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Arsonists destroy family’s Mpumalanga bush hotel



When a group of marauding arsonists torched and destroyed a luxurious Mpumalanga game lodge recently, it not only devasted one Johannesburg family but affected the lives and livelihoods of many in neighbouring villages.

The Seligman family of Johannesburg won’t be spending Passover at their beloved Bongani Mountain Lodge in Mpumalanga this year like they often do, after a gang of thugs set fire to the hotel they share and partly own, razing it almost to the ground.

The beautiful, and tranquil lodge, situated in the 8 000ha Mthethomusha Game Reserve that borders the Kruger National Park, is a burnt-out shell. The hotel is now out of business. Loyal hotel employees risk losing their jobs and countless local community businesses have been affected, from fresh produce suppliers to locally-sourced building contractors to laundry and security vendors.

Members of a local gang went on a rampage on Sunday, 31 January, destroying the 40-room hotel. The lodge was one of the late Nelson Mandela’s favourite retreats. He even had a special suite named after him following one of his visits.

Manty Seligman, one of five partners of the lodge, told the SA Jewish Report he was at home that Sunday afternoon when he received a telephone call from his lodge manager, Johan Meintjies, telling him that the lodge was under attack.

Hundreds of kilometres away from the scene, a frantic Seligman instructed his staff to vacate the premises for their own safety while he attempted to call for help.

“Fortunately, a group of guests had departed earlier in the day. I then called everyone including the police, the riot squad, and local community members,” he said.

Sadly, reinforcements didn’t arrive in time to assist the police, and the gang was able to “do what it liked”.

The details are sketchy, but it’s rumoured that the incident was sparked by the shooting of a suspected poacher whose body was found in nearby Mpakeni Village.

Members of the community angrily pointed fingers at the local Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency anti-poaching unit, which resulted in an alleged act of retaliation. The gang first attacked the barracks just outside the lodge which housed the Mpumalanga security rangers. The following day, they returned around noon making their way to the lodge.

Police spokesman Brigadier Leonard Hlathi told the SA Jewish Report this week that three suspects aged between 28 and 37 had appeared before the Kanyamazane Magistrates Court in Mbombela on Tuesday on charges of arson, possession of stolen goods, and other crimes.

He said that before the attack, a group in a white SUV barricaded the road leading to the lodge using rubble including stones and branches of trees, so it was difficult to get there.

“While police were clearing the road, people among the group proceeded to the lodge where they are reported to have broken several doors and helped themselves to liquor as well as other items belonging to the lodge. They also damaged some property, torching some of the rooms and other infrastructure before fleeing the scene with the stolen items, leaving behind a trail of costly damage. Employees at the lodge reportedly had to run for safety as they witnessed the horrific event unfolding in front of their eyes.”

While investigations continue, the shareholders are picking up the pieces after this “senseless attack”.

“Everything that wasn’t destroyed was looted, there’s nothing left,” said Seligman, “Only 18 years of wonderful memories that we have shared with family and friends at the lodge. I feel sad and disappointed.

“It’s a sorrowful indictment of our society. Sadly, this incident will have a long-term impact on the local community. The jobs of 80 employees, all bread winners, are now in jeopardy.”

He said he hoped this “needless tragedy” would result in the government moving to protect national assets effectively and to help uplift communities who are integral to the growth and sustainability of these assets. “Communities need to benefit from our heritage. We need to ensure that this type of criminality doesn’t happen again elsewhere.” If that were to happen, at least something positive would come out of this.

He said the lodge has a rich cultural history, with 250 recorded San rock art paintings.

The surrounding local community has expanded in recent years, as has unemployment and poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked further economic havoc in the area.

In recent months, Seligman said there had been a “huge upswing” in poaching. He had on several occasions warned local authorities of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency about concerns about safety and security. Last Sunday, a week after the incident, police discovered nine carcasses of four different animal species on the reserve, believed to be the work of poachers, according to police.

The family and other shareholders were involved in numerous outreach projects aimed at the upliftment of surrounding communities.

Seligman said these included education drives, and sponsorship of the local annual sports tournament, an initiative by 702 Talk Radio host John Perlman called Dreamfields. During the lockdown, the lodge’s staff distributed food parcels and continued to distribute sanitary pads.

“It’s heartbreaking. A lot of people have been displaced and have lost everything. No one is a winner here,” said Brenda Seligman.

The family spent many Shabbos meals at the lodge as well as special occasions like Manty’s 50th birthday party.

Police investigations continue.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Barbara Levin

    Feb 12, 2021 at 7:05 pm

    How absolutely awful. When we lived in SA, we used to spend the most wonderful family times in various game reserves although not in the above. A totally cruel act of vengeance. Many animals must have died too and I sympathise with the owners who appear to have made such an effort to help the surrounding communities.

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