South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: Landed Gentry – Can the DA’s polite land reform programme save the party from itself?

By Richard Poplak 22 March 2018

Think of it as the “They’re gonna take your house! – but to fend them off, we’ll start handing out title deeds” land reform pitch. At the very least, it’s a strategy. By RICHARD POPLAK.

An inviolable piece of South African wisdom: read not the lay of the bones, political sangoma, but the multiple, tiny inferences embedded in a press release. By which I mean that one doesn’t have to be Robert LangdonDan Brown’s polyglot, painting-obsessed alpha-dork – to understand that when the Democratic Alliance calls a press conference at the Human Rights Room on Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill, as it did on 12 March, the subject must be considered a Very Big Deal.

And since Kagiso Radaba has returned to the cricket pitch, is there is a bigger deal in South Africa than land reform?

Nope.

Despite the ostensible importance of the land spiel – and remember, this entire country is premised on a giant, 350-year-old topsoil scam – there has been so much posturing, misunderstanding, misinformation, stupidity, lassitude, scare-mongering and rabble-rousing since the beginning of the year that South Africans can be forgiven for thinking that Robert Mugabe is about to show up on a weaponised combine harvester, firing sidewinder missiles at elegantly appointed farm stalls selling organic apricots and handcrafted biltong.

In broad strokes, however, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have grasped the politics by the lapel and have shaken them insensate, baying for outright “expropriation without compensation” – another of South Africa’s essentially meaningless neologisms – while insisting on changing Section 25 of the Constitution to encompass full-scale land nationalisation. Like an oft-beaten serf, the ANC has followed, whimpering caveats into its snotty shirtsleeves. And the DA has been outraged (outraged!) not by land reform itself, they insist, but by the thought of fiddling with the Constitution – while Herman Mashaba, their rogue-ish Libertarian Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, simultaneously undertakes an urban expropriation without compensation campaign.

I mean but come on.

Sorry to spoil the fun, but land has been expropriated without compensation in this part of the world – and most others – for roughly as long as humans have been bipedal. The ANC has done its fair share, which is to say that none of this shit is new, and that precisely zero of the hype is warranted. Nonetheless, the global media-scape is wracked by lurid wet dreams of a looming South African race war – pagan sacrifice; maidens defiled; land whipped out from under the muddy veldskoene of our industrious, Christ-loving farmers.

The Australian Home Affairs minister, an enterprising neo-Nazi crank named Peter Dutton, has promulgated a fast-track immigration process for our paler agriculturalists.

But you really know you’ve made it in life when the American alt-right is trolling your dick. On Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News’ flagship current affairs programme, the titular presenter explained:

In South Africa, the Parliament has begun amending the Constitution to allow land that is owned by white South Africans to be taken by the government without compensation. The motion was brought by Julius Maleeema (sic), a longtime gadfly and violent nutcase, who clarified that he does not support killing the entire white population” – ba-da-bum – “right now!”

You would be doing yourself a disservice if you failed to watch this clip:

As if on cue, and completely in lockstep, hysteria on Breitbart News and on white suburban Facebook groups reached lunatic proportions. But by refusing to accept the inevitable – that land reform in South Africa must and will happen – its detractors are turning away from the biggest opportunity this country has ever had to remodel itself. The question is: whose Utopia will South Africa become?

I’m guessing not Tucker Carlson’s, although I could be wrong.

* * *

The two main opposition parties know a Capital-P Platform when they see it, and given how crap they were looking in the lead-up to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s various crowning ceremonies, they are both thanking God and Marx, respectively, for the land flap.

The DA in particular was rapidly glissading into an abyss of its own making. How do you fail to capitalise on nine years of thieving, mismanagement and treason perpetrated by the Jacob Zuma regime? How about an end-of-days water crisis in Cape Town, which will be remembered not for astonishing displays of courageous leadership and technical wizardry, but rather by an orgy of backstabbing that resulted in the sidelining of Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille, who, followed by endless political hand-wringing and a ruling by the DA’s federal legal commission, was accused of being a corrupt asshole. She countered by insisting that she was hounded out of office by a cabal of racist sociopaths.

Meantime, the fucking water was running out.

So it’s hardly a stretch to say that the DA is beset by dysfunction, hubris and over-reach, stuffed to the brim with a preponderance of toxic personalities in the upper reaches of power. There is De Lille, who is currently battling her way through a secret disciplinary hearing, as per the Vatican in 1423. But there’s also the almost supernaturally unpleasant Athol Trollip, who serves both as DA Federal Chairperson, and as the Executive Mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay. (He will soon be the un-mayor, if the EFF get their way during a motion of no confidence vote on 24 March.) And we’d be sued without mentioning the party’s unkillable Disney villain, Western Cape Premier Cruella de Zille, who is forever a Tweet away from slashing three percentage points off the party’s numbers: a recent poll suggests that the DA has shrunk back to pre-2016 levels of support, obviously.

Individually, President Mmusi Maimane, Chairperson of the Federal Council James Selfe, and Chief Whip John Steenhuisen are smart, capable men. Together, they’re a drunken karaoke trio locked in an endless bar fight. Partly, this is because they’re not meant to sing in step: the DA is subject to a complex institutional structure that is designed to engender transparency and oversight, but instead results in opacity and chaos, especially when the party’s leader doesn’t enjoy a full mandate. Maimane, you’ll recall, was handpicked by Zille during her tenure at the top, and his anointment has left him without a constituency. The infighting has reached pandemic proportions, and even the usually united Boys Club, which along with Steenhuisen includes the likes of MP Gavin Davis and CEO Paul Boughey, have been battling it out over how to deal with Ramaphosa (who basically, politically, is the DA), and how to formulate a coherent election strategy.

It’s not going well.

And while the DA has pulled many smart manoeuvres in recent years, most of them have taken place in the lawfare arena – which would be awesome if they weren’t matched blow for blow by the EFF. This part of the DA’s family business is steered in the main by the Federal Council, James Selfe, who runs his own little fiefdom. (Latest example: after nearly a decade of striving, the DA have finally had original corruption charges against Zuma reinstated, and can claim his scalp when the former president starts floundering like a fool in the dock.)

But lawyers don’t make a political party, as the DA has found out time and time again.

Maimane aside, the optics of a convoluted leadership structure dominated by white bros with big egos doesn’t exactly ingratiate the party with anyone outside of its base: podiatrists, accountants, Range Rover Evoque drivers, and a black dude named Dave. During an impassioned social media blast, Mbali Ntuli, the DA’s KZN Campaign Director, noted:

The disservice that most analysts have done when commenting on the DA is to approach it as a party that only has race as a theme. Perhaps because we are not in government our personalities aren’t as well known but like in every political parties they play as much a role as shaping the politics of the day as anything else.”

But in politics – and with considerable apology to one of Hannah Arendt’s more famous pronouncements – you can only defend yourself against how you are defined by your enemies.

What makes the DA so enduringly fascinating is how it mirrors the travails of the South African middle class and – perhaps more pointedly – the country’s corporate universe. As the party lurches towards its Federal Congress on April 7 – and let’s just say that it’s not going to be a vegan potluck at a Unitarian church hall – transformation will be a refrain, if not the entire melody.

While Maimane and Selfe will be re-elected unopposed, other contestations will be less sanguine. The supremely talented Executive Mayor of Tshwane, Solly Msimanga, is challenging Trollip for the Federal chairpersonship. This is in every way a proxy battle pitting the old Cape-centric whitey crowd against the newer black caucuses emerging from Gauteng and elsewhere. Should Msimanga win, the DA would start moving forward. Conversely, if Msimanga’s rise is stayed, the DA is basically finished.

But as we’ve recently been reminded, inter-party democracy in South Africa does not resemble actual democracy as conceived in Athens in the 5th century BC, and subsequently modified over the centuries. The DA’s voting mechanism, based on a rating system, is so absurdly convoluted that Batman could end up winning these races.

That said, choose well, Blue Army. The giant Zuma window has just closed on your fingers.

* * *

Or maybe not. Back, then, to the Human Rights Room on Constitution Hill. There sat Maimane, flanked by DA Shadow Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Thandeka Mbabama, and her deputy, Ken Robertson. The room wasn’t overfull with journalists, which was a rather perfect articulation of the excitement the party generates these days. But lo! – from the start, ideological leanings aside, it was clear that the party had come up with a land reform platform at the very least coherent – and offered South Africans a comparative shopping experience that has been lacking in recent years.

Maimane wanted to make clear that, while the DA “supports land restitution, and we support land redistribution […] to undo the terrible legacy of forced land dispossession, which still reverberates in our society today”, it would vigorously oppose tampering with the Constitution.

The problem with the motion last week,” he would later say, referring to the historic “expropriation without compensation” motion passed in February, “is, Nah, let’s ignore all the means we currently have at our disposal to redistribute land, and which the ANC has refused to do. Instead, the problem is the Constitution? We must not give the ANC a cop-out, which I fear is what the EFF has done.”

Noting that the EFF and their ANC underlings would strip South Africans, black and white, of everything should expropriation go ahead, the DA would be “the only party in South Africa that has focused on reforming ownership of urban land by making sure that beneficiaries of state subsidised housing have full ownership title to those homes. We have made 75,000 homeowners already, and are distributing more title deeds every day we are in government. Thousands of social housing units have been approved in the City of Cape Town which will see the spatial legacy of land dispossession addressed.”

The Cape Town model is hardly a winner these days, given the discord within the city of spatial transformation and the largesse reaped by developers over the years. And there has been significant criticism of this pitch within the party, mostly because it hasn’t been tested on the ground – what plays in Cape Town may not play in rural KZN. Light on policy, heavy on positioning, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes unravelled, insist the detractors.

And then there was this, as per the DA’s Shadow Minister of Trade and Industry, Dean Macpherson, who Tweeted earlier this week:

Just got off the phone to an international property investor who has canned an R8-billion investment in South Africa which would have created hundreds of jobs because of uncertainty caused by #LandExpropriation!”

Why can’t South Africans have a debate around land without fake investors threatening to pull out money that they never invested at the best of times?

Anyway, at least Maimane was drawing a line between the DA and the others guys:

We are the only party,” he said, “that envisions every South African being a property owner or a business owner and having a stake in the country. We reject outright the suggestion that people cannot own property or should be permanent tenants of an all-powerful state. We also believe strongly that citizens living on communal or tribal trust land must have absolutely certain security of tenure that is both recorded and legally enforceable.”

A battle line is drawn, if nothing else. And so, the DA careens into whatever version of a future awaits it. Like most South African institutions, it faces change wearily, warily. The party’s shifting demographics, especially at the provincial levels, ask an unpleasant question:

Did the ‘base’ vote DA because it of its liberal, constitutional values? Or did it vote DA because it was ‘white’?

The land issue will flush out the true believers. You don’t need Robert Langdon to tell you that much. DM

Photo: Opposition party leader, Mmusi Maimane from the Democratic Alliance (DA) addresses a media conference in response to the resignation of President Jacob Zuma at the Houses of Parliament, Cape Town, South Africa, 15 February 2018. EPA-EFE/Brenton Geach.

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