African customary law and rights of indigenous peoples

Ndevahoma v Shimwooshili and Others (HC-MD-CIV-ACT-OTH-2017/03184) [2019] NAHCMD 32 (25 January 2019);


Customary Law – Communal Land – Communal land rights – Power to evict a leaseholder from a communal land – Whether the Communal Land Reform Act, 2002 empowers a leaseholder to cancel a sub-lease and evict a sub lessee from a communal land area.

Headnote and Holding: 

The uncle of the plaintiff and the first defendant had occupied an area called Eengolo-Ondjiina which forms part of communal land as contemplated in s 15 of the Communal Land Reform Act, 2002 with the blessing of the Oukwanyama Traditional Authority.

As from 2017, the plaintiff had taken over the management of Eengolo-Ondjiina. In April 2015, the plaintiff signed a Notarial Lease Agreement in respect of Eengolo-Ondjiina with the Government of the Republic of Namibia and during April 2017, the plaintiff was issued with a Certificate of Leasehold in terms of s 33 and Regulation 16 of the Agricultural Communal Land Reform Act, 2002.

After the plaintiff was issued with the certificate of leasehold, a dispute arose between the plaintiff and the first defendant, with the plaintiff alleging that, he holds exclusive leasehold or customary land rights in respect of Eengolo-Ondjiina and that he had given the first defendant the right to occupy Eengolo-Ondjiina on certain conditions. Alleging that the first defendant failed to adhere to the conditions in terms of which he was granted permission to occupy Eengolo-Ondjiina, the plaintiff gave notice to the first defendant to vacate Eengolo-Ondjiina by the end of June 2017.  The first defendant did not vacate Eengolo-Ondjiina as demanded by the plaintiff and the plaintiff commenced these proceedings.

The plaintiff’s primary bone of contention was that because of the first defendant’s breach of the conditions in terms of which he was granted permission to occupy Eengolo-Ondjiina, he has withdrawn that permission and the first defendant now occupied Eengolo-Ondjiina without permission, and it is on that ground that he seeks the eviction of the defendant from Eengolo-Ondjiina.

The first defendant was however of the view that the leasehold on which the plaintiff relies is in respect of communal land as contemplated in s 19 of the Communal Land Reform Act, 2002 which is not exclusive and is subject to the rights of others, including his (first defendant) right to occupy such land and further that it does not confer a right on the plaintiff to approach the High Court and evict him.

Held that despite the fact that the concept of communal land defies precise definition, it has, in Namibia, generally been understood that communal land include land owned in trust by the government but administered by traditional authorities who make allocation of parcels of land to members of the community, ordinarily but not exclusively to live thereon, till and or graze thereon and generally to make a living, without acquiring ownership or title to that land.

Held further that s17 of the Communal Land Reform Act, 2002 makes it very clear that all communal land areas belong to the State, which must keep the land in trust for the benefit of the traditional communities living in those areas. The State is enjoined to put systems in place to make sure that communal lands are administered and managed in the interests of those living in those areas. The Act also makes it clear that communal land cannot be sold as freehold land to any person.

Held further that communal lands may only be occupied or used in line with a right granted under the Communal Land Reform Act, 2002. This includes existing customary land rights (under s 28) and other existing rights to use communal land (under s 35). A person who occupies communal land without having the right to do so can be evicted by a Chief, Traditional Authority or a Communal Land Board.

Agnes Kahimbi Kashela v Katima Mulilo Town Council and Others (SA 15/2017) [2018] NASC 409 (16 November 2018);

Headnote and Holding: 

This was an appeal against a decision of the High Court to dismiss the appellant’s claim for loss of occupation of communal land. Her second claim was that the land was unlawfully expropriated without compensation by the respondents.

The court determined whether or not the appellant had acquired a valid customary law tenure right in the land in dispute and whether this right was unlawfully interfered with. Further, whether any liability attached to the council arising from its interference with that right.

The first respondent (“the council”), contended that the land belonged to it and had ceased to be communal land thus extinguishing communal land tenure. The court found that the appellant acquired and held a customary land tenure right and the state’s succession to the communal land did not extinguish communal land tenure but the state simply held the land in trust for the affected communities.

The court established that the Constitution guaranteed the enforcement of customary land rights. The court therefore, concluded that the appellant had an exclusive right to the use and occupation of the land in dispute; and that the right attached to the land even after its proclamation as town land.

Accordingly, they court upheld the appeal with costs in favour of the appellant. The matter was remitted to the High Court for the adjudication of the appellant’s claim of unjust enrichment and compensation.

Uazengisa and Another v Mukuambi and 4 Others (A 298/2015) NAHCMD 353 (06 December 2017);

Headnote and Holding: 

In this case, the applicants sought to enforce the decision of the Royal House of Chief Kambazembi (a traditional authority), that allocated communal land to them.

Following the continued occupation of the three square kilometres of the land by the first and second respondents, the applicants decided to enforce the decision by the traditional authority in the court. 

The court analysing s. 24-26 of the Communal Land Reform Act, Act 5 of 2002 held that the traditional authority had the power to allocate customary land rights. However, upon the allocation of a customary land right, the applicant was required to notify the land board for registration of the land. The court observed that the applicant failed to do so and thus failed to establish a right that was capable of enforcement by the court.

Accordingly, the application was dismissed, and the applicants were directed to pay costs of the first and second respondents jointly and severally.

Kashela v Katima Mulilo Town Council and Others (I 1157/2012) [2017] NAHCMD 49 (01 March 2017);

Headnote and Holding: 

The plaintiff’s claim was for judgment against the defendants for rental money received from the 3rd to 8th defendant from leasing part of plaintiff's land. The plaintiff also claimed compensation for loss of land as per art. 16(2) of the Namibian Constitution.

The applicant argued that she acquired a customary land right in respect of riparian land that was designated as communal land by a representative of the Mafwe Traditional Authority, after her father’s death in 2001.

The land became state land after it was declared a township in 1995 and was thus transferred to the Katima Mulilo Town Council.

The defendants argued that the local authority owned the land and the plaintiff had no right thereof. The court held that ownership of the land vested in the local authority as per the Local Authorities Act of 1992. The court applied s. 15(2) of the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 as read with Section 3 of the Local Authorities Act of 1992 and held that the land ceased to be customary land when the town council became the owner in 1995.

The court noted as an obiter (by the way), that the claim for compensation should have been made against the state for taking possession of the community land not the Local Authority.

Accordingly, the claim was dismissed with costs. 

Wapulile v Chairman Ohangwena Communal Land Board N.O (A 265/2013) [2013] NAHCMD 340 (15 November 2013);

Headnote and Holding: 

The matter focused on the lawfulness of the removal of fencing surrounding land for agricultural purposes in a communal area. 

The respondent, Ohangwena Communal Board, established under s 2 of the Communal Land Reform Act 5 of 2002 removed fencing erected by the applicant, around a tract of agricultural land in a communal area, which the applicant alleged had been duly allocated to him in 1986. 

The applicant approached the High Court on an urgent basis for an interdict to restrain the board from removing the fencing surrounding the grazing farm and from disposing of the fencing material which had already been removed. 

The applicant maintained that in terms of s 18(b) read with s 28(2)(b) and 28(3) of the act, he is entitled to retain the fences which he had erected on and around the farm. The court found that the applicant had erected the perimeter fence prior to the coming into force of the Act and his intention to apply for authorisation for the retention of the perimeter fence, meant that the removal of the fence by the respondent was unlawful and in conflict with the act.  

Given the entitlement to retain a fence if the statutory requisites in s 28(80) are met, it would be unlawful for boards to remove such fencing where applicants intend to make such application prior to the expiration of the period set by the Minister pursuant to s 18. 

The interdictory relief was granted.

Zeraeua Traditional Authority v Mathe and Others (A 169/2013) [2013] NAHCMD 163 (13 June 2013);

Headnote and Holding: 

The court considered an urgent application for spoliation orders (common law remedy) against the first to eleventh respondents or alternatively, an eviction order against them.

The thirteenth respondent purchased three farms which were adjacent to land which was incorporated in a communal area falling under the jurisdiction of the first applicant, a traditional authority. These farms were intended to be incorporated into the communal land falling under the applicant’s jurisdiction. The Government of Namibia initiated the process of incorporating these farms into the communal area under the first applicant through a notice published in the Government Gazette pursuant to the provisions of the Communal Land Reform Act 5 of 2002. 

The issue facing the court was whether the first to eleventh respondents had the prerogative to occupy the farms with their cattle grazing on them, without authority to do so. The respondents argued that the applicant lacked locus standi (capacity) to bring the application since the land had not yet been incorporated into the communal area by way of notice in the Government Gazette, as required by the act, thus the applicant did not have jurisdiction over the land. 

The application for spoliation was refused because the applicant could not show deprivation of possession by reason of the respondents’ occupation which predates its possession and control. Thus, the court found that the respondents could not establish any right to be on the farms. 

The eviction order was granted with costs.