second thoughts on land siezures in southern africa


One small, Cape Town property, once owned by whites but later transferred to the Zimbabwean state in a compensatory transaction, was yesterday returned to white ownership. The ruling is pretty important, not just for the touchy matter of postcolonial ethics, but also for the jurisdictional dilemmas now facing Zimbabwe and South Africa. The ruling emanates from the Southern African Development Community’s High Court in North Gauteng, and recommends more stringent and transparent protocol regarding ‘land grabs’, potentially enforceable by the South African government. Zimbabwe admits it falls within the gambit of the SADC, but argues that their precedent has no meaning in Zimbabwe. From Business Day:

Zimbabwe does not recognise the Sadc ruling. It has argued that the ruling has yet to be ratified by the regional body’s summit. Government spokesman George Charamba previously told Business Day there was therefore no question of Zimbabwean assets being attached in SA. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.


The Sadc Tribunal previously declared Zimbabwe’s 2005 constitutional amendment that allowed the government to redistribute white-owned farms without compensation as racially discriminatory and illegal. It ordered the government to pay dispossessed farmers fair compensation, and protect the property rights of those still on their farms.

Zimbabwe’s High Court rejected an application to enforce the Sadc judgment in Zimbabwe. Judge Bharat Patel said this would be “fundamentally contrary to public policy” by forcing Zimbabwe to reverse its land reforms since 2000.

But last month , the North Gauteng High Court ruled the Sadc judgements, including the costs award, were enforceable in SA.

Reluctant to trump the sovereignty of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the SADC are only willing at this stage to enforce the ruling in South Africa – and that’s where this tiny, little property in Cape Town comes into the picture.

This is a touchy issue. There is no question that all racially discriminatory legislation should be abolished, but to a reformist post-settlercolonial dictatorship, there is no other way to transform a white state into a black one. The solution is – and South Africa have led the way in this respect – to reach a postcolonial equilibrium by making law and policy adjustments that are only subtly racially discriminatory. But that seems a lot of tip-toeing about the place for a region that was never subtle about its dichotomous legal architecture (white/black; us/them; citizen/subject), doesn’t it?

For more info, check out the Business Day article, and see BBC.

Update 7/5: This issue is not over. Tbe SA government looks set to launch an appeal against the process.

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