A HIGH Court judge has slammed attempts by government officials to forcibly evict more than 30 black farmers from a prime farm without a court order to pave the way for the resettlement of a chief in President Robert Mugabe's home area of Zvimba, in Mashonaland West.
Justice Happious Zhou last week upheld an interdict restraining Herbert Murerwa, the Minister of Lands and Rural Resettlement, Masho-naland West Provincial Governor Faber Chidarikire, Stanley Mhondoro, aka Chief Zvimba, the district administrator (DA) for Zvimba and the officer commanding Mashonaland West, from evicting 31 resettled farmers at Lion Kopje Farm.
The resettled black farmers were allocated plots on Lion Kopje Farm by the government in 2004 under President Mugabe's controversial land reform exercise.
Apparently, the new farmers and their families were already staying at the farm, having moved onto the property at the height of the land invasions in 2001.
The farmers were notified that the offer of plots on Lion Kopje Farm was being withdrawn and that they were being relocated to another unidentified farm through a letter dated August 1,2012.
The reason given for their eviction from Lion Kopje farm was that the property had been allocated to Chief Zvimba, who is the fourth respondent in the matter.
A letter dated July 16, 2012 shows that Murerwa had offered Chief Zvimba Lion Kopje Farm but the chief had not signed the letter by August 7, 2012 to signify his acceptance of the offer. Court documents show that on August 6, 2012, the resettled farmers were notified by a delegation which comprised a chief lands officer, a Mr Vambe, Chidarikire, the DA and Chief Zvimba himself, that they were to vacate the farm and abandon their homes by August 15, 2012.
The delegation, according to court documents, stated that if the new farmers failed to vacate the farm, riot police would be unleashed to forcibly eject them from Lion Kopje farm.
Government officials, including Chief Zvimba, argued that the resettled farmers, applicants in the matter, were in breach of the law by remaining in occupation of the farm after their right to occupy the property was withdrawn.
Judge Zhou said the respondents, Murerwa, Chief Zvimba and others, contended that the farmers' occupation of the farm became unlawful in 2006 after the Gazetted Land (Consequential Provisions) Act was enacted.
The government officials had argued that the farmers knew that they were supposed to vacate the farm at that stage.
But Zhou in his judgment which The Financial Gazette has a copy of, said it was far from the truth.
"That argument is not supported by the facts on the case. The application was precipitated by the withdrawal of the applicants' (new farmers) right to occupy the plots allocated to them on Lion Kopje Farm and the subsequent demand, accompanied by threat to invoke the force of the riot police, that they abandon their homes of more than 10 years within a week," said Zhou.
The Judge noted that Chief Zvimba admitted that indeed he intended enlisting the force of the police to remove the resettled farmers from Lion Kopje Farm without an order of court. He further went on to lash out at the conduct of all the respondents, including Murerwa, Chief Zvimba, Chidarikire and the police, saying their conduct constituted a threat to disturb the new farmers without an order of court.
"Such conduct cannot be countenanced by the court, as it amounts to self-help. This court has stated that even where a person has been issued with an offer letter in respect of land they may not, without an order of court, take the law into their own hands by just moving onto the farm and forcibly ejecting those in occupation," he said.
Zhou disagreed with the respondents' contention that the farmers were in breach of the Gazetted Land (Consequential Provisions Act Chapter 20:28) by remaining in occupation of the property after their right to occupation was withdrawn when they were offered alternative land, saying the government allowed them to remain in occupation after it had been gazetted.
"The applicants occupied the plots, which were allocated to them and on which they built homes. The withdrawal of their right to remain on those plots is not pursuant to the gazetting of the land. It is merely because the farm has been allocated to the fourth respondent (Chief Zvimba). The letter dated 1 August, 2012 states that the withdrawal of the land offer and relocation offer were necessitated by the allocation of the farm to the fourth respondent," said Zhou.
The judge said any attempts to eject the resettled farmers from their plots without an order of the court would be unlawful. He added: "In any event, it is unreasonable to expect persons who have built homes on a farm at which they have been residing for more than 10 years to vacate the farm and relocate to another place within a week."
Zhou proceeded to grant an interim relief barring government officials from evicting the resettled farmers from the farm without an order from the court pending a determination on the matter. The farmers are further seeking a final order stopping the government officials from evicting them from the farm until after April 30, 2013.