8 December 2016, Malawi – On Friday 2 December 2016, the High Court of Malawi, sitting in Mzuzu, dismissed an action brought by the Plaintiffs, an elite couple, against two female Defendants. The Plaintiffs claimed that the land inherited by the Defendants, a single woman (57) and her widowed mother (87) from their deceased father and husband respectively in 2006, was allocated to the Plaintiffs in 2010 by the Dwangwa Cane Growers Trust. The Plaintiffs sought a declaration that they were the rightful occupiers with exclusive rights over the land in issue. The Defendants were not aware that the government acquired and leased their land to Dwangwa Cane Growers Trust and were never consulted.
The Plaintiffs commenced this matter in the High Court in November 2013, some three months after the Magistrate’s Court declared that the property belonged to the Defendants. The Plaintiffs took over the Defendants’ only property, which was their source of income and livelihood, forcing them into landlessness and destitution.
On 24 August 2016, when the matter came up for hearing, the High Court ordered the Plaintiffs to produce documentary evidence, if any, within 14 days to prove that the land was leased to them. No such evidence was submitted to the Court.
On 2 December 2016, the High Court ruled that the Magistrate’s Court that gave the land in issue to the Defendants was a competent court with jurisdiction to hear customary land matters. The High Court noted that the Plaintiffs who were aggrieved by the decision of the Magistrate’s Court did not seek leave to appeal nor did they apply for a stay of execution. Instead, the Plaintiffs instituted a fresh action in the High Court to circumvent the appeal process. Without deciding on the merits, the High Court accordingly dismissed the matter and ordered the Plaintiffs to pay the costs of the proceedings.
“This case perfectly illustrates the plight of women in Malawi who are often arbitrarily deprived of property and related economic activities and financial independence”, said Youth Watch Society (YOWSO) Executive Director, Muteyu Banda. “By snatching the property which was the only source of income of a frail widow and her daughter, the Plaintiffs did not consider how the two women and the orphaned children they support would sustain their livelihood.”
“This increasing phenomenon of land seizure by national elites has devastating consequences on vulnerable groups, especially women and children, including the loss of livelihood and chronic food insecurity,” said Brigadier Siachitema of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre which supported the case. “Although it does not set a precedent, the High Court decision sends a clear message to national elites that property grabbing will not be tolerated.”