Parliament's Portfolio Committee on Rural Development and Land Reform has told the Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB) to halt a plan, which entails converting existing "permission to occupy" (PTO) certificates into leases for those on their land.
The Ingonyama Trust and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform presented before Parliament on Wednesday on the trust's November advertisement that invited land users to convert PTOs into leases.
Both African National Congress and opposition MPs said they were disappointed with the trust's preference to turn apartheid-era "PTOs" into leases instead of full ownership, for rural people who have rights to the land.
The committee wants the trust to consult with the Department of Rural Development and land users before going ahead with their plans.
ITB chairperson Judge Jerome Ngwenya was asked to explain the trust's stance. ANC MPs said it amounted to "illegitimate dispossession".
Ngwenya argued that a PTO - issued solely to black people during apartheid - was not better than a lease.
"When we invited individuals to convert to leases, we did so because they have a right to contract," he said.
"A long-term lease guarantees both sides on trust land. It recognises that you have rights, as a beneficiary."
He claimed that a PTO certificate did not guarantee ownership, nor could it serve as collateral.
"We don't feel we are out of line by providing an estate with long-term leases, which is a legally-recognised instrument across the world."
The department, however, disagreed.
'Lease could violate existing rights'
Legal head in the department Sello Ramasala said the challenge was that those with PTOs had an existing right to occupy the land.
"The PTO constitutes land where people have been residing for many years. A lease would mean they would have to pay rent.
"It would be a violation of already existing rights protected by law, if they were forced to opt for new rights, [like] a lease."
The "landlord" would naturally see a lease as a better option, he said.
There was still a problem with PTOs, in that they represented discriminatory laws from a previous era, which is why the department preferred that they be converted to full ownership.
"Any person who owns a PTO can approach the deeds office, and have the PTO converted into a title deed: Full ownership," Ramasala said.
'Do you have rural people at heart?'
MPs said the trust, while it is entrusted to manage the land, must be accountable to Parliament.
As a statutory body, set up by an act of Parliament and partially funded through national revenue, it should not jump the gun.
"This sound likes the ITB are dipping into the theatre of land dispossession and watering down people's rights to owning land," said ANC MP Elleck Nchabaleng.
"I am really beginning to doubt what your interests are, that you have the interests of rural people at heart.
"If you reduce them to being tenants, what if they cannot pay? What is going to happen to them?"
'If you say it's wrong, we will execute'
Ngwenya conceded that the final say will be with South Africa's lawmakers, but ended with a caveat.
"I'm not trying to convince you what is right or what is wrong. If you tell us what is wrong, we will go and execute. Where there are challenges, we will raise it."
Not all of their conversions were to leases as well.
He also reaffirmed there was still scope for leases, as they were internationally-recognised agreements.
They were completing their land audit, he added, but it would only be done after the 2019 elections.
Committee chairperson Phumuzile Ngwenya-Mabila said the ITB should go back and put their lease processes on hold, and start proper consultation thoroughly.
Before they implemented, they must be invited back again to inform Parliament.
Ngwenya agreed. He told News24 after the meeting that the delay could only affect residential leases and not those who ran businesses or government departments on the land.
Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini is the trust's sole trustee.