Zimbabwe’s last white farmers were bracing themselves for a backlash yesterday after South Africa’s supreme court ruled that an ex-farmer can sell a property owned by Robert Mugabe’s government to compensate for the seizure of his land.
In a humiliating blow for the ageing president whose land reforms plunged Zimbabwe into economic ruin in 2000, the court turned down his government’s appeal against the seizure of a £200,000 house in the Cape Town suburb of Kenilworth.
Lawyer Willie Spies said the ruling was “a great success … a symbolic victory that makes it possible for the government of Zimbabwe to be effectively punished”.
Three other Zimbabwe government-owned properties in South Africa are understood to have been identified for seizure.
The ruling was greeted with anger inside Zimbabwe, where top Mugabe ally and possible presidential successor Didymus Mutasa said: “That’s wrong. That property belongs to the government of Zimbabwe and that farmer has no right to sell it.”
Farmers Mike Campbell, Louis Fick and Richard Etheredge were among the more than 4,000 whites who have lost their land to ZANU-PF supporters and Mugabe cronies in the past 12 years. Instead of quietly emigrating to the UK or Australia, they took their case to the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) tribunal – which ruled in 2008 that Mr Mugabe’s land grab was illegal and racist and should be stopped immediately.
The five judges ordered the Mugabe regime to allow the men to stay on their farms and said that the Zimbabwe government should pay the costs of the suit.
Mr Mugabe labelled the tribunal “an exercise in futility” and refused to accept the verdict – but South Africa’s highest court yesterday said that it should be applied locally.
Lawyers identified the Kenilworth mansion for seizure in 2010, but the Zimbabwe government appealed. Yesterday’s verdict means the property can now be auctioned off so that the families can recover some of their legal costs.
Mr Campbell died aged 79 last year: beaten days after Mr Mugabe’s re-election in 2008, he had been left brain-damaged and in a wheelchair.
His story was made into the award-winning documentary Mugabe and the White African in 2009. Under pressure from Zimbabwe, the SADC tribunal has since been disbanded.
“If the sale goes ahead, it will be the first time in international legal history that a state that had committed gross human rights violations is effectively punished by the attachment and sale of its property,” rights group AfriForum said yesterday.
Analysts immediately labelled the ruling “tremendous” – but Zimbabwe’s 300 or so remaining white farmers live in fear.
“There’s no relief for us at all,” said Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) president Charles Taffs, noting that white farmers faced a renewed onslaught “each time there’s a favourable ruling”.