Villagers fight minister over land

Villagers fight minister over land

MASERU – RESIDENTS of Khubetsoana and Ha-Foso have obtained an interim court order blocking the Ministry of Local Government from expropriating their field near Meraka Abattoir.
High Court judge Justice ’Maseforo Mahase granted 29 residents the temporary relief last Tuesday pending the finalization of a case in which they want to block the government from taking over their land.

Their fields were seized by the government in September 1985 by the then Minister of Interior, Nehemia ’Maseribane.
They told the court that they were not compensated when the government took the fields which were turned into a feedlot for the abattoir.

The residents resisted but the Basotho National Party (BNP) used the army to evict them. In Legal Notice No. 88 of 1983 ’Maseribane had declared that part of the land comprising fields in Ha-Foso was set aside for public purposes.
The land he was referring to was “all arable lands bounded by Leporoporo stream on the west, the Caledon River on the north, the track from Lema to the river on the east and the Leabua Highway on the south”.

But the residents argue that their fields do not fall within the boundaries as declared by the government.
’Maseribane, who was also the Deputy Prime Minister, had declared that “in return for loss of title, compensation in respect of lawful improvements made to the land so set aside shall be paid”.
He invited any land owners to write the commissioner of lands.

The 29 did not claim for compensation because according to the Legal Notice, their fields were outside the specified boundaries.
They were only shocked in 1985, two years after the Legal Notice was published, when the government forcibly took their fields and unleashed soldiers on those who tried to resist.
After taking the land the government left it fallow for years. After the restoration of democracy in 1993 the people started using their land again.

They were about to forget their problems during the BNP rule when the now democratically elected Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) government kicked them from the land again in 2001.
Led by their chief, the late ’Mahlathe Majara, they rushed to the High Court asking the court to declare their eviction “unlawful and null and void and of no force and effect”.

They also asked the court to direct the government to return the land or compensate them. After a 12-year delay Justice Semapo Peete ruled in their favour in October 2013.
Justice Peete ruled that the families, 41 at that time, were unlawfully stripped of their rights. The judge said although the seemingly noble motive was to establish a national feedlot for the abattoir taking the land without compensation was wrong.
He referred to several Court of Appeal cases in which it “strongly deprecated the practice of seizing of lands of people through the Selected Development Area procedure and without compensation”.

During the hearing the government had argued that the application should be dismissed because it had passed prescription date.
It argued that according to the Government Proceedings and Contracts Act of 1965, a claimant has only two years to lodge his claim and if delayed beyond the prescription time he forfeits it.
Justice Peete dismissed those arguments, saying the issue of prescription and exception raised by the government was totally without substance.
The government appealed against Justice Peete’s finding, especially on the issue of prescription.

A quorum of three judges, Justices Douglas Scott, Ian Farlam and Roger Cleaver ruled that “the cause of action arose as far back as 1985” and the residents approached the court only in 2001.
‘The appeal was upheld with costs in October 2014.

The residents are now in court again, this time saying both the High Court which ruled in their favour and the Court of Appeal which sank their ship based their judgments on wrong arguments.
Their lawyer Advocate Kelebone Monate argues that it is wrong to say the land was taken by the government pursuant to Legal Notice 88 of 1983.
Advocate Monate says, in court papers, the fields were never removed from the residents through the legal notice because the notice “relates to a totally different place to which the government still retains occupation to date”.

He argues that the fields taken by the government through the legal notice are on the east of Leporoporo stream, not Selakhapane as the area is commonly known.
He says the residents’ argument that they should be compensated or their fields returned back to them “had nothing to do with the Legal Notice No. 88 of 1983”.
On the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the prescription, Advocate Monate argues that there was no law on which the government relied to take the land and so they could not make any claims.
Local Government Minister Habofanoe Lehana is expected to respond to the case before the end of next week.

Staff Reporter

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