Press Release: Court orders Special Master for labour tenant land claims

Press Release: Court orders Special Master for labour tenant land claims


Published by Legal Resources Centre [icon type=”icon-clock”] 09 December 2016

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For Immediate Release: 09 December 2016

Yesterday, a historic judgment was handed down in the Land Claims Court in the protracted legal battle between labour tenants and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (the Department).

This has been a battle that started more than three years ago. It was brought by the Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) and four labour tenants, represented by the Legal Resources Centre (LRC).

On the 8 December 2016, the Land Claims Court granted an order appointing a “Special Master of Labour Tenants”. The task of the Special Master will be to produce a plan to implement labour tenant claims to facilitate ownership of farm land in terms of the Land Reform (Labour Tenants) Act, no. 3 of 1996.  The plan must be developed in collaboration with the Department, which has been refusing to implement the law since early 2000’s.

The case began in 2013 when Mr Bhekindlela Mwelase and three other labour tenant claimants, who live on the Hilton College Estate, a private boys’ school in the Natal Midlands, approached AFRA to provide support in getting their claim to land ownership settled.

AFRA, the fifth applicant, went to the Land Claims Court in 2013 to seek systemic relief from “the many years of disregard and neglect of labour tenants’ claims” by the Director General, the Minister and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform.

The systemic relief involved a structural interdict (commonly known as a “class action” case) to settle the 10 914 claims which, by the Department’s own admission, “have not been settled”.  The granting of the Special Master means that although particular labour tenants were involved in the case, the implications of the judgment apply to the entire class of labour tenants.

The presiding judge in the case, Judge Thomas Ncube, noted in his judgment that:

“Regrettably reports were not filed timeously in accordance with the implementation plan and there was non-compliance with other aspects of the plan and furnishing of information required…From the history of the litigation, it is apparent in my view, that the Department has not been able to comply with its own timeframes or to provide accurate information on how far the collation of labour tenants claims has progressed…Effective relief is undoubtedly required by the many thousands of vulnerable labour tenants”

Judge Ncube therefore found that Minister Nkwinti and the Director General acted in manner, “inconsistent with Sections 10, 25 (b), 33, 195 and 237 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa” and that a, “Special Master of Labour Tenants” shall be appointed by no later than the 3 March 2017 to supervise the Director General and the Department in respect of the pending labour tenant claims under Sections 16, 17 and 18 Act.

The judgment details the steps to be undertaken to achieve the expeditious resolutions of these claims, including a determination of:

  1. The total number of claims lodged and the number which have yet to be processed and finalised;
  2. The skill pool and infrastructure required for the processing of labour tenant claims within the Department;
  3. Targets on a year-to-year basis for the resolution of pending labour tenant claims;
  4. The determination of the budget necessary during each financial year for carrying out the Implementation Plan, including both the Departments’ operating costs for processing claims and the amounts required to fund awards made pursuant to the applications;
  5. Plans for co-ordination with the Land Claims Court to ensure the rapid adjudication or arbitration of unresolved claims;
  6. Any other matters which the Special Master may consider relevant.


AFRA and the LRC welcome the judgment and looks forward to constructively engaging with the Department on the appointment of the Special Master and the finalisation of the Implementation Plan. AFRA is committed to ensure the success of the Implementation Plan and will support the Special Master and the Department to achieve the processing and finalisation of labour tenant claims.

“We are extremely pleased today for the thousands of labour tenants and their families, whose patience, determination and struggle have been rewarded. The rights of labour tenants have been upheld by the Court and the systemic failures of the Department in addressing these rights can now be achieved through the appointment of the Special Master, improved implementation by the Department and proper coordination with the Court,” said Laurel Oettle, Director of AFRA.

“The hard work of resolving these claims and transferring land to those work it, begins now in earnest. I urge all landowners and labour tenants to participate in the process of resolving claims in a positive and constructive spirit. We believe that former President Nelson Mandela, who signed the Labour Tenants Act into law back in 1996, would wish to see South Africans united to achieve historical redress and a better life for those working and living on farms.”

The LRC attorney on the case, Thabiso Mbhense, said he is, “very happy about the outcome after so many years of work” and he hopes the Special Master will ensure that labour tenants finally have their claims to land ownership settled. He added that, “this is a historic moment for the land rights movement and we foresee its implementation having a dramatic impact on thousands of labour tenants waiting for their land”.


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