Former public protector Thuli Madonsela has become something of a go-to authority for those seeking analysis on South Africa. Justly respected for her resolute stand for probity in government, her words carry weight.
And so, when she expressed some rather upbeat thoughts on the trajectory of the country at a conference hosted last week by insurance giant Sanlam, it must have prompted some careful listening.
For Professor Madonsela, the so-called New Dawn under President Cyril Ramaphosa evidently remains a reality. Investment might follow the dissipation of governance pathologies that had been so much a part of what she had combated while in office.
Impunity was disappearing, she remarked. And South Africa was gaining greater certainty over policy questions, including deeply contentious ones.
“You might not be happy with some policies such as land reform but at least there’s consistency and you know how to position yourself for what’s coming.”
She went on to remark:
“One of the things investors are looking for is whether your legal system is functioning and that has always been one of our strong points here in SA. Of course, there may be concerns about delays but just generally the rule of law in that regard [property rights] is guaranteed.”
Unfortunately, this optimism may well be misplaced, a trust in hope rather than evidence.
It is difficult to know on what grounds Professor Madonsela claims that it is possible to “position yourself for what’s coming” on land reform. The issue for business has never been land reform per se, but the wholly destructive idea of expropriation without compensation (EWC) and the consequent degradation of property rights.
As we at the Institute of Race Relations have heard time and again from domestic and foreign investors, EWC is an investment killer. To undermine the protections afforded to investors’ assets is to introduce a baleful disincentive to investing at all.
The basic intention of the government – to grant itself the latitude to take property without compensation – would be bad enough, but the manner in which this has played out could scarcely have been calculated to inflict more damage. To call it a policy debate would be to afford it a sense of responsibility and reflectiveness that it has no proper claim on. Rather, what we saw for months was an often bombastic call to arms that disregarded the substantive challenges confronting land reform and was often fused with an untidy racial nationalism.
Later, there was a calming of the rhetoric – the audible declaration that the country would be undertaking EWC gave way to a more restrained intention to undertake “land reform” – but make no mistake, there has been not the slightest indication that the intention has been altered.
Professor Madonsela is simultaneously correct and incorrect to claim “there’s consistency and you know how to position yourself for what’s coming”. Yes, indeed, there is consistency in that it is clear (and has repeatedly been made clear) that EWC is coming. But the form it will take, the measures that property owners might take to protect themselves in the impending reality, are unknown. Consistency, perhaps, but no certainty.
Indeed, the messages heard since the beginning of the year point to a very disturbing future. When a senior official declared to an audience of investors at Davos that it was government’s intention to effectively nationalise all land, or when the African National Congress in the Northern Cape produced a list of working farms targeted for seizure – and when neither of these was refuted or contradicted by the president – one can’t help but accept this as an indication of what lies ahead.
And insofar as this provides certainty, it’s a certainty of a disconsolate fate.
Meanwhile, among those who invested hope in President Ramaphosa to steer the country to a better future – presumably, many in Professor Madonsela’s audience – there are no doubt many second thoughts. Of the five quarters for which economic information is available since the president’s ascension to office, three have seen negative growth. Even if this is turned around, prospects of more than 1% growth in 2019 are slim. (The National Development Plan, with which Ramaphosa was associated, envisioned raising economic growth in South Africa to some 5.4% a year over a protracted period as a necessary requirement for making inroads into the unemployment crisis and providing the beginnings of a path out of poverty for millions of South Africans.)
The recent controversy over the South African Reserve Bank and the president’s (belated) intervention – that fundamentally, he agreed with nationalising it but recognised the dangers doing so would hold, and so wanted merely to defer doing so (to a time when those damages can better be absorbed?) – can only reinforce these concerns.
Peter Attard Montalto – another respected voice on the country, with particular insights into the thinking of investors – offered an insightful and chilling analysis:
“At root I believe the issue is that there was no realisation that this was a real, live issue until too late. It was dismissed as a ‘normal’ debate rather than a political attack with credibility fallout.”
There is every reason to believe that this situation will repeat itself as the government pushes on with fanciful and reckless policy. And there is little indication that the president will intervene to rein in the damage, not if it means conflict within his party.
Professor Madonsela reportedly said that if business was not satisfied with the progress of the New Dawn, it should act itself. This is sage advice. Faith in the intentions of the country’s leadership has been a poor bet recently. DM