In a unanimous judgement, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the 3000-strong Richtersveld community after a five-year court battle with a state diamond mining company, Alexkor.

The court confirmed an order handed down earlier this year by the Supreme Court of Appeal that the Richtersveld community had been removed from their land under racist laws and practices.

Now the community is entitled to the full ownership including mineral and mining rights for precious stones.

Narrow strip

The Richtersvelders are descendents of the San people, the original inhabitants of the Southern African region.

They have been awarded land and mineral ownership of the Richtersveld area in the Northern Cape, which includes a narrow strip of mineral-rich land along the Orange River that forms the border between South Africa and Namibia.

Alexkor currently mines the land and adjacent seabed for the South African government.

“We are of the view that the real character of the title that the Richtersveld community possessed in the subject land was a right of communal ownership under indigenous law,” the judgement stated.

Richtersveld celebrates

A Richtersveld community spokesman, Floors Strauss, said they were elated with the ruling.

"We don't want to get rich quick. We are solely thinking about the long-term future for us and the children who will come after us"

Floors Strauss, Spokesman:Richtersveld community

“We don’t want to get rich quick. We are solely thinking about the long-term future for us and the children who will come after us,” Strauss said.

The community will be holding a thanksgiving service as soon as possible. “Afterwards we will dance the Nama Step (their traditional dance) and celebrate throughout the night.”

Earlier ruling

The Constitutional Court ruling confirmed a ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeal in March this year in favour of the Richtersveld Community. The Supreme Court of Appeal reversed an earlier Land Claims Court decision.

"The Supreme Court of Appeal found that in the 1920s, when diamonds were discovered on the subject land, the rights of the Richtersveld Community were ignored by the state which dispossesed them," the judgment stated.

Attorney Henk Smith, of the Legal Resources Centre said they were entitled to "the transfer of ownership rights as well as compensation, and the value of the diamonds that have been mined in the past 75 years has to be taken into account."

He added: "You have to look at how much compensation the community would have received had they been the owners in the past 75 years."

He declined to state an amount, but said: "It is a good deal more than the current value of the mine which is between nil and 400 million rand ($57 million)."

"This is a dramatic ruling. It is the first time a SA court gives content to people's rights in terms of customary law..."

Henk Smit, Attorney: Legal Resources Centre

Smith addded: "This is a dramatic ruling. It is the first time that a South African court gives content to people's rights in terms of customary law in such a significant way."

Alexkor secretary Peter Williams said the company had already entered into negotiations with the community, and would continue trying to make a deal.

"We have made an offer to them and they have made a counter-offer, but both parties rejected the offers. I can say that we offered quite a substantial amount without going into details."