JOHANNESBURG — In the turbulent history of post-colonial Zimbabwe and its bitterly divisive land reform programme, an unremarkable house at 28 Salisbury Avenue, Kenilworth, Cape Town, has earned a surprising footnote.
The residence close to South Africa’s western tip is in fact Zimbabwean government property but was set to be auctioned off as the result of legal action brought by 78 white farmers who had been forced from the land in Zimbabwe’s “lost decade”.
Before it could be sold, however, Zimbabwe stepped in with a cheque for R200 000, giving the dispossessed farmers if not the last laugh then a rare moment of schadenfreude at the expense of the president, Robert Mugabe. They now intend to pursue full compensation or the return of their properties.
When about 6 000 white people controlled almost half of Zimbabwe’s land, only diehards could dispute that reform was needed.
However, the brutal methods employed by “war veterans” in seizing the farms and evicting owners and their employees devastated the economy. Many holdings ended up in the hands of Mugabe cronies and loyalists with little agricultural know-how.
Among those who lost everything was Mike Campbell, who bought a 3 000-acre farm in Chegutu district in 1974.
After challenging Mugabe in court, he and his family were abducted and beaten amid the election violence of 2008. Campbell, in his 70s, was finally evicted and his home burned a year later.
He took his case and that of 77 other farmers to an independent southern African tribunal and won.
Its judges ruled that the land reform programme was discriminatory and against the rule of law and issued a R200 000 punitive costs order against the Zimbabwean government, as well as compensation for an unspecified amount.
But Mugabe ignored it, the tribunal was dissolved and Campbell‚ whose story was told in the award-winning documentary Mugabe and the White African‚ died in 2011.
AfriForum, a lobby group in neighbouring South Africa, went to court there in a bid to force Zimbabwe to comply with the tribunal ruling.
After a four-year legal battle, the constitutional court ruled in its favour, allowing the Cape Town house to be attached to cover the “debt to the farmers”.
The property was occupied by tenants paying rent to the Zimbabwean government, which effectively meant that it was not protected by diplomatic immunity.
It was set to be auctioned last week – in a case said to be the first in which the assets of a country found guilty of human rights violations would be auctioned in a neighbouring state – but the Zimbabwean government “hastily” acceded to the punitive cost order, AfriForum said.
“While the punitive cost order is but a drop in the bucket of the losses inflicted on white farmers in Zimbabwe by president Robert Mugabe’s land grab programme, this outcome proves that the law does indeed provide a remedy,” the group said.
“The door has now been opened for further legal action to force Zimbabwe to compensate farmers for loss of property rights to their farms,” it added.
AfriForum argues that the Zimbabwean government is also liable for the farmers’ legal costs, estimated at between R2,5 million and R3 million.
AfriForum lawyer Willie Spies said: “The payment of the punitive cost order is a breakthrough for justice in the region. This is but the first step in our struggle for justice for Zimbabwean farmers. That struggle will continue.”
Another potential target for the legal action was the Zimbabwean consulate in central Cape Town, which at one point was reportedly abandoned and taken over by squatters living in filthy conditions without electricity or running water before being renovated.
But Spies said this is no longer necessary.
A spokesperson for the Zimbabwean embassy in South Africa denied knowledge of the auction or settlement. “We are not aware of that, you are giving us news,” he said before hanging up.