The ‘vultures’ illegally selling land

The ‘vultures’ illegally selling land

MASERU – When he wanted to buy land to build himself a house Mohapi Tšoene*, 37, did what many people often do, approach the local chief for tips about who in their area might be looking to exchange some of their real estate for cash.

The chief from Maseru urban, on the outskirts of the capital Maseru, did not disappoint. Not only was the chief able to hook up Tšoene with a potential seller, but she was also there, bearing witness on the day he paid the full price to conclude the sale.

With the deal sealed, Tšoene quickly went through the formalities, having the land ownership documents reviewed and verified by the Maseru City Council (MCC)’s land allocation committee before he was issued with a lease by the Land Administration Authority (LAA).
“We did not have any impediments and the process went on smoothly,” says Tšoene.

But that was until he dispatched building materials to the site in preparation for construction of his long wished for house when, according to Tšoene, all hell broke loose.
From nowhere, says Tšoene, another man came claiming ownership of the same piece of land.

“Someone came out furiously claiming the land … belonged to him,” Tšoene told thepost in an interview this week.
The matter ended at the local chief’s court. But Tšoene’s rival had just as strong a claim to the land as he had. For one, he had genuine lease papers from the LAA, just as Tšoene had.

For sure, it must have been a most shocking discovery for Tšoene who forked out M50 000 to pay for the property.
But it was certainly nothing unfamiliar to many a would-be land buyer who has fallen victim to this scam that has in recent years become so rampant on Lesotho’s private land market.

Only the details may vary but the storyline is the same – an unscrupulous landlord flogs the same piece of land to more than one person, pockets the money and when asked to refund the buyers he/she suddenly pleads bankruptcy or can simply not be found.
In other instances, it’s some crook pretending to own a piece of land, proceeds to collect money from some unsuspecting buyer before vanishing into thin air.

It is the second version of the scam that another Maseru resident Pakiso Motsamai fell victim to.
Looking for land to buy, he thought himself very fortunate when a ‘land owner’ in Lithoteng told him all he needed to do was to pay part of the asking price as deposit and the property could be his. The balance could come later.
“I did pay the money. But later when I needed the documents, the man was nowhere to be seen,” Motsamai says.

Not only that, there was also someone else who was claiming the same piece of land having paid for it much the same way Motsamai had.
A rising wave of cases of fraudulent land sales is threatening to choke Lesotho’s already overburdened justice system with aggrieved parties suing and countersuing each other to recover money or enforce their disputes to land.

Since its establishment in 2014, the country’s Land Court has been called in to adjudicate more than 70 disputes over land ownership or sales gone wrong.
It is the clearest illustration of how rampant the crime has become that 36 of the cases lodged with the court in its six years of existence were filed last year alone.

A whole range of people have been accused of driving the scam, local chiefs and their aides selling land without the knowledge of usually absent owners, or private title holders deliberately selling their property to multiple buyers.
Then there is the random fraudster selling what does not belong to them.
But the proverbial elephant in the room on this sad subject is why and how are many of those to whom land is sold fraudulently are able to acquire legitimate LAA lease or title documents to the property in question.

The LAA does not allocate land. That is the responsibility of local government councils throughout the country.
But it is the LAA that has power to confirm a person’s right to land by registering their title. That it appears so easy for multiple individuals to obtain title documents to the same single piece of land seems to suggest incompetence or corruption on the part of — not the LAA as a whole – but certainly some elements within the institution.

A case that quickly comes to mind is that of Madoda Ramalefane against two politicians, Leseteli Malefane and Mothetjoa Metsing and others which was heard in the Court of Appeal last year.
Malefane is a former minister and official of the ruling Basotho National Party (BNP), while Metsing is the former deputy prime minister and the current leader of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).

The court found that a top LAA official helped arrange a fraudulent lease document in favour of the two politicians so that one of them could possess Ramajoana’s residential plot in Moshoeshoe II, in Maseru.
This after a forensic investigation proved that the official had illegally caused Ramajoana’s plot to be transferred to the ownership of Metsing.

The investigation also found that the same official had on several other occasions abused his authority to help himself and close relatives acquire prime pieces of land, with his mother as a key beneficiary of the fraudulent land transfers.

But the days of crooks wantonly selling land that does not belong to them or collecting money from as many people as they can for the same plot seem to be over, with both the Maseru City Council (MCC) and LAA saying they are moving to enforce existing regulations and newly introduced ones to ensure lawful sales and orderly transfers in case of deceased estates.

According to MCC information officer, Lintle Mosala, among measures to be enforced is a requirement that in the case of deceased estate for one to be granted title it shall be required that they produce signed documentary evidence showing consent from at least three members of their family.

The documents will be verified by the MCC’s Land Allocation Committee after which an advert will be placed in newspapers announcing the proposed land transfer.
The advert will run for six weeks during which anyone with a valid reason to do so can object to the intended transfer.

It is hoped that enforcing this process will help prevent many disputes as deceased estates have been a major source of cases that end up in court as family members fail to agree on who should inherit a piece of land or simply transfer the property to themselves without consent of others.

On its part the LAA said among steps it is implementing, is computerising its records system which is expected to greatly reduce fraud and illegal transfers as these can be easily spotted on an electronic system than a manual one.
“We are continuing to capture files electronically,” says ’Mataeli Makhele-Sekhantšo, the LAA Director General.

It is welcome that the authorities are finally moving to protect prospective land buyers from the many vultures ready to reap where they did not sow.
However, the likes of Tšoene and Motsamai will probably be wishing this had happened much earlier.

*Not real name

Majara Molupe

 

Previous ’Maesaiah case postponed
Next An unforgettable expo

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