Ramaphosa: On a Cliff Edge

 

South Africa’s new President, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa may have taken the gauntlet in his bold resolve to tackle the economic inequalities besetting his country and put smiles on faces of the largely Black population. But how far can he go particularly on the envisaged land reform policy without inviting the wrath of the West and big business, remains a mirage, writes TONY IYARE

No doubt, the penultimate week’s landmark vote by the South African Parliament to overwhelmingly endorse a motion on “land expropriation without compensation”, which will see the transfer of land from White to Black ownership, will surely put newly sworn in President, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa on the spot to walk his bold talk.

Sponsored by tough talking Joseph Malema, leader of the leftist leaning Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the motion which will usher in a review of the constitution, was passed by a majority of 241 votes with 83 members voting against it.

“We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our lands”, Malema tells Parliament while moving the motion. “The time for reconciliation is over. Now is the time for justice”, he says. This motion now sets the basis for a constitutional review which will see the transfer of land from White to Black ownership without compensation.

Ramaphosa in his first State of the Union address as president promised to hasten the transfer of land to Black people, which has been a major sore point leading to growing frustration that has cost the ANC the loss of control of vital cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth.

A combination of political realism and sagacity particularly against the backdrop of the general election slated for 2019, may have dictated the response to the age long agitation of the Black majority population which constitutes the bulk of its support base. Little wonder that the ANC which controls about two thirds of South Africa’s Parliament massively cast its lot for the motion. Interestingly, the ANC voted to defeat a similar motion by the EEF a year ago by 261 votes to 33 saying at that time it did not agree with any form of land expropriation without compensation. Its prevarication on the matter has made it possible for Malema’s EEF which now holds the ace to bask in victory.

Although the ANC’s Freedom Charter adopted on June 26th, 1955 is unambiguous about redressing racial inequalities in land ownership which has seen a large chunk of choice lands in the hands of the minority White population, it remains prostrate implementing the policy more than two decades after the ushering of multi-racial democracy, stoking the anger of its largely Black supporters with many still living on the edge.

Its impotence in offering sop to the Black population since the end of apartheid, by widening their role in the economy to enable them get jobs and put food on the table is highly fingered for giving rise to xenophobia in which fellow Blacks, mostly Nigerians and Zimbabweans, were mindlessly attacked.

No one is really sure how far the Ramphosa led ANC government is prepared to go on this issue which may likely invite the wrath of the West and big business. But the president, who is torn between ingratiating his party to the hearts of the Black majority and appeasing the interest of big business, appears to be threading cautiously on the seeming minefield.

He says land “expropriation without compensation should be implemented in a way that increases agricultural production, improves food security and ensure that the land is returned to those from whom it was taken under colonialism and apartheid”.

The issue of land reform dominated the discourse at the 54th ANC Conference held in December last year leaving no bone that it’s an issue that cuts through the party’s soul. Its choice on the matter is obviously that of Hobson’s and playing ostrich will translate to the whittling of its support base, undermining of its hold and the likely loss of political control of Africa’s biggest economy.

“The conference has resolved that expropriation of land without compensation should be among the mechanisms available to government to give effect to land reform and redistribution”, Ramphosa who then emerged as the new ANC President says while briefing on the conference highlights, disclosing that “It has also been resolved that we ensure that we do not undermine the agricultural production or the economy – that is what is important”.

The ANC support for the motion was not without some amendments. Its deputy chief whip, Dorries Dlakude says to Parliament that the party “recognises that the current policy instruments, including the willing-buyer willing-seller policy and other provisions of section 25 of the constitution may be hindering effective land reform”.

Section 25 of the constitution, also known as the property clause provides that the government make laws and take other steps to help people or communities to get land to live on, and to claim back land if they lost it after 1913 and because of an apartheid law. The South African non racial constitution borrows many of the demands of the Freedom Charter but is silent on nationalization of industry or redistribution of land.

It is not too clear when the change to section 25 of the constitution will take place to make for land expropriation without compensation but Parliament has referred the matter to the committee on constitution review which will report back on its work by August 30 this year. The ANC with the support of the EFF and other smaller parties is in favourable stead to push through any amendments to the constitution with an over-riding two third majority.

Predictably, the debate in Parliament on the rather controversial land matter was stormy. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) opposed the motion on the ground that changes to section 25 will undermine property rights and scare off potential investors. DA’s Thandeka Mbabama says in her contribution, that expropriation without compensation was a way to divert attention from the failure by successive ANC-led governments on land reform.

“It is shocking that at the current rate it will take 35 years to finalise restitution claims lodged before 1998”, quips Mbabama, a deputy shadow minister for Rural Development and Land Reform. While conceding that there “was an indisputable need to right the wrongs of the past”, she argues that expropriation without compensation “cannot be part of the solution”. DA’s position was shared by the Freedom Front Plus, Congress of the People (Cope) and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP).

Pieter Groenewald, leader of Freedom Front Plus was a bit apprehensive of the likely consequences of the policy. “If you continue on this course, I can assure you there is going to be unforeseen consequences that is not in the interest of South Africa”, he warns. Speaking in the same vein, the Cope leader, Mosiuoa Lekota says there “is a danger that those who think equality in our lifetime equates that we must dominate Whites”. “This is the PAC (Pan African Congress) of 59, it’s no longer the African National Congress”.

But Mcebisi Skwatsha, deputy minister of Rural Affairs and Land Reform rebuffs this charge, contending that the ANC is committed to building an equal society. “You should not make the mistake that we want to oppress Whites. We want to redress an historic injustice. We want to take everybody along achieving an equitable society”, he says.

After casting off the awry specks weaned by former president, Jacob Zuma harangued by close to 800 corruption charges, the ANC led government under Ramaphosa may be on the path to re-inventing itself to sustain its popular control. “We are determined to build a society defined by decency and integrity that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources, nor the theft by corporate criminals of the hard earned savings of ordinary people”, he says

The leadership of the ANC shares the blame for leaving a sleazy Zuma for too long as president to embroil the party is his odium, shame and disgrace. While it was dithering and being unnecessarily protective of the former president, Malema’s EEF seized the initiative of the Zuma must go campaign to make hay.

The policy of “land expropriation without compensation” may present the party once more with the opportunity to regenerate itself and strike a chord in synch with the demands and aspirations of the Black population. It remains a touchy issue and may stir some legal suits. “This thing is going to court, make no mistake. The motion today means land has been elevated even higher as a political issue to code red from code amber”, says Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst quoted by Reuters.

It may however not be as easy as Saul converting to Paul on the way to Damascus. The White population which largely controls the economy and the choice lands is not likely to watch and be crushed by a moving train. Backed by its Western allies, it is expected that it will fight back.

This implies that we may likely see a replay of the land ownership crisis that eventually occasion the exit of former Zimbabwean President, Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Apart from toppling Mugabe in what’s clearly a coup d’état, the fact that the new president, Emerson Mnangagwa is resolved to reverse the land reform programme and barter the economy to the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and other international finance agencies underscores the unseen hands of the West.

Some leaders of popular movements say the response of the White population does not matter on the policy to redress land ownership. But it will be largely tactless and idealistic to expect that the White population will merely fold its hands and moan the loss of its huge investment. There’s a possibility that it may leverage on its overwhelming control of the South African economy and the support of the West to undermine both Ramaphosa and the ANC.

Real politic may mean engaging the White population to stave off any offensive. Some scoff at any such dialogue. Agang MP Andries Tlouamma who wants the ANC to “develop a backbone of steel and stop speaking with a forked tongue” is undaunted. “Those who have taken our land by force, Jesus Christ must reject them”, he says.

Iyare, Editor-in-Chief, The Gleaner News Online is an International Relations Analyst and Communications & Development Consultant