White Zimbabweans, who lost their farms under President Mugabe’s land reform program, are a step closer to suing for compensation.
Thursday, a South African High Court confirmed a ruling made by a Southern African Development Community Tribunal that the farm seizures were illegal. The decision came after a South African civil rights group, AFRIFORUM, took up the case of the white farmers several months ago.
Attorney Willie Spies, who’s handling the case, based his arguments on the SADC tribunal ruling.
“The ruling was made,” he says, “in November 2008, firstly, that the land reform policies of Robert Mugabe were unlawful, that they were in contravention of the SADC treaty and that they were racist in the fact that land had been taken from white people and just given to black people without compensation.”
President Mugabe disregarded the ruling, Spies says, “which left the farmers with quite a frustrating situation.” While a court had ruled in their favor, there was no way to enforce its ruling.
A step forward
AFRIFORUM took up the case to try to have it “registered “in a South African court, meaning that a court would recognize the SADC tribunal ruling. That happened Thursday at Pretoria’s High Court.
“The moment it becomes registered and enforceable in South Africa,” he says, “it becomes possible to exercise or execute this judgment against Zimbabwean-owned assets that are situated in South Africa. And that is exactly what we did.”
The High Court decision, however, does not mean the farmers can immediately sue Zimbabwe for compensation for the loss of their land. Only one part of Thursday’s ruling may have a monetary effect.
“It’s the part that deals with legal costs incurred by the farmers to bring the SADC proceedings. And that is not a huge amount…about $30,000. And that amount can now be claimed from the Zimbabwean government through South African legal procedures. And if the Zimbabwean government does not pay those costs it would enable us to attach Zimbabwean assets in South Africa,” he says.
Such a move could serve as a model for claiming compensation in the future. First, though, the farmers must go back to the SADC tribunal to try to win a ruling that they are indeed owed compensation.
“If we are successful with this little amount of $30,000, which represents the legal costs, then we could use a similar process to also enforce more substantial amounts that apply to the actual damages that the farmers have suffered. And that is what we’ve got in mind,” he says.
The original SADC tribunal ruling affected about 80 people, Spies says. But the case could have much wider implications. Overall, approximately 3,000 white farmers were affected by the land reform. He also says there are about 400 South African citizens who had owned land in Zimbabwe that was seized.