South Africa

DA in the age of Ramaphoria: A tale of two blunders

By Rebecca Davis 13 March 2018

Two blunders within the last week from the Democratic Alliance tell the story of an opposition party struggling to communicate a coherent message on the country’s most charged issue: land. This would be a problem for any party at any time, but it is doubly so given that the 2019 general elections are just over 13 months away – and even more acute in the context of the DA’s bruising run in recent months. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Last week, a South African politician sat down with a journalist and spoke about the need to expropriate property without compensation in certain contexts.

This was not startling in itself; after all, a few days previously, Parliament had passed a motion which affirmed expropriation without compensation as national policy.

What was startling, however, was the fact that the politician in question was a prominent figure within the DA – a party which had opposed the parliamentary motion.

The DA’s Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba told News24 that in his bid to expand affordable accommodation, he would be willing to expropriate inner-city Johannesburg buildings. Where he could not locate the owner, or a fair selling price could not be negotiated, he would expropriate such buildings without agreed-upon compensation.

Mashaba was quoted as saying: “Where there’s a piece of land or a building and you think you can speculate and you are not allowing us to use it as the city for the development of our economy, and providing affordable accommodation for our people, we will expropriate and never apologise to anyone about it.”

It is worth comparing this statement with Mashaba’s party’s other recent statements on the issue.

The DA’s policy on land reform states: “The DA will always fight for individual property rights.”

In an address on Monday, DA leader Mmusi Maimane stated: “The Democratic Alliance stands implacably opposed to any abrogation of existing private property rights. Property rights are the bedrock of development and economic growth. Expropriation without compensation is state sanctioned theft, which is inimical to economic growth and development.”

Daily Maverick asked the DA to account for the apparent contradiction between Mashaba’s utterances and party policy.

Maimane’s chief of staff Geordin Hill-Lewis responded: “The mayor indeed intends to use whatever legal mechanisms available to him in order to rejuvenate the inner city, including as a last resort expropriation. This will be done within the current legal and constitutional framework, which stipulates that ‘just and equitable’ compensation should be paid.”

Hill-Lewis added that the legal ability to do this proves the DA’s point that “it is not necessary to abrogate property rights by amending the Constitution”.

This response does not fully address the tone or content of Mashaba’s comments, however. As an example, Mashaba cited the example of a land owner who had paid R1-million to acquire a piece of land and was now asking to be paid R14-million to sell it, which the owner claimed he had been promised by Mashaba’s ANC predecessors.

Mashaba said he was prepared to pay the owner exactly R1-million and not “a cent” more. “Otherwise, if he refuses my offer, I will expropriate this piece of land, and I was not really playing,” Mashaba said.

While public sympathy may well be behind Mashaba in cases where he is attempting to transform inner-city slums into affordable accommodation, his approach still sounds notably at odds with DA policy. If property developers in Cape Town were told that their land could be expropriated by the DA government – for similarly philanthropic purposes – and that they should expect to be paid “not a cent” more than they had originally purchased the land for, one can well imagine the outcry.

As the old saying goes: it’s the principle of the thing.

Mashaba is hot-headed, and the DA has in the past had to walk back somewhat incendiary statements made by the Johannesburg mayor. But Mashaba’s comments to media do not represent the only recent evidence of internal confusion within the DA on the question of land policy.

It is now well known that the DA sent out SMSes this weekend encouraging South Africans to register with the Independent Electoral Commission to vote in next year’s elections.

An Afrikaans version of the SMS seen by Daily Maverick reads: “Die EFF en ANC werk saam om alle privaat huise en grond te vat. Jy kan dit net stop as jy geregistreer is om te stem.” (The EFF and the ANC are working together to seize all private houses and land. You can only stop it if you are registered to vote.)

Subsequent reports have detailed the confusion that ensued about whether this was in fact an official DA text message, with the party’s national spokesperson Refiloe Nt’sekhe initially strongly denying that this could be the case.

It was the strength of Nt’sekhe’s denial, in fact, that is the most significant aspect of the incident.

It’s not an official national message of the DA, definitely not,” she was quoted as saying. “We never said the EFF is taking land from your homes.”

But the SMS was eventually confirmed to indeed be an official national message of the DA, with the kerfuffle blamed on a “communication breakdown” internally.

It is surely startling that the tone of an official party campaign SMS could strike its national spokesperson as being totally implausible. As being so at odds with what she believed the DA’s messaging to be that she would immediately dismiss it: “Definitely not.

This, again, speaks to a lack of coherent strategy and even ideology within the DA at the moment.

The ANC’s decision to cast its lot in with the EFF and vote for expropriation without compensation should really be a gift to the opposition. At a time when a spirit of enthusiasm about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s potential house-cleaning was widespread, it was difficult to know where opposition parties should aim their ANC-targeted barbs next.

This indecision was deeply felt within the DA, according to a February City Press piece which reported that the party was divided over how best to handle “Ramaphoria”, with the likes of DA chief whip John Steenhuisen criticizing DA strategists for not responding more graciously to Ramaphosa’s election.

From this perspective, the land issue has arrived on the DA’s doorstep like a wrapped gift; certain to become one of the party’s major campaign issues now leading up to the 2019 elections. The land reform manifesto launched by the DA on Monday took care to personalise the issue to Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa’s name appears 10 times in an eight-page document, presumably as a strategy to link the new President as closely as possible to the policy of expropriation without compensation.

The tone of the DA’s weekend SMS on the matter, however, is irresistibly reminiscent of the swart gevaar tactics adopted by previous incarnations of the DA: most notably the decision to contest the 1999 elections under the controversial slogan “Fight Back”.

The SMS is also misleading. As Maimane acknowledged during his Monday address, it is still unclear how far the ANC will support the EFF when it comes to the details of land reform. (The smart money is on: not far at all.)

The model pursued by the EFF would strip all property owners of their property – white and black South Africans alike would lose everything,” Maimane said. But crucially, he conceded: “The ANC has to date not said explicitly whether they support this model or not.”

The ANC has in the past unsuccessfully taken the DA to court over a campaign SMS about Nkandla. On this occasion, they might have greater cause to approach the courts. The ANC did not respond to Daily Maverick’s request for comment on Monday.

With elections a little over a year away, the DA will have to tighten up fast. A basic place to start might be to ensure that everyone authorised to make public statements about land reform is on the same page – and that the page in question doesn’t reek of decades-old expressions of white paranoia. DM

Photo: Democratic Alliance supporters take part in a national mass protest calling for then President Zuma to step down, in Johannesburg, 07 April 2017. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

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