About 4000 members of the Richtersveld community in the northwest corner of South Africa are suing for $410.8 million (2.5 billion rand) in damages after the Constitutional Court ruled in 2003 they have a case.

 

"I feel we are on the doorsteps of victory," community elder Marcia Farmer said through an interpreter at Cape Town's High Court, where the case is being heard.

 

"I feel like something is coming from heaven and, even if I do not see this happening, the next generation will see it and benefit from it," she said.

 

Members of the community are descendants of the Khoi-Khoi - the first inhabitants of the region - and many still speak the indigenous Nama language despite attempts by the former apartheid government to stop it being taught to new generations.

 

Compensation

 

They are demanding the return of 85,000 hectares of land taken from them by the government in the 1920s and 1.5 billion rand in compensation for the alluvial diamonds extracted from the rich coastal mine fields since then.

 

"As government we remain committed to fair restitution for the Richtersveld community"

Public Enterprises Minister
Alec Erwin

The Richtersvelders want a further one billion rand for damage done to the environment and 10 million rand for their pain and suffering.

 

President Thabo Mbeki's government - which took over the diamond mining rights after South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994 - tried for three years to negotiate a settlement but failed to reach agreement with the community.

 

The government, which has promised to compensate black people who lost their land under white rule, offered them an equity stake in Alexkor, the state company mining the region's diamonds and to set up a trust fund to benefit the people.

 

"As government we remain committed to fair restitution for the Richtersveld community," Public Enterprises Minister Alec Erwin said, adding he could not comment further while the case was being heard.

 

Diamond find

 

The Richtersveld case in the Cape Town court began on 26 April and is expected to last up to seven weeks.

 

The state has mined the land and the adjacent sea-bed since German mining magnate Hans Merensky uncovered what was then one of the richest diamond finds in the world in 1927.

 

Mbeki's government took over
mining rights in 1994 

Floors Strauss, secretary of the Richtersveld Communal Property Association, said his forefathers were driven from the land and cut off from grazing fields by massive fences after diamonds were discovered.

 

"It was unfair; they were treated as if they were nothing. They were simply forced out with no negotiation."

 

Those affected were not even allowed to return to visit their family graves, he said.

 

Farmer, a 62-year-old community leader, said she was forced to work as a cleaner in a nearby town, seven days a week for little reward.

 

Lost hearts

 

"As a Nama you were not seen as a person, they called me 'meid' (maid) and that was an ugly thing. We lost, our hearts are sore, we lost our hearts," she said.

 

The community launched its fight to win back the ground in 1998 but the case was dismissed by the Land Claims Court two years later.

 

The Constitutional Court subsequently confirmed an appeal judgment in 2003, ruling that the people were forced off the land under racist laws and practices and were entitled to have it and, its mineral rights, returned.

 

Cyril Ramaphosa, executive chairman of investment group Shanduka and a former secretary-general of President Mbeki's African National Congress, told the court his company planned to partner the community to unlock further riches for the Richtersveld people should they win the case.

 

"In many ways, we see this a historic opportunity," he said. "It could unlock unbelievable value."