Country living is a dream for many city people, but as Canadian journalist Douglas Mason has discovered, it may easily become a nightmare.

On his way to Afghanistan some years ago, he spent Christmas Eve at a guest farm in the middle of the Free State. One thing led to another and soon he and his hosts struck a deal. Mason had seen a strikingly beautiful old farm house on a remote part of the farm. The farmer had no use for it and agreed that Mason, who has experience of rehabilitating heritage homes, could fix it at his own cost and live there when he was in South Africa.

Though things started well, relations soured and next thing the farmer threw Mason off the farm, accusing him of “blasphemy”: the deal was off, he said. Mason then presented farmer Chris Swanepoel with a bill of just over R225 000 for work up done to that point. When Swanepoel refused to pay, the matter went to court where Judge Somaganthie Naidoo had to scrutinise an oral agreement on whose terms the two parties no longer agreed.

Yes, we all know contracts should be written and signed, but those after dinner chats had morphed into friendly agreement and in the end nothing was down in black and white. Well, almost nothing. Mason kept receipts and invoices and took notes and photographs that eventually became valuable evidence.

The judge had to rule on the question of liability; only after that, if relevant, would the amount be argued in a separate action. Her task was to decide the terms of the initial agreement, whether Swanepoel was entitled to cancel the contract because of “blasphemous statements” or if he had other “just cause” to end the deal.

Both sides agreed that the initial contract was for Mason to pay for the renovations in return for which he could live there indefinitely, also that either side could end the agreement. They disagreed however on how Mason would be compensated if the contract ended.

Swanepoel’s view was that Mason would get nothing unless the farm was sold, in which case Mason would be paid for any extra value he had added to the property.

Mason’s evidence was that no one in their right mind would have agreed to such terms, and he certainly hadn’t: his understanding was that because a lifelong occupation right was agreed, the cost of renovating the old building would be progressively discounted over time. This, however, was based on the presumption that he would take occupation of the building and stay for some time. If either side ended the agreement sooner, he would be compensated for the work done to that stage.

As the contract ended even before the work was completed, Mason argued, and as he hadn’t even ever moved in, he was due all he had spent.

With such starkly different claims about the agreement, the judge said she had to consider the credibility of the evidence and the demeanour of the two. She was satisfied with Mason and his evidence but found Swanepoel evasive and when he lost self-control in testifying about the alleged “blasphemous statements” – he never explained what Mason had actually said – the judge said it strengthened her view that the farmer’s conduct in ending the contract was “irrational”. It was difficult to resist the inference that Swanepoel was “fabricating a version” to escape paying Mason, she said.

She found Swanepoel was not entitled to cancel the deal on the basis of Mason’s “alleged blasephemous utterance”, and she ordered him to pay Mason’s legal costs  as well as what Mason can prove he spent in renovating the farmhouse.

Things might now actually be worse for Swanepoel than if he had agreed to refund Mason what he originally requested, without the matter ever going to court. Because now, not only is there a considerable legal bill to pay, there’s also the wording of the order that could prove expensive: the farmer is liable to repay “such damages as (Mason) is able to prove”, and not just the bills, already submitted, that he can prove. Suppose Mason has since found more invoices; suppose Mason didn’t initially bill Swanepoel for his (Mason’s) expert time in the work done overseeing and managing the project ….

The “wily farmer” of South African folklore didn’t come out so well in this case but, with so many beautiful buildings all over the platteland just waiting to be fixed up by enthusiastic city people, Mason’s experience should be a lesson to the wise.

Mason has since found another building to renovate, this time an old bank building he has bought in the tiny Free State dorp of Rosendal. No farmers involved in the deal.

Mason v Swanepoel