Evicted farmers drag govt to court

HARARE - Hundreds of Zanu PF supporters face a deadline to leave land seized from sugar estates owned by the Zimbabwe units of South Africa’s Tongaat Hullett or risk jail, although a last-minute High Court ruling could provide a grace period.

The Lowveld Sugar Cane Growers Association has approached the High Court seeking a declaratory order that mortgaged farms could not be taken if the state had not properly informed the mortgage institution.

The decision could throw a lifeline to most of the farmers.

The urgent chamber application for an interdict has been filed before High Court judge Justice Loice Matanda-Moyo.

The farmers have also applied for a special order to recover legal costs in the High Court.

The move followed the government’s scrapping of their offer letters without offering to compensate them for wasted expenditure.

Lands and Resettlement minister Douglas Mombeshora has given nearly 300 black farmers who had moved onto sugar estates owned by Tongaat’s Hippo Valley Estates and Triangle in southern Zimbabwe an ultimatum to hand over their land or face a fine and up to two years in prison.

“Following the notice to withdraw your offer letter and the representations which you made to that effect, please be advised that the minister of Lands and Rural Resettlement is withdrawing the offer of land made to you,” Mombeshora said in a December 12 letter to the farmers.

“The acquiring authority has concluded that the purpose for withdrawal overweighs the representations which you made. You are, therefore, notified of the immediate withdrawal of the offer.

“You are required to cease all or any operations that you may have commenced on the said piece of land immediately.”

Triangle is wholly-owned by Tongaat, which also has a 50.3 percent stake in Hippo Valley.

The two estates’ sugar mills have a combined milling capacity to crush nearly 5 million tonnes of cane annually. 

The two operations together produce 640 000 tonnes of sugar annually.

Their refining capacity is 140 000 tonnes per annum.

The Lands ministry has said it will not seize any more foreign-owned farms covered by Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements (Bippa) after losing multi-million-dollar compensation claims under a treaty aimed at protecting overseas investments.Tongaat’s properties are covered under a Bippa deal inked between Zimbabwe and South Africa in 2010.

It seems lawsuits brought by foreign investors at the Washington-based International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes and a recent visit to Zimbabwe by South African president Jacob Zuma had prompted a change in policy.

In court papers, Foreign Affairs ministry, represented by Mumbengegwi and Partners, has accused the Lands minister of resettling the A2 Zanu PF farmers on Tongaat property without following “proper procedures”, with the Lands ministry filing opposing papers on Thursday.

Some of the farmers, represented by Mberi and Associates, have said they will go.

Others have vowed to fight the land seizure and eviction orders through the courts.

They had been resettled on farms spanning 17 to 50 hectares each, which they had put under sugar cane.

The farmers want a moratorium to harvest their sugar cane and are also demanding compensation.

The High Court was expected to hear another appeal from the evicted farmers challenging the constitutionality of the Land Acquisition Act.

It comes as the country — once the region’s breadbasket — faces severe food shortages.

Analysts say disruption to farming through eviction of resettled farmers and other state-backed farm invasions has compounded both the food shortages and a severe economic crisis blamed on government mismanagement.

The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Mugabe and his ruling elite over his land policy and electoral fraud.

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