The South African Constitutional Court has returned a tract of diamond-rich land to people who were forcibly evicted from it in the 1920s. The land has been owned and mined by the South African government, which opposed returning it to the former residents.
The Richtersveld people have lived on the land straddling the Namibia-South Africa border for centuries. But they were evicted from part of their ancestral lands when diamonds were discovered there in the 1920's.
After a five-year legal battle, the Constitutional Court has restored their ownership of the land. In a unanimous decision, the Court also granted the community mineral rights to the land. That means they have the right to sue for compensation for the diamonds that have been mined there since they were evicted.
Deputy Chief Justice Pius Langa read the verdict in court. "The first plaintiff - that's the Richtersveld community - is entitled ... to restitution of the right to ownership of the subject land, including its minerals and precious stones," he said.
The land in question is a narrow strip on the South African west coast, near the Namibia border. It has been owned since 1991 by a state-owned mining company called Alexkor. There is an active diamond mine on the land, and Alexkor reported a profit of more than $9 million last year. The diamond revenues helped fund the South African national budget.
Alexkor and the government argued that the Richtersveld community lost its rights to the land in 1847, when Briain annexed the area as part of what was then the Cape Colony. If the court had agreed with that claim, it would have made it impossible for the Richtersveld people to reclaim their land under the Restitution of Land Rights Act, which applies to land that was taken after 1913, when land ownership began to be regulated along racial lines.
The Land Claims Court had agreed with Alexkor and turned down the Richtersveld community's application. But the appeals court overturned that decision, and the Constitutional Court ruled that the community retained the right to its land under indigenous law, despite the British annexation.
The Court said the Richtersveld people were removed from their land under racist laws and practices, and are therefore entitled to get it back. The court also ordered Alexkor to pay the community's legal bills.
Law professor Theunis Roux, who teaches in the Land Rights Project at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the Richtersveld people's victory could pave the way for other communities to reclaim their ancestral lands. "Other communities who were dispossessed before the cutoff date for restitution in 1913 will be encouraged by this decision. After all, restitution is about returning people as far as possible to the position they would have been in had the dispossession not occurred," he said.
But this case is unique for several reasons. The Richtersveld people's claim to their land is more ancient than most in southern Africa. They are descended from the original inhabitants of the region, whereas most land claimants descend from peoples who migrated into southern Africa from other parts of the continent much more recently.
They are one of the most unique and most marginalized communities in the country.
The case also reversed the usual role of the South African government in land-claims cases. Land reform and restitution has been a policy cornerstone of the post-apartheid era. The government generally supports the return of privately-owned land to its historical occupants, although it has sometimes objected to the amount of money the state has been ordered to pay as compensation to people who were forced off their land.
In the Richtersveld case, because the disputed land was home to a lucrative state-owned enterprise, the government found itself opposing not just the compensation, but the actual return of the land.
In addition, courts have sometimes been reluctant to grant mineral rights to land claimants, meaning that people could win the right to live on their ancestral lands, but not the right to mine there.
But the Richtersveld people were able to prove that their ancestors mined copper and iron on the land for generations, which bolstered their claim to the mineral rights. And if they win a settlement from Alexkor based on the value of the diamonds that have already been extracted there, it could make the impoverished community incredibly wealthy.