Daily Maverick

Political brinkmanship vs Governance: Ramaphosa’s move to amend SA Constitution kickstarts 2019 elections season

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the “Night of 100 words”, a banquet organized by The Nelson Mandela Foundation and ABSA in honor of Former President Nelson Mandela’s Centenary at the NASREC Expo Center, Johannesburg. 17/07/18 Kopano Tlape GCIS

In an unprecedented move, Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation as ANC president in what’s traditionally a slot reserved for the head of state. This blurring of the lines between party and state shows the pressure on the governing ANC, particularly on the economy and land expropriation without compensation. And in a bizarre twist the ANC lekgotla and Ramaphosa effectively kicked Parliament to the kerb – announcing a constitutional amendment to “clarify” expropriation without compensation as the parliamentary public hearings and processes remain under way.

The telling moment was in the opening minute of Tuesday evening’s pre-recorded message, when ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa explained:

We thought it was important for the president of the ANC to clearly and unambiguously articulate the position of the organisation on two matters critically important to the economy of the country and the well-being of its people.”

If it is thought necessary for the governing party’s president to explain the party’s position on land expropriation without compensation and the economy in an address to the nation that’s traditionally reserved for the head of state, it provides a clear window into the pressure the ANC finds itself under. That strain is from within its own ranks as the party remains factionalised regardless of the frequent invocations of unity, but also in the broader body politics, with just months to go before the 2019 elections.

Ramaphosa’s post-ANC lekgotla announcements on the economy ticked the usual platitudes – training and job opportunities for youth and women, focused on rural communities and townships, public infrastructure spend. There were no new details as the economy remains battered, bruised and trapped in low growth – the forecast is around 1.2% for 2018 – and stubbornly high unemployment, as Tuesday’s labour force statistics showed, with an increase in the joblessness numbers. Instead there was talk of “a stimulus package to ignite economic growth”, but stay within what’s available in the Budget and “the pursuit of new investments while remaining committed to fiscal prudence”.

In other words, doing everything for everyone.

But it was land expropriation without compensation that brought the whammy. The ANC lekgotla had decided, Ramaphosa said, that there would be an amendment to Section 25 of the Constitution.

The ANC will, through the parliamentary process, finalise a proposed amendment to the Constitution that outlines more clearly the conditions under which expropriation of land without compensation can be effected. The intention of this proposed amendment is to promote redress, advance economic development, increase agricultural production and food security. It will also transform the unjust spatial realities in urban areas.”

Note the ANC president’s phrasing: “the ANC… will finalise”, not Parliament, the legislative sphere of state. The question arises: are the current public hearings there just to tick the necessary formal boxes?

Parliament’s constitutional review committee is finalising, but has not yet completed, the countrywide public hearings into a possible constitutional amendment for expropriation without compensation. Also not finalised are any of the other parliamentary processes, including considering the written submissions, and inviting from among them those who should make verbal presentations, never mind deliberations and decisions.

The deadline for the committee’s report on whether a constitutional amendment was necessary is 28 September 2018. The process of a constitutional amendment is itself a completely separate process that will require its own public hearings, deliberations and other inputs.

But for Ramaphosa on Tuesday evening to announce a constitutional amendment, even if he verbally rooted it in “the parliamentary process”, is premature at the best and politest. At worst, it indicates a willingness to undermine the national legislature with political brinkmanship to regain control for party-political reasons just in time for 2019 elections.

Because, although Ramaphosa praised the turnout at the public hearings and the proposals put forward there without fear or favour – “This is the constitutional democracy we fought for,” he said – the ANC is on the back foot. For over two decades, land reform, restitution, redistribution and tenure security have fallen by the wayside amid governance paralysis.

But in 2018, the call for expropriation without compensation to return the land to black South Africans has rung loud and hard throughout the past five weeks of parliamentary public hearings.

It’s not quite what the ANC had in mind when at the 11th hour of its December 2017 national conference it agreed to such compensation-less expropriation, qualified by the need for food security and agricultural production. In senior circles of the ANC it was not thought there would be concrete steps towards such expropriation without compensation, that this would be managed, precisely through the all-important qualifiers of maintaining agricultural production and food security.

The EFF picked up the ball and put on the pressure. At the end of February 2018 its parliamentary motion for a process towards expropriation without compensation was supported by the ANC, after some key amendments. It was this motion that brought about the current public hearings.

And the EFF has remained in the driving seat on this particular expropriation highway. It has mobilised for speakers at the public hearings, already held in eight of the nine provinces, with the Western Cape starting on Wednesday. The EFF has been vocal at those hearings, and on other platforms such as its fifth birthday celebrations, that the land should be nationalised – and the state be in charge to lease it to citizens. The details of state ownership of all land remain somewhat fuzzy from within the red brigade and its cardinal pillars policy document.

That’s not what the ANC has in mind. And the governing party is wanting to take back the initiative, but can’t do so while ignoring the public hearings. Hence Ramaphosa’s balancing act:

It has become patently clear that our people want the Constitution to be more explicit about expropriation without compensation as demonstrated in the public hearings.”

The ANC lekgotla had reaffirmed the Constitution as “mandate for radical transformation”. Phrasing like that highlight how Ramaphosa treads the factionalised fault lines of the governing party that have dropped off the public radar since the December 2017 national conference, but remain in play nevertheless.

At the same time Ramaphosa pulled back to the ANC resolution qualifiers of food security and agricultural production, emphasising that the ANC’s constitutional amendment would “promote redress, advance economic development, increase agricultural production and food security”.

Separately, the ANC is asking government to provide farmers with assistance like tractors and tools before the first rains come.

The EFF is unlikely to be quite satisfied as it wants nationalisation of all land, and DA national leader Mmusi Maimane said on Tuesday that his party would oppose any such ANC constitutional amendment.

If Ramaphosa had waited three days, until Friday, he could have done this address to the nation as president of South Africa, on completion of a Cabinet legkotla that is starting on Wednesday, right after the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) lekgotla.

But the choice was to do so after the ANC lekgotla in a six-minute 45-second pre-recorded message to the nation against the backdrop of two ANC flags, as the president of the governing ANC has shifted something in South African politics. And it shows that all’s up for grabs. This space needs to be watched, closely. DM

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