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SOUTH AFRICA: Tribe Wins Rights to Diamond-Rich Land

by Rory CarrollThe Guardian (London)
October 15th, 2003

Johannesburg - A South African tribal community robbed of its land in the 19th century yesterday won a court battle to regain land and mineral rights to diamonds that could be worth billions of pounds.

The Nama community in Richtersveld are former goat herders who today mostly live in tin shacks without electricity. The constitutional court in Johannesburg ruled that the Nama had been cleared from their land under racist laws and had a legitimate claim to ownership - including the mineral rights to the lucrative diamond mines at Alexander Bay on the north-west coast.

The ruling was a potentially severe blow to the government which argued it would lose hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue if the state diamond company, Alexkor, lost the mineral rights.

But the court threw out Alexkor's controversial attempt to use colonial-era laws which claimed the Nama were too uncivilised to own land.

Community members wept and applauded when they heard news of the victory, said a spokesman, Floors Strauss. Numbering around 4,000 people scattered in four impoverished villages near the Namibian border, the community would use the expected bonanza to create jobs by developing agriculture and industry, said Mr Strauss.

"We don't want to get rich quick. We are solely thinking about the long-term future for us and the children who will come after us."

It was not clear when and how the court ruling would translate into benefits for the Nama, since it established that they had a legitimate claim to the land, as opposed to confirming ownership.

Henk Smith, a lawyer representing the Nama, suggested they would file a claim for restoration of ownership and financial compensation with the land claims court or negotiate a deal with the state.

The government had warned that redirecting diamond revenue could blow a 870m hole in the budget but the minerals and energy minister, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, put a brave face on yesterday's ruling, saying it was "not a train smash". She added: "It just means that the mine and the people must work together."

The Nama lost ownership of their land when the Cape Colony annexed the area in 1847. When alluvial diamond deposits were found in the 1920s the government cleared the community from around 85,000 hectares (210,000 acres) around Orange river.

The apartheid regime maintained that policy, as did the African National Congress government, claiming that the greater good was served by sharing the diamond wealth with the nation.

A restitution claim lodged by the Richtersveld community in 1998 was dismissed by the land claims court in 2001 but they won when the case was referred to the supreme court of appeal. The joint appeal to the constitutional court by Alexkor and the government was rejected with costs.





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