Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

A glitzy, multimillion-dollar mixed-use development in the picturesque uMhlanga coastal village of KwaZulu-Natal has found itself at the center of a heated dispute between the local municipality and taxi operators.

Last week, a convoy of taxis, accompanied by burly individuals, brought the upscale uMhlanga to a standstill, capturing public sympathy in their standoff against the eThekwini municipality. While the municipality was the ostensible target, the real focus seemed to be on self-styled billionaire Vivian Reddy, a close associate of Jacob Zuma, who spearheads Oceans Umhlanga, the sprawling development co-owned by various shareholders, including KwaZulu-Natal businessman Rob Alexander and the Public Investment Corporation.

The conflict arose from the inability of Oceans Umhlanga and the municipality to reach a consensus on how to incorporate a public transport facility into the extravagant R4.3-billion complex. Despite its reputation for luxury, with supercars, high-end brands like Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, and Dolce & Gabbana, Oceans Umhlanga falls short when it comes to accommodating taxis.

Some residents claim that the developers reneged on an agreement to include a public transport facility as part of their deal to acquire public land. This controversy has lingered since Reddy acquired a prime nine-hectare piece of real estate from the municipality in what many have dubbed a “sweetheart deal” two decades ago.

Construction of the development, initiated in 2016, faced numerous hurdles, including interference from the construction mafia in 2018, which alleged that Reddy’s business did not empower black individuals. In 2019, construction company WBHO sued Reddy for R35 million for unpaid work, although the case was withdrawn following a payment arrangement. Last year, a court application aimed to “freeze” the project due to alleged non-compliance with approved building plans for a below-ground public transport facility to replace a previous hub on the site, which once housed a taxi rank and other public amenities.

The conflict escalated further when the municipality and Oceans Umhlanga attempted a controversial “co-funding” agreement for the public transport facility. The municipality initially pledged R128.5 million, but later reneged, claiming it could not afford 70% of the costs.

Taxis resorted to blocking uMhlanga and the mall entrance because they had no designated parking, leaving them forced to park along the freeway. Property owners, including Dr. Dhes Mari, demanded a resolution, criticizing the changing plans for the public transport facility and the lack of shelter and sanitation for commuters.

The eThekwini municipality expressed intentions to meet with taxi operators to address the ongoing issues related to the absence of designated taxi facilities near the Oceans Mall, following what they described as a unilateral decision by mall management to exclude taxis without prior consultation.

Leaked correspondence from September 2022 revealed disagreements between eThekwini officials and Oceans Umhlanga, with accusations of untruths and non-compliance. Oceans Umhlanga CEO Brian Mpono reiterated that the responsibility for public transport lies with the municipality but announced the opening of an interim taxi facility in response to the blockade.

Councillor Nicole Bollman urged both the developers and the municipality to fulfill their commitments and find a solution, suggesting that some of the mall’s extensive parking spaces could be allocated to taxis.

Attorney Tina Halstead, representing uMhlanga property owners in legal action against the municipality and Oceans Umhlanga, highlighted the developers’ provision of parking for supercars but no space for the approved public transport facility. Halstead questioned why the developer appeared to operate without enforcement of existing approvals.

Sifiso Shangase, the KwaZulu-Natal manager of the South African National Taxi Council, held Oceans Umhlanga and the eThekwini municipality responsible for failing to deliver on their repeated promises to accommodate a taxi rank in uMhlanga.

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