South Africa's Supreme Court on Thursday said that a white Zimbabwean farmer can take possession of a Zimbabwe government property to compensate for the seizure of his farm.
The South African court dismissed a Zimbabwe government appeal against seizure of its property in Cape Town by the farmer, in a ruling that a lawyer said makes legal history.
Attorney Willie Spies called it "a great success ... a symbolic victory that makes it possible for the government of Zimbabwe to be effectively punished."
The Zimbabwe government dismissed the ruling.
"That's wrong. That property belongs to the government of Zimbabwe and that farmer has no right to sell it," said Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Didymus Mutasa in Harare.
A tribunal of the Southern African Development Community in 2008 ruled that the takeovers of white-owned farmland in Zimbabwe were illegal and racist. President Robert Mugabe's government argued it was part of a land reform process to redress colonial wrongs. Hundreds of farmers were forced off their property in often violent government-sponsored seizures.
Zimbabwe refused to act on the tribunal's order to restore the farms to their owners, and the Southern African community dissolved the tribunal earlier this year.
In 2010, a South African High Court attached a Zimbabwe government property in Cape Town to satisfy the tribunal's order for punitive costs to pay for farmer Mike Campbell's legal expenses.
Thursday's dismissal upholds that ruling.
Campbell, who was brutally beaten on his farm by activists trying to force him to drop the case at the tribunal, suffered a rapid deterioration of his health and died last year, aged 78.
Spies, attorney for South African rights group AfriForum and for many Zimbabwean farmers, said the dismissal will bring solace "to the many Zimbabweans who affected by the atrocities."
He added: "I think it's probably the first time in legal history internationally that a judicial failure in execution of property will go on after a country is found to be in contravention of certain human rights laws. We're making legal history."
He said human rights lawyers the world over often succeed before human rights courts and tribunals but that those rulings do not normally have any teeth if a country chooses to ignore them.
He is proud to have developed a legal mechanism to punish the government of Zimbabwe, he said.
Farms seized in Zimbabwe often have landed up in the hands of Mugabe's cronies and inner circle and have been left to lie fallow, turning the country that once was the breadbasket of the region into a net food-importer where the poor often go hungry.
Associated Press writer Gillian Gotora contributed from Harare, Zimbabwe