South Africa may owe a debt of gratitude to its current ambassador to Denmark. Crude and utterly unbefitting for a diplomat though her conduct on Twitter in June was, she helped to emphasise the intentions of the government in respect of land policy and by extension, much else in the country’s future.
Her Twitter antics presented SA’s land politics in starkly race nationalist terms – the need to seize from one group for the (putative) benefit of another (#OurLand). Even by the dismal standards of Twitter, this was a blunt and extreme position, signifying the triumph of ideology over pragmatism. In other words, this contradicts some of the assurances that land reform (which one hastens to add is a necessary and potentially productive policy) will be carried out prudently to the benefit of all.
But while the actions of an errant ambassador are a cause for concern, the reactions of some of her colleagues point to something more serious. The ambassador’s superior, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor, reprimanded her for lack of decorum – for getting personal, essentially – but seemed at ease with the substance of what the ambassador was saying.
Incidentally, it’s far from clear that the minister’s intervention has changed the ambassador’s Twitter behaviour, both in terms of her own messaging and what she is retweeting. Among the latter was this: “Kindly tell that Apartheid apologist that we gonna Nationalise everything n Satafrika will be a one-party socialist state n that arrogance will be flushed sekuseduze.” (A comprehensive rejection of everything that South Africa is meant to represent…)
More fulsome was the response of Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary-general of the ANC. In a confusingly composed contribution – written in the tradition of that great South African fig leaf, the “personal capacity” – she defended ambassador Zindzi Mandela, and said that her words would have been “jolting to many who wish to pretend that the issue of land restitution is mere rhetoric that will go away”. She reminded her readers that expropriation without compensation (EWC) and a constitutional amendment were the policies of her party.
Although Duarte invoked the need for “facts” in discussing this, she has not always been fastidious in this respect. So it was here:
“The expectation is that we allow this system to continue unhindered, because it is said disturbing ownership of the minority will kill our already limping economy. But inclusion and creativity will spread the growth we need. More people who become employers will create more jobs. It is time to allow facts to define our growth narrative, not shallow truths. We need more farmers and farmers need land.”
Inadvertently, she made a case for what has been wrong with South Africa’s land reform efforts, which her party’s plans are only likely to exacerbate.
For a start, it would take a considerable degree of complacency to believe that what the ruling party has been engaging in is “mere rhetoric”. And it is rare indeed to find anyone advocating for things to continue “unhindered”. However, among those who have acted to ensure that things are so is Duarte’s party, which has declined to extend proper property rights to millions of Africans in the former homelands and in townships. This has represented an appalling continuity between the apartheid past and the present.
The state has also failed to provide protection to many, allowing thugs and strongmen to deprive others of theirs. As was the case of the Ekuthuleni community in KwaZulu-Natal in 2014, where police escorted long-term residents out, while an impi, apparently under the authority of a traditional leader in league with mining interests, moved in.
Indeed, it bears mentioning that it is policy of the incumbent government not to pass on land acquired for redistribution purposes – in other words for assisting in creating the new generation of farmers that Duarte refers to – to the beneficiaries. Rather, they are to remain state tenants. The State Land Lease and Disposal Policy is explicit about this. Professor Ruth Hall of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape – hardly an opponent of land reform – called it “a policy that says that black people are not to be trusted with land”.
There is nothing at all to suggest that the intended EWC-based land reform policy offers a departure from this. Rather, if the Expropriation Bill is a guide, it proposes merely expanding the discretion of the state to seize the property of those under its authority without paying for it. One possibility – enunciated by an official at Davos – is that all land will be vested in “the people” of South Africa. An echo of the “nationalise everything” train of thought? Sadly, as one is sure Duarte would acknowledge, this would provide an ideal opportunity for those among “the people” with outsized influence to gain outsized access to land, and to benefit from it. This has been a lesson that might be learnt from South Africa’s existing land reform programme – and much else besides.
As for the economic consequences of this path, EWC will prove ruinous. According to respected economist Azar Jammine, it already has. While redistributive measures can bring real economic benefits to individuals and to society as a whole, this is only possible if they enhance rather than undermine the overall economic and investment environment. So, a well-thought-out and competently executed land reform programme (of which land acquisition and provision is but one element and not by any stretch the most challenging) would indeed expand opportunities. But this describes something very different from what the ANC has been proposing.
Interestingly, someone who recognises this is former president Kgalema Motlanthe. Having headed an inquiry commissioned by Parliament into the outcomes of transformative legislation – including land reform – he speaks with a degree of knowledge and authority that others lack.
Speaking at a dialogue around agricultural development as Duarte was penning her thoughts, he reiterated what his panel had previously stated. Existing constitutional arrangements are conducive to land reform. (Indeed, in certain circumstances, it has been argued that the constitution would countenance doing so at no compensation.)
But land reform, he said, would need to recognise property rights if it is to be productive and meaningful.
“If property is not protected you destroy value, and if there’s no value then you won’t have an economy driving forward. People won’t invest effort and resources in building assets. And if you think about it properly, if property is not protected by law, society as we understand it today will disappear because the kind of anarchy and chaos that would ensue is difficult to imagine.”
Motlanthe’s is an outlook rooted in pragmatism. It recognises the real-world consequences of poor choices, and calls for carefully weighed decisions. For Mandela and Duarte, the impulse is fundamentally ideological. Which one prevails will be of profound importance for South Africa. It is perhaps a sad comment on the state of the country that this choice even needs to be made. DM
"Charms strike the sight but merit wins the soul." ~ Alexander Pope