Analysis

Pursuing land expropriation could badly hurt ANC’s 2019 prospects

By Stephen Grootes 17 May 2018

ANC's Top Six at the Nasrec Conference (Original photo: Daily Maverick)

On Tuesday afternoon, political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki made the claim that the ANC was only talking about the expropriation of land in the way that it currently is because it was trying to win back the black voters who were no longer supporting it. In other words, he was suggesting that this was all about politics, and basically the use of race for political ends. That may be partly true, but the full picture is much more complicated than that. If land were to become the issue of the 2019 election, it could mangle the outcome in unexpected ways.

Political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki could not have hoped for an audience that would be more supportive of his theory. He was speaking at NAMPO, the annual gathering of farmers and the agricultural industry, in Bothaville, Free State. His comments were also very clear, there was no beating about the bush about his real intent.

This is not about land,” he said, “it is about the loss of votes by the ANC and its little son, the EFF. They think they can bring back the voters who are abandoning the ANC by attacking the white population. It’s an attack on the white citizens of South Africa. They’re using this as a camouflage to attack the white population.”

He then went on to say that Julius Malema is a “famous black racist” and suggest that he is “actually now leading the ANC’s election campaign by attacking white people”.

In some ways, this chimes with Mbeki’s previous comments about the ANC. He has said in the past that the ANC, as a liberation movement, will eventually lose power, simply because it cannot grow the economy. He has said that the party, along with other liberation movements across the continent, was borne out of a struggle against colonial oppression, and thus is a coalition of different classes. His theory has been that it is this multi-class nature of the ANC that makes it impossible for the party to properly form economic policy, and thus grow the economy.

There are many who have lamented the ANC’s apparent inability to form economic policy in the past, which led to a case of analysis paralysis. Arguments around the nationalisation of mines, the land issue itself, and general economic reform all appear to have got stuck in the ANC’s decision-making machinery. Famously, the Economic Transformation Commission is always the last commission to report back at ANC gatherings, and always has the shortest press conference afterwards, almost as if there is nothing important to say – when, of course, politics being politics, it is all about that particular commission.

However, there may be several problems with Mbeki’s analysis.

The first is the very way in which the ANC resolved to expropriate land. It did not go in for the idea wholesale, even the very text of the actual resolution itself demonstrates that. It talks about how this policy will only be followed insofar as it does not affect food production or investment in the economy as a whole. Some critics have suggested this means it simply cannot happen, if the letter of the resolution itself is to be followed.

Then there is the incredibly tense contestation around the issue within the ANC itself. There were scuffles in the main plenary session while this was debated at Nasrec, and it was obvious that there was intense disagreement on the issue leading up to the conference.

At the same time, it seems obvious that the person who now leads the ANC, President Cyril Ramaphosa, does not at all believe that this policy should be followed. The political analyst Justice Malala has suggested that the only reason Ramaphosa and those who support him went along with the resolution in the end was simply to prevent the Nasrec conference from falling apart, in a way which would have rendered his victory null and void.

With this division on the issue, it seems unlikely that the ANC as a whole is now using land just to get at white people. It would appear, actually, that there is almost a class division in the ANC over the issue, one that could almost tear the entire party apart.

However, even if one is to accept Mbeki’s argument that this all about getting votes, it is not necessarily certain that it would work as an election strategy. It may seem simple, on the face of it, that there are more people without land than there are those with it, but our politics is more complicated than that.

First, it is not true that land is only about race. The recent protests in Protea Glen, where black people who were probably the first formal homeowners in the history of their families went out to protest against the erection of shacks near their properties, show this. There are surely many, many black people who own property, and who would fear losing it. This is particularly the case when Malema claims that all land should be nationalised, and belong to the state. And even more so when he says that people would still have to pay the bond on their property.

Hypothetically, if it turned out that the ANC as a whole were to campaign on expropriating land in the polls in 2019, it could be the best possible news for the DA, which is currently going through a phase of intense self-harm. It would suddenly find itself enlivened through the opposition to the policy. It would certainly garner more votes than it has in previous elections by doing so. Especially if it could claim to be the only trusted guardian of the Constitution as it is now. This would pit the ANC and the EFF together, against the DA. The DA would surely benefit from that situation, in a way that could see the ANC not actually increasing its share of the vote significantly.

Of course, it must be said that all of this is difficult to predict given that there appears to be very little polling data that can be trusted on the land issue, and how it would effect voters’ choices.

At the same time, the actual situation on the ground is not necessarily standing still. The current experiment that is being conducted in Gauteng, where Premier David Makhura is asking for all unused state land to be given over to people to build their own homes in a formal way, could still be a game-changer. Where people would have title to land, it would be theirs. This would mean that should they now be asked to vote for the EFF which would want them to give up their land to the state, they would be likely to join the residents of Protea Glen in opposing that. And opposing it with more than just votes. In fact, people with very little to lose, but who do have tenure on a land parcel, may well believe that they would be justified in using violence to prevent losing that land.

Mbeki is right to suggest that the issue of land is a huge political issue, and a massive political tool. But it is much more complicated than that. And while it may appear to be useful for the ANC, it could even contain the roots of its downfall. If only because it seems very difficult for the party to properly agree on what policy should be followed. DM

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