A South African civil rights group is taking legal action to try to enforce a court ruling that labeled Zimbabwe’s land distribution program illegal and racist.
Under the policy, farms owned or operated by white farmers were seized and turned over to blacks, who had been denied land under white rule.
The ruling condemning that policy was handed down by a South African Development Community (SADC) Tribunal in 2008. But the group Afriforum says it has not been enforced and the practice continues.
“Afriforum had been approached by Zimbabwean farmers about six months ago. At that stage, they were in an absolute state of despair, “says the organization’s legal representative, Willie Spies.
Many white Zimbabwean farmers have left the country and are now farming elsewhere, Spies says, including in some other African countries.
“The few people that are left were actually without any hope and without any recourse in their fight against the current regime in Zimbabwe in order to protect their property rights,” he says.
The lawyer compares the SADC tribunal to the European Union’s human rights court.
“It was actually ruled that the land reform policies of Robert Mugabe were unlawful, that they contravened human rights and that they were actually racist. Unfortunately,” Spies says, “the Zimbabwean government disregarded this ruling…and Mr. Mugabe, in his own words, said that the ruling was nonsense and of no consequence.”
Despite President Mugabe’s stand, Spies believes the ruling can be enforced. He says SADC’s judicial wing has taken a much harder stance against Mr. Mugabe than the political wing.
“In terms of the treaty that established the Southern African Development Community,” he says, “that treaty makes provisions for the enforcement of judgment of the tribunal in all of the territories of member states.”
He says that makes it possible to enforce the ruling, if not in Zimbabwe, then in South Africa, a member of SADC and a major trading partner with Zimbabwe. Enforcement could come in the form of attaching Zimbabwean assets within South Africa.
Taking it to court
Afriforum is taking the matter to the North Gauteng Supreme Court.
“What we have now decided is to leave the political processes aside for a while and try to see what we can accomplish with legal proceedings,” he says.
The first step, he says, is to get the tribunal ruling registered in South Africa.
“The effect of such a registration will be that rulings of the tribunal become rulings of a South African court as well, which means that if Zimbabwe is in contempt of those rulings, they are not just in contempt of the SADC tribunal, but they’re also in contempt of a South African court,” Spies says.
A South African court could then order Zimbabwean assets in the country be sold to reimburse white Zimbabwean farmers for their legal costs, he says. A decision on Afriforum’s case could come in late February.
White farmers would then have to go back to the SADC tribunal for a ruling on financial compensation for the loss of the farms.
If a ruling were made, Afriforum would try to get South African courts to take follow-up action.