A $7 million shipment of phosphate bound for New Zealand will remain held at a South African port due to a bitter dispute over who has rights to the resource, a South African court has ruled.
The NM Cherry Blossom, carrying 50,000 tonnes of phosphate, was stopped at Port Elizabeth early last month amid claims its cargo was illegally taken and sold to New Zealand fertiliser company Ballance Agri-Nutrients.
Western Sahara was a Spanish colony until 1976 and until 1991 was embroiled in a bitter war with neighbouring Morocco, which wanted to incorporate the sparsely-populated desert territory. Morocco continues to occupy some 80 per cent of the region through some 10,000 troops and a substantial settlement programme.
Many of the Western Sahara's indigenous population, the Sahrawi, still live in refugee camps in Algeria as a result of the conflict.
The United Nations, which has been calling for a referendum on self-determination since 1966, brokered a ceasefire in 1991. No referendum has taken place.
The UN General Assembly further recognises the Polisario Front (PF), which took up arms against Morocco in the war, as representatives of the Sahrawi people, who, it says, have an "inalienable right" to self determination.
The High Court of South Africa delivered a decision on the NM Cherry Blossom matter today, ordering that the ship remain docked in South Africa until a substantive hearing was held.
The territory's own constitution made clear that the mineral wealth, energy resources, territorial waters and other resources were public property, the decision said.
"Administering powers may only allow the exploitation of natural resources on behalf of the peoples of a territory if to do so will be for the benefit of the peoples of that territory or in consultation with their representatives."
The mining companies did and could not claim to have obtained the phosphate for the benefit of the people of Western Sahara.
"Those who may benefit from the mining of phosphate are not the 'people of the territory' but, more likely, Moroccan settlers," the decision said.
The applicants were told to issue a further court summons to the mining companies within a month, otherwise the current order would lapse.
Ballance Agri-Nutrients chief executive Mark Wynne previously told NZ Newswire it was comfortable with the legality and ethics of its phosphate source in the Western Sahara.
He said it was the first time a shipment had been seized and it was working with suppliers and lawyers to ensure it got through.
Ballance had been dealing with Moroccan supplier OCP for nearly 30 years and sourcing phosphate from that area for about 20 of those years, he said.
- Additional reporting Hawke's Bay Today