Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Picture: MUHAMMAD MAHDI KARIM
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Picture: MUHAMMAD MAHDI KARIM

SA has impounded a plane belonging to Tanzania’s national carrier over a farmer’s $33m compensation claim for land which was nationalised decades ago, a lawyer said at the weekend. 

The Air Tanzania aircraft was seized on Friday at OR Tambo International Airport after it landed on a scheduled flight from Dar es Salaam.

Lawyer Roger Wakefield of Werksmans Attorneys said the seizure followed an order granted by the high court in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

In the 1980s, Tanzania’s government nationalised a massive privately owned bean-and-seed farm, seizing everything including equipment, 250 cars and 12 small planes.

The Namibian-born Tanzanian farm owner, who the lawyer refused to name, was awarded $36m in compensation in the 1990s — but the government only paid $20m. 

The outstanding balance of $16m has accrued interest over the decades and now stands at $33m, according to the lawyer who specialises in cross-border disputes.

The 86-year-old farmer and grandfather has been fighting for years to get the outstanding amount.

‘Decades of broken promises’

He was arrested in the 1980s and detained for nine months without charge or trial, his lawyer said.

“It was a terrible story — there was no charge, nothing, it was completely groundless, but the reason that they threw him in jail was to enable the government to nationalise his farm,” Wakefield said.

He was later declared a prohibited immigrant in Tanzania on what his lawyer called “baseless grounds”, and he now lives in another East African country.

The farmer approached lawyers in SA, which is party to an international convention on the recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitration awards, in a bid to secure the remaining money.

“Literally after decades of broken promises, promises to pay, acknowledging the indebtedness, the plaintiff was left with no option and he came to me,” Wakefield told AFP.

He said the plane was seized “to certify a long-outstanding debt to the plaintiff which the government of Tanzania has always acknowledged was owing but they just breached their undertaking”.

“The only way that the aircraft can now be released is if they pay the debt or if they put up security for the claim.”

Tanzania’s transport ministry said in a statement that “the plane was prevented from taking off by a decision of the high court of Gauteng, Johannesburg”.

It said the Tanzanian government was working to secure the release of the plane so it can resume its flights as usual.

The seized Airbus is valued at about $90m, according to Wakefield.

On its website on Saturday, Air Tanzania listed only five “available” planes, namely one Airbus 220-300, one Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner and three Bombardier Dash 8-Q400.

In 2017, a Bombardier Q400, bought by the government for use by Air Tanzania, was seized by Canadian authorities over an unpaid debt of $38m owed to a Canadian engineering company since 2010.

The International Court of Arbitration in 2010 ruled in favour of Canadian company Stirling Engineering which had been contracted to build a road in Tanzania but then had the deal terminated by the government without compensation.

At the time President John Magufuli was minister of public works responsible for road construction.

AFP