White Zimbabwean farmers whose land was grabbed by Robert Mugabe plan to turn the tables by seizing Zimbabwean-owned property in South Africa.
Lawyers for dispossessed farmers believe that on Monday they will be able to start using the law to seize houses in Cape Town which are owned by the Zimbabwean government. Their action, which follows a landmark legal ruling, promises to humiliate Mr Mugabe and embarrass South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma, who was on a state visit to Britain last week.
The battle for justice fought by one of the white farmers, Mike Campbell, aged 77, was featured in the documentary film Mugabe and the White African. It was shown in British cinemas this year to great acclaim.
The film tells how he fought stubbornly to bring a legal case in 2008 against Mr Mugabe’s government at the Southern African Development Community tribunal, based in the Namibian capital Windhoek.
Mr Campbell won a victory when the court ruled that Mr Mugabe’s farm takeovers were racist in nature and therefore illegal.
At the North Gauteng High Court in the South African capital Pretoria last month, the farmers successfully applied for the Namibian judgement to be enforced in South Africa.
Lawyers acting for the Mr Campbell and a group of other farmers believe after that ruling they can seize Zimbabwean government-owned property, to recover legal costs from the South African case.
Mr Campbell, who was severely beaten by land invaders in 2008, was too frail to comment yesterday. But his son-in-law Ben Freeth, 41, said: “This is not about revenge. This is about the long arm of the law.
“We hope to expand our actions further and investigate whether we can, in time, sue individuals who were responsible for what has been going on.”
Late last year Mr Freeth watched helplessly as thugs burned down his farmhouse in Zimbabwe.
Their representatives have identified at least 11 properties which are owned by the government of Zimbabwe, including houses in Cape Town worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Unlike properties in Pretoria which are connected to the embassy, the Cape Town properties are thought not to be protected by diplomatic immunity.
The lawyers say it will be a groundbreaking development, as they are not aware of any precedent for government-owned properties being seized in pursuit of a civil judgement.
The timing is awkward for Mr Zuma. This week the South African president called for Western sanctions to be lifted against Mr Mugabe and his cronies, during a state visit to Britain. The EU recently renewed sanctions for another year, although Western officials point out the sanctions hit only only specific regime members rather than the Zimbabwean people as a whole.
The former opposition Movement for Democratic Change went into a coalition with Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party just over a year ago, but the agreement has been beset by difficulties. At one point the MDC boycotted cabinet meetings for several weeks, blaming obstructionism by Zanu-PF.
In the meantime seizures of white-owned farms have continued.
The SADC tribunal has yet to set an amount to be paid in compensation, but the lawyers say they are already able to seek the seizures to recover costs in connection with the court hearing in South Africa, estimated at about £12,000.
Willie Spies, the lead South African lawyer in the case, said it would be almost impossible for the Zimbabwean government to appeal against the seizures as it had not contested the North Gauteng court ruling.
The South African government was not a party to the proceedings, he added, and while technically it could apply for judicial review it would be in a “moral predicament” if it tried to do so, as in a separate case last year it had formally agreed to “honour and uphold” the SADC tribunal verdict.
“It’s going to be a very interesting test for the independence of our sheriffs and for the South African government,” he said.
The ruling has not been enforceable in Zimbabwe.
Senior Zanu-PF officials have sought to dismiss the significance of the legal proceedings. They have claimed that the SADC tribunal did not have jurisdiction over Zimbabwe, even though the nation is a member of the organisation and government lawyers appeared in court to defend it.
At the time of the SADC tribunal ruling, the then minister of lands, Didymus Mutasa, said: “They are day-dreaming because we are not going to reverse the land reform exercise.”
Patrick Chinamasa, Zimbabwe’s justice minister, could not be reached for comment on the latest developments.