On Tuesday, 20 August 2019, the Constitutional Court handed down a judgment which restored the Land Claims Court order appointing a Special Master. Mr Mwelase, three labour tenants and the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) were represented by the Legal Resources Centre at the Constitutional Court. The LRC’s clients were arguing for restoration of the Land Claims Court order appointing a Special Master to oversee the implementation of the Labour Tenants Act, which will expedite the labour tenants’ claims for land under the Act.
LRC attorney Thabiso Mbhense says that “The Legal Resources Centre is pleased with the judgment of the Constitutional Court as the Special Master will assist in expediting the land claims filed by more than 10 000 Labour Tenants. It has taken many years for us to reach this point and justice is now within reach.
The initial Land Claims Court judgment appointing a Special Master was taken on appeal to the SCA by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform and the SCA found in favour of the Department. The SCA also found that the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform had not acted in contempt of the Land Claims Court judgment which ordered the Minister to set up a forum to negotiate the outstanding labour tenant land claims. The LRC had argued that the Minister had acted in bad faith and pursued a unilateral agenda when he invited the relevant parties to the forum, but excluded AFRA. The SCA judgment found that the Minister had not acted wilfully or mala fide.
While rejecting the appointment of a Special Master, the SCA had tasked the Department with developing an implementation plan, which would be subject to approval by the Land Claims Court and which would have to include inter alia the names of senior managers in the Department responsible for the plan, the number of labour tenant applications lodged and those outstanding, the targets for processing claims, the budget required and the plan for coordinating adjudication and arbitration of claims.
While the LRC supported the development of the plan, the track record of the Department’s unsatisfactory progress on the issue caused the eviction of many labour tenants from farms and subjected them to continued poverty and uncertainty on farms while their claims remain unprocessed. The LRC argued that only the appointment of a Special Master would expedite the realisation of labour tenants’ constitutional rights to security of tenure.
The case commenced in 2013 when Mr Bhekindlela Mwelase (now deceased) and three other labour tenant claimants, who live on the Hilton College Estate, approached AFRA for support to settle their claim to land ownership. The labour tenants and AFRA, represented by the LRC, approached the Land Claims Court seeking systemic relief from “the many years of disregard and neglect of labour tenants’ claims” with the hope that the case could lead to the settlement of the 10 914 claims which, by the Department’s own admission, “have not been settled”. This case, therefore, has implications for all labour tenants.
Following from the SCA judgment, LRC assisted labour tenants to appeal the judgment to the Constitutional Court.
The Constitutional Court judgment granting the relief sought for the appointment of the Special Master is significant and the marks the first appointment of a Special Master in the country.
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