Just 18 months ago, the drive towards land expropriation without compensation (EWC) seemed unstoppable. Now, less so.
At the December 2017 African National Congress (ANC) leadership conference, Cyril Ramaphosa and the moderate wing of the party had been blindsided by Jacob Zuma and the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) zealots. After an emotional debate that at times degenerated into abuse and scuffles, the Ramaphosa faction had forced upon it a poisoned chalice — a policy commitment to state seizure of agricultural land which, if implemented, on previous international history from Russia a hundred years ago through to Venezuela today, would beggar the nation.
Ramaphosa then appeared to have an abrupt change of heart. Instead of digging in his heels, he in a flash became an enthusiastic proponent of EWC, which he said would be executed “differently” from the chaotic land grabs that destroyed the economy of neighbouring Zimbabwe.
This may have been a genuine change on the part of Ramaphosa, based on the pragmatic realisation that the survival of his presidency depended on it. Alternatively, it may just be a temporary stratagem to outflank the leftist wing of the ANC, as it tilts towards the Economic Freedom Front (EFF), only then slowly to rein it in as his hold on the party apparatus becomes stronger.
After all, a runaway riderless horse can’t be stopped by simply standing in front of it. That’s to risk being smashed to pulp. The trick is to nip in from the side, seize the reins, incrementally try to slow the momentum, all the while feverishly praying for assistance.
It’s no different in SA politics when trying to contain thundering EWC populism, once the wild-eyed radicals have the bit between the teeth. No point in pluckily flinging one’s body in front of the beast, only to be crushed.
Better to grab whatever tenuous control possible and rely on support arriving quickly enough to avoid lasting damage and tears. In any case, whatever Ramaphosa’s initial game plan, this is what appears to be happening.
Within the ANC, some semblance of rationality is slowly reasserting itself. A fortnight ago, former president Kgalema Motlanthe came out strongly against EWC.
Motlanthe pointed out that Section 25 of the Constitution already fully recognised the need for restoration of rights to those who had been dispossessed of land and there is no need for an EWC amendment. He warned that for the ANC to go that route would have dire consequences.
“If property is not protected you destroy value, and if there’s no value then you won’t have an economy driving forward… If property is not protected by law, society, as we understand it today, will disappear because the kind of anarchy and chaos that would ensue is difficult to imagine.”
Motlanthe’s intervention is important, despite him, at 70, being officially retired from politics. This a man who is respected by both factions of the ANC, an old unionist, a blooded former uMkhonto weSizwe soldier, and the Marxist intellectual whom Zuma had wanted to head the ANC’s internal “school” of political education for cadres. His views matter, especially in the RET camp.
There may be softening occurring elsewhere in the EWC process. According to BusinessLive, this week, a leaked draft of the presidential expert advisory panel on land reform has recommended against a “blanket approach” to EWC, essentially calling for “just and equitable compensation”, at least in the majority of cases. However, Minister in the Presidency, Jackson Mthembu, said that such work on land reform done by the executive, that is the Cabinet, would not determine the parliamentary process to amend the Constitution to allow EWC.
In other words, a bolshy Parliament might well to choose to ignore the recommendation of all the president’s men, as embodied in the views Cabinet. So, as with everything in SA at the moment, any movement in the sluggish body politic depends on the strength of a Ramaphosa administration that is perpetually being dragged down by its ball-and-chain, the Zuma-ites.
Any shifts on EWC within the ANC are attributable not only to such internal currents but to pressure from outside. Not only has there been a surprising resilience in the parliamentary opposition to EWC but now there is growing international antipathy.
Despite the lure of the “take back the land” populists, opposition parties that oppose EWC performed credibly in the May general election. The Democratic Alliance slid only a couple of percentage points and the Freedom Front Plus gained ground, while the combined vote for Cope and ACDP remained static. The land-invasion favouring EFF did grow, but not as much as feared, winning the support of only one-in-10 voters.
Perhaps this indicates a growing political maturity in the SA electorate. It may be that the tragic unravelling of Zimbabwe has inoculated SA to some degree against the worst manifestations of populism.
What is particularly important, and leaves the ANC and woke social media incandescent with rage, is the overseas lobbying of SA political groups against EWC. No doubt, it scours deeply the ANC psyche that the same arguments it used to convince the West to pressure the apartheid regime — international conventions on human rights — are being successfully deployed against it, mostly by right-of-centre groups.
And, what’s more, it’s beginning to work. In response to SA lobbyists, US President Donald Trump has made clear his abhorrence of EWC and the growing incidence of farm killings. At stake, just for starters, is SA’s preferential access to US markets.
At the other end of the global power scale to the US, is the Netherlands, which is nevertheless important because the Dutch were among the most active European supporters of the ANC during the struggle. It is a telling shift that the Dutch second chamber this month passed, by 86-64, a motion condemning EWC as contrary to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter of Human Rights. It instructed the Dutch government, bilaterally and in international forums, to pressure the SA government to abandon its EWC intentions.
This is the first such motion passed in a Western legislative assembly but unlikely to be the last. Here is potentially a fertile political field for tilling by the likes of Solidarity and AfriForum, which have eschewed the racist rhetoric of the rabid right, to calmly but remorselessly hoist the ANC on its own petard, that of international law.