by Elizabeth Stack, AFJN Intern

The Tribunal for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was established in 1992 and enacted by a protocol signed at a summit in Namibia in 2000 for the specific purpose of interpreting the provisions of the SADC treaty. The Tribunal was created to enforce the mutually agreed upon laws of the SADC states laid out in the document, strengthen the rule of law in the community, and adjudicate pertinent disputes from the 15 countries in the SADC region.

It is important to tell the story of the demise of the SADC court because it is related to two of the major crises facing Africa today: Land and governance.
Land has always been a contentious issue and often led to conflicts among individuals, ethnic groups and even states. Today, multinational corporations are grabbing land in Africa in collaboration with corrupt governments and we can certainly predict that there will be bloodshed over this. The challenge at hand lies in preventing more land related conflicts and getting justice for the millions affected by land grabs. The justice systems in Africa often protect the few well connected and those with money, perpetuating the problem of impunity.

Fatal land and governance problems intertwine in the tale of the SADC Tribunal’s demise. The Tribunal dealt with one of its first land based cases in the fall of 2008, where 79 white Zimbabwean commercial farmers contested the compulsory seizure of their land by the Mugabe government. The original disputant was Mr. Mike Campbell, who filed a case in Zimbabwe in 2007 but was defeated in the countries’ High Court a year later. He then turned to the SADC court to preserve his land rights.

The ‘controversial’ farm land redistribution program was established by Zimbabwe’s long-time president Robert Mugabe. His goal was simple: giving land to the country’s black majority. Mugabe succinctly stated that any remaining white farmers have “no place” on their land, declaring valid land titles null and void.

Before his 2008 SADC trial, Mike Campbell was brutally beaten by members of Mugabe’s party to punish him for bringing a case against the government. The injuries he sustained were so great that he could not physically hear the ruling at his hearing. He was not sure if the tears of his supporters were ones of sadness or joy. SADC ultimately did rule in favor of Mr. Campbell and the plaintiffs against Zimbabwe. However, Zimbabwe did not comply with the ruling.

In April 2009 a gang removed Mr. Campbell and his wife from their farm, and in September they burned down the farmhouse just as the Zimbabwean government officially withdrew from all legal proceedings before the SADC tribunal. Other plaintiffs were also ordered to leave their land, their farms invaded, and many brutally beaten as Mr. Campbell was. In Mr. Campbell’s case the beating caused severe brain damage and deterioration, leading to his death in 2011.

After efforts to reprimand Mugabe for noncompliance, SADC’s ultimate response was to de facto suspend the tribunal in 2010 and dissolve it in 2012. The Tribunal’s inability to enforce this judgment highlights the overarching issue of a lack of respect for the rule of law in Zimbabwe. It also implies that the commitment SADC states parties made to the regional community’s law was virtually meaningless.

The Tribunal’s future will be decided at the SADC Summit in Malawi this August. International judicial bodies and other institutions like the SADC are necessary to defend human rights and rule of law during tumultuous times in Africa. The crumbling of SADC mirrors the problems with governance in Africa, where both the government and international bodies failed to protect the rights of citizens.

Further information:

Introduction to the issue:

Text of the SADC treaty:

Mike Campbell’s case against Zimbabwe:

Documentary: “Mugabe and the White African”, available on Netflix

On Mike Campbell:

Human Rights Watch Q & A on the SADC tribunal:

Mugabe’s land reform:

Remarks on the suspension of the Tribunal:

On the rule of law in Zimbabwe: