UMTSHEZI municipality mayor Maliyakhe Shelembe has lambasted a massive Zimbabwe-style illegal land invasion in Estcourt in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands on Christmas Day.

About 300 people arrived at vacant municipal land and erected shacks and makeshift structures in a move Shelembe said was spearheaded by a "third force hellbent on destabilising the municipality".

The invaders marked "their plots", put obstructions around them and started building shacks.

"We are using the Constitution and municipal by-laws to protect civilian and municipal property. The land they have illegally occupied has been set aside for low-cost housing development. Locals know that people who will get houses there are those who earn little or no income at all," Shelembe said.

He said contrary to this, the people who have illegally occupied the land were driving fancy cars and some were teachers and did not qualify for low-cost houses.

He said the fact that some of the occupiers came from Gauteng, Richards Bay, Pietermaritzburg and Mpumalanga was an indication that there was a third force behind the move.

"The motives are clearly criminal. We view this as an attempt to destabilise the municipality and it is our duty to preserve and protect municipal property, which is why we will use every piece of legislation to defend that property. We have deployed the police to stop people from putting up structures," he said.

One of the invaders Sowetan spoke to accused the government of ignoring their pleas for houses. He said he had been waiting for too long for a house and when he heard of the available plots he grabbed the opportunity.

"After waiting for nearly nine years it was time for action and when I heard that there were plots available, I thought to myself that God had finally answered my prayers," he said.

Landless People's Movement national organiser Mangaliso Kubheka said though the "invaders" were not their members, they supported them.

"We support the move by these people because municipalities take the land and use it to build luxury homes for rich people," Kubheka said.