurs and social developers who saw the potential to breathe new life into Bulembu.

All but two of the directors are Swazi residents while two are based in Canada and United States of America.

According to BMS general manager Andrew le Roux, the organisation was formed with the vision to “nurture healthy individuals and families, equip leaders within Swaziland and create thriving enterprises to build a vibrant self-sustaining community.”

Besides donor funding – which comes through Bulembu Ministries Canada and Bulembu Ministries UK – the money for the revival has come from the timber and tourism enterprises, as well as running dairy and beekeeping projects. Bulembu is famous for its honey which is sold throughout the country and there are plans to expand to the neighbouring South African market.

Ownership dispute

However, a rift between government and the liquidators of Havelock Asbestos Mine threatens to derail the BMS project.

In 1991, the liquidators sold the town to the government for $75,000, and the rest of the mining property to Havelock Asbestos Mine for $17,000. But the transfers were never completed. Part of the agreement between government and the liquidators, Hugh Glyn-Jones and Brian St Clair Cooper, was that government would subdivide and take ownership of the town, leaving the rest of the property to Havelock.

But according to Glyn-Jones, the town was never subdivided because the mining company retained ownership of vital infrastructure including sewerage works, banks, schools and clinic.

Because of government’s failure to honour the agreement to subdivide the town, the property was again sold in 2004, this time to a private company, the Bulembu Development Corporation (BDC).

“We had to come up with decision on whether to sell the village for the benefit of the creditors or leave it because it belonged to government,” said Glyn-Jones, adding: “We opted for the former after a legal opinion.”

And herein lies the rub. Government claimed ownership of the 1,700-hectare farm that the town stands on; BDC had the title deed.

In 2005, government set up a commission of enquiry to look into the second sale of the Bulembu property. The commission found that BDC is the lawful and rightful owner of Bulembu and recommended that government should consider one of three options: expropriate the town, enter into a joint venture with BDC or accept BDC as the new owner of Bulembu.

Enter BMS

Two years after buying the property, BDC realised they did not have the capacity to rehabilitate the infrastructure, which was in bad shape, and attract traders to the town and restore the place to its original status. One of the two directors, former attorney David Millin sold his shares to Bulembu Ministries while his partner, a forester, Neal Rijkenberg, donated his shares.

Government has been undecided on which direction to take, but the Minister of Finance, Majozi Sithole, confirmed talks of expropriation.

“A decision was taken by cabinet that the Ministry of Natural Resources, as custodian of the legislation which provides for expropriation, should take the necessary steps to effect the decision,” said Sithole.

Minister Sithole told IPS that the ministry of finance made an attempt to engage BMS with a view to establish a relationship. But things did not work out.

“I proposed that in order to avoid expropriation – which government has a legal right to do – we should get the surveyor general to identify the portion that belongs to government,” said Minister Sithole. “I proposed that BMS should then facilitate restoring title to government of that piece of land, while the rest would be theirs.”

The minister had anticipated that after reaching an agreement with BMS and regaining government title to the land, he would propose that cabinet to give BMS a long-term lease (for a token rent).

Things hit a snag when BMS insisted that they would like to use the whole area for their operations. Le Roux told IPS that they have the title deed to Bulembu, but would be willing to enter into a joint venture with government.

“I reported this back to cabinet, which then mandated the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy to proceed with the expropriation,” Sithole said.

But le Roux said it would be unfair for government to expropriate the property given the fact that BMS has a lot to offer not just in business but also to the orphans. The future of this ambitious project hangs in the balance.

*Part 1 of a 2-part article on the project at Bulembu

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