Branson's reserve is ours, say herdsmen

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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson is facing a legal battle with a group of goat-herders over his luxurious private game reserve in South Africa. The Nxumalo community claim they were kicked off their land near Kruger National Park and forced to live on a dusty, unproductive veld near the tycoon's wildlife resort.

They want the plot back and have made a claim to the Land Claims Court (LCC) of South Africa, the commission set up in 1996 by the post-apartheid government to redistribute lands allegedly taken from their original owners.

Sir Richard's 10,000-acre Ulusaba private game reserve lies in Mpumalanga province in the north-east of the country. The centre offers a "big five" safari, which means visitors can expect to see the five main wild animals – elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo – either from their secluded lodge or by foot or vehicle. A double room at the lodge costs up to £1,163 a night and guests can also use the reserve's private airstrip. Yesterday, Jon Brown, the managing director of Virgin Limited Edition, which runs the resort, said: "Sir Richard is aware of the claim and fully supports a co-operative approach."

The Nxumalo people, who speak the minority Shangaan language, said they had no idea who Sir Richard was. "We have only heard some rumours that the guy is from abroad," said a spokesman for the community. Jurgens Bekker, their Johannesburg-based solicitor, said he was awaiting a decision from the LCC but it was unlikely that Sir Richard, who is worth an estimated £1.6bn, knew about the original claim when he bought the reserve in 1999 for about £3.5m.

All claims to the LCC had to be lodged before 31 December 1998 but, with the number of applications nearing 40,000, a backlog has developed. Most disputes involve farming estates. The government says it wants to return about a third of the mainly white-owned farming lands to their original owners by 2014. The Ulusaba claim involves a few hundred families living on neighbouring lands. Once a decision is made, the community may have the option of receiving some of the land back or financial compensation. Mr Bekker said all sides were co-operating. "I have heard via the grapevine that Branson understands the nature of this claim and that the approach is that if there's a claim then it will be dealt with properly," he added.

As well as Ulusaba, Sir Richard's company owns Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, as well as properties in Mallorca, Morocco and Switzerland.

With the chaos across the border in Zimbabwe, which was sparked when President Robert Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms, land redistribution remains a political and socially sensitive issue in South Africa. Most farmers are offered a price by the LCC, which can be negotiable. Only in extreme cases is land seized and an enforced sum given. That is unlikely to happen with Sir Richard's Ulusaba resort, whose advertising literature gushes: "This gorgeous game reserve with its African safari lodge is truly something special."