A HOUSE at Kenilworth in Cape Town owned by the Zimbabwean government could be sold to defray the legal costs of three white farmers dispossessed of their land, the North Gauteng High Court ruled yesterday.

The farmers' battle for compensation began in 2007, when they approached the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) tribunal for a ruling on the seizure of their farms.

The tribunal ruled that Zimbabwe's land reform policies were unlawful, but the government of Zimbabwe ignored the ruling.

Last month, a Sadc heads of state summit extended the effective suspension of the tribunal, despite the recommendations of an internal review that it be revived. The tribunal heard cases that citizens of Sadc countries brought against their governments, after all domestic legal avenues had been exhausted.

AfriForum lawyer Willie Spies, who acted as the farmers' attorney, said yesterday the door was now open for the sale of the property in Cape Town that his organisation had seized on behalf of the farmers last year.

"The ruling is of historic significance. For probably the first time in international legal history, a court ruled that the assets of a country guilty of human rights violations must be sold at public auction. Arrangements will be made without delay to have the properties sold," Mr Spies said.

In 2007, when the legal battle began, 79 white Zimbabwean commercial farmers approached the Sadc tribunal for a ruling that the dispossession of their farms by their government without compensation was unlawful. The tribunal granted the order.

However, the government of Zimbabwe refused to adhere to the order and three farmers applied to the tribunal asking it to find that their government was in contempt of court. The tribunal ruled in favour of the farmers against the government of Zimbabwe for their legal costs.

Louis Fick, Richard Etheredge and the late Mike Campbell then wanted to make the costs orders enforceable against the Zimbabwean government in SA.

They applied for an order allowing them to serve the notice of motion for the registration of the orders in SA, which was granted in March last year.

AfriForum then attached a property in Kenilworth, worth about R2,5m, to cover the cost order granted by the tribunal.

The Zimbabwean government applied to the North Gauteng High Court, arguing that the writ was not actually served on it and that its property was subject to international immunity.

Alternatively, the government asked that the writ be suspended pending the finalisation of the Sadc process on whether the protocol on the tribunal was in force and binding on Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government argued that the tribunal had no jurisdiction over it and those orders could not be registered in SA.

Judge Roger Claassen said yesterday the tribunal itself, in another case, decided that its decisions were binding on the Zimbabwean government. "In that case (the Zimbabwean government) not only took part in the proceedings, but its representative, the acting attorney-general, admitted to the court that the applicant (the government) is bound by the tribunal's decision," Judge Claassen said.

He said he writs issued by the court could not be impugned.

mabuzae@bdfm.co.za