Daily Maverick

ANC’s attempt at solving the Original Sin of South Africa

President Cyril Ramaphosa in Toronto engaging with investors and business people ahead of his participation at the G7 Summit Outreach. 08/06/2018 Kopano Tlape GCIS

On Tuesday night, in what had been billed as an “address to the nation”, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced what appears to be the strongest confirmation yet that the ANC will back a plan to change the Constitution to allow the expropriation of land without compensation. The final text of his announcement will be endlessly examined for hints about what he, or the ANC, actually meant. The crucial question, as always, is what will happen next. Frankly, that is still difficult to predict. There are many moving parts to this, and it now appears to be a big mistake to presume that the ANC is anywhere near to any kind of consensus on the issue of land, and how this situation can be resolved.

Much has already been said about the strange timing of this announcement by Ramaphosa, about why he, and the ANC, suddenly felt it necessary to so urgently and dramatically announce that the ANC will “finalise a proposed amendment to the Constitution that outlines more clearly the conditions under which expropriation of land without compensation can be effected”.

Was it the fact the public hearings were overwhelmingly in favour of change, was it because Julius Malema had too strong a hold on the public narrative, or could something else have happened? The fact is, it was entirely foreseeable that the public hearings would go this way. Malema knows exactly how to pack certain meetings to achieve a certain result (those with long memories will remember the ANC’s National General Council in Durban in 2010). This means it cannot be because of the public hearings.

ANC officials were also quick to deny being forced into any action by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with the chair of the ANC’s commission on Socio-Economic Transformation, Enoch Godongwana, angrily denying such a claim on SAfm.

This then leads to the possibility that the real reason for this move was that it had more to do with the ANC’s internal politics. In other words, on one reading, Ramaphosa was somehow forced into this move. That could indicate that on this specific issue he is weaker within the NEC than he previously was. It is also possible that perhaps, for some reason, this simply suited a multiple chess game he is playing currently.

However, soon there could be various moves indicating which option is a real one.

Ramaphosa obviously does have control over certain levers within the party. Surely, Jackson Mthembu and much of the Parliamentary machinery will answer to him. Although, to muddle things hugely, it could also be seen to answer to secretary-general Ace Magashule. But what the caucus does is hugely important, as is the timing in which it does it.

One option for Ramaphosa may be to push through a specific change that doesn’t actually do as much damage to the economy as other possible options could. In other words, he would try to do something quickly, but retain control of the process as much as possible. This would then mean the ANC actually accomplishes something before the election i.e. changes the Constitution, but without causing any longer-term damage to the country in the process.

On the other hand, if Ramaphosa is actually weak, any change could be delayed, as internal tussles within the party prolong things.

At this point, it is probably important to ask whether it is possible for the ANC, in the state that it is currently in, to agree to what the amendment would be? Surely, among even just the top leaders, there would be huge disagreement as to what it should be. Tony Yengeni could possibly suggest all white-owned land should be taken without compensation while Gwede Mantashe may have a different view. On an issue as complex as the “land question” it is highly unlikely that an organisation as big and ideologically broad as the ANC is going to have any simple discussion about what the final language should look like.

In the meantime, Malema is going to simply do two things; first, claim that he is leading the ANC by the expropriation collar, and second that, no matter what it actually does, the ANC is not going far enough.

At the same time, there is obviously huge jockeying for position ahead of the 2019 elections. While the ANC and the DA will have polling data, it’s not certain how broadly important the land issue is. But there may be a temptation to turn those polls into a referendum on whether land should be expropriated without compensation.

The impact of that is also complicated. At first glance it is obvious that there are many more people who have no land (and probably no or few assets generally) who would then vote in favour of expropriating land. There are obviously far fewer people who have land who stand to lose it through expropriation.

Thus, in a straight shoot-out on just this issue alone, those who support it would win. But politics is not quite like that. Arguably the DA’s biggest problem at the moment (apart from its own incompetence over Patricia de Lille) is that it lacks an enemy after Jacob Zuma’s odd departure from the Presidency. This would give it one. It could be reinvigorated by the ideological divide. All of the DA’s problems over race, diversity and quotas could disappear almost immediately. Instead, it could try to be the voice of a middle-class with much to lose from any fundamental challenge to the status quo. This would have the effect of pushing voters from its base to go to vote, and drawing in people who are undecided as well.

The upshot of all this is that it is probably not quite certain at this point that after the election, if it were such a referendum, there would be a two-thirds majority in Parliament in favour of expropriation without compensation. And you can imagine the pressure the Constitution will come under in that scenario.

In the end, the problem appears to come down to this: land was taken through violence from people who owned it, from 1652 onwards. The majority of people are poor and would benefit from land restitution, and hence would obviously support a major change. The people who own the land now are rich, and have resources to oppose that change. In the meantime, there is simply no simple “solution” that is currently being offered that would not have a huge impact on the economy.

In some ways, there is a resonance with Britain’s Brexit referendum. There, voters were convinced to vote in a certain way on an incredibly complex question with no road map of what to do if they did vote that way. Here, of course, people believe there should be expropriation without compensation. But there is no road map, yet, as to how that should be done. What would happen the day after the Constitution is changed? The difference here of course is that a wrong was done during the taking of land, while that was not the case with Britain and the European Union.

But the other issue is what would happen? No one, really no one, has even started to discuss in public what kind of mechanism would be used to determine who would get the land that is expropriated. The contestation over that mechanism is surely likely to be intense.

The land question gains its power from the fact it is the Original Sin of South Africa. It is about not even apartheid, but colonisation itself, and the racialised inequality of the present. That is precisely what makes it so complex. And precisely why it could still take a long time before the ANC actually publishes its amendment. DM

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