OP-ED

Land issue, the ANC’s Brexit moment

By Marius Oosthuizen 2 July 2018
Caption
A general view of fields of canola in front of the Caledon Wind Farm in the Western Cape, South Africa, 18 August 2017. The Western Cape province of South Africa is home to massive canola fields which flower at this time of the year. The seeds of canola plants are used to make cooking oil. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

What does it mean when a democracy with a free market and open economy, globally traded currency and import-orientated consumer base, decides to debate the suspension of property rights as if it is a legitimate option? Well, it means we are again at a crossroads as a country.

The Parliamentary constitutional review committee has begun public consultations on the question of amending the Constitution to allow the state to expropriate land without compensation.

Detractors of the proposed land compensation policy warn of food insecurity, job losses, capital flight and violent resistance that will result. Supporters argue for the restoration of the dignity of black Africans who were dispossessed of land during colonialism and apartheid.

What does it mean when a democracy with a free market and open economy, globally traded currency and import-orientated consumer base, decides to debate the suspension of property rights as if it is a legitimate option? Well, it means we are again at a crossroads as a country.

Thee years ago I began making the argument in my foresight and scenario work that the “land question” will come to top the national agenda. My friends looked at me with a blank stare. One prominent commentator asked me, “Land, what land? South Africa is now 60% urbanised.”

Over time I began to understand that “land hunger” was a deeply held symbolic notion that serves to represent many anguishes and aspirations, all in one.

It’s a bit like the crucifix of Christ in the front of an old cathedral. You may not know the priest, or the liturgy or the person in the pew next to you, but everyone in the room can relate to the symbol in the forefront. Land represents pain, sorrow, victory and hope. But like the monumentalised Christ, land has proven illusive to the faithful who dream of a utopia in the soil. Until now.

All of a sudden the land looks to be within reach. The ANC has adopted the policy of expropriation without compensation. Parliament has adopted a motion to consider amending the constitution. The EFF has taken a seat at the front of the halls where the public is being consulted on the matter. Like Jesus, the red berets are bringing the people manna from heaven – free land, or so they profess.

Spare a thought for the guy farming 100km outside Kroonstad, or Louis Trichardt (Makhado), or Newcastle. Who inherited a piece of land from his father and built a house on it with money made from farming maize, vegetables or sugar cane on credit. Whose children no longer live there, not wanting to be farmers, and whose life savings are caught up in the land. I doubt those folks are sleeping at night.

Spare a thought for the community living next to or on those farms, whose children attended the farm school, passed with the national average for matric of 37.7%. They don’t want to farm either, but they’re not exactly heading for the c-suite in banking or to traverse the halls of the local hospital in white coats?

As of 1 July, 2018, Property24 lists 4,840 farms for sale in Gauteng, 998 in KwaZulu-Natal, and 1,544 in the Free State. You get the picture.

So how do we respond to the land fever that has beset the nation? In my mind South Africa is nearing a moment such as the one when the National Party created the tricameral parliament in 1983 in a half-baked attempt to appease the groundswell of pressure calling for the political inclusion of non-whites.

The Nats miscalculated the national mood, thinking that the gesture would preserve their privileged position. It failed. What it did was to prove to black South Africans that change was possible, to the minority that black South Africans were not going to be satisfied with a place outside the fence, looking in. They wanted to occupy the seat of power, and through the series of events that followed, the black majority took charge of South Africa.

We are all better off for it.

In my analysis the current parliamentary review process is the first domino in an unstoppable process – of black South Africans exerting their idea of justice on the lay of the land, literally. Like a pendulum that swung from British hegemony to Afrikaner dominance, the momentum in the socio-political system will now bring the identity politics of black Africans to the fore.

With it will come their collective notion of just and equitable land distribution – not dissimilar to what the Afrikaners did with the Natives Land Act of 1913 and the various dispossessions that followed.

Imagine for a second the fallout if the ANC tried to backtrack on the process it has now set in motion? Essentially they will lose their chance at managing a “second transition” and be left as the ones looking in as more assertive nationalists rush to the fore.

In fact, the land issue will be the ANC’s “Brexit moment”. Handle it wrong, and South Africa leaves the global economy in a hard-exit without any clear path to recovery. Handle the land question well, and like the 1994 transition, it can unlock a new wave of optimism and hope for South Africans.

The question, for those of us who favour rapid land restitution and reform but oppose wholesale disenfranchisement of all property owners, is how to respond to the land fever that has gripped South Africa? Well, for one, don’t panic, engage. Talk to the people, black and white, on the far right who want “land or death”, and convince them that there is a third option, life.

Talk to the people on the far left who want settlers to return to Europe, and convince them to settle down and embrace the rainbow that has emerged here after the storm of apartheid.

Talk to the people in the middle who love South Africa and want to create a fair future, and convince them to rethink their relationship with land altogether.

As for the banks and the market, well between 2019 and 2020 we can expect a test of your patience and faith in South Africa’s commitment to a law-based framework of national development. If the political elite lead us astray and take us down a path of impractical, naive and hot-headed intervention in property rights, you’d better diversify our exposure and do so quickly.

Personally I wonder what goes on in the mind of the average voter who owns no land, but has enough of an informed perspective to understand the relationship between property rights, security of tenure, business confidence, investment and the meals their family will eat today.

Do they understand that land reform, like political reform in the 1990s, cannot deliver a better life overnight? Do they understand that South Africa’s reconstruction will succeed to the extent that we painstakingly reverse the damage done by oppression to families, communities, relationships, spatial settlement patterns and economic access? Or, are they like the gambler who borrows money from their employer to place a bet large enough to reverse their lifetime of losses, but only if they win? Because if they take that bet, and lose, they may waste their only chance at economic freedom for another generation. DM

Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics.

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