Finding Solutions To Land Reform Not All That Inclusive After All

Written by:  Terence Corrigan

Concerns about the impact of expropriation without compensation have gone global, but the solution will be local – or so President Cyril Ramaphosa told a recent gathering of foreign diplomats in Tshwane.

‘The reform process will be undertaken in an orderly manner that advances economic development, increases agricultural production and food security, and provides well-located housing for the poor. Parliament is currently engaged in a process of considering whether section 25 of the Constitution needs to be amended to allow for expropriation of land without compensation,’ read his prepared text.

And in remarks widely quoted in the media, he added: ‘We will be able to build our own consensus as a nation, as we did in 1994. We will find a solution to this soon, and it will be a South African-made solution.’

It’s been evident that concerns about the impact of South Africa’s land politics spilling out of the country’s borders have bothered the government for some time now. Investment roadshows have faced penetrating questions about it. This is hardly surprising: anything that imperils the security of property is likely to be met with a strong reaction by those with something at stake. What is at stake for foreigners is their ownership of assets in South Africa, and for South Africa, the prospects of attracting the capital that it so desperately needs to secure its future.

The elevating message given to the assembled diplomats aims to provide a counterpoint, a change in narrative. It invokes an inclusive, all-South African solution, in the best traditions of our democratic settlement. It speaks to what Abraham Lincoln called in his first inaugural address the better angels of our nature.

As reassuring as it is, it is questionable whether this describes the process that is actually underway.

Appeals to ‘debate’ and ‘engage’ have been made for months. It is important to point out, though, that not everything seems to be up for debate. The central issue in the current debate around South Africa’s land politics is not the desirability of land reform, or even its pace – it is whether the state should be seize property without compensating the owners. There is very little to suggest that this is up for discussion. Rather, officials in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), not least President Ramaphosa himself, have repeatedly stated that this will take place.

Commendably, a close reading of his words makes clear that President Ramaphosa does not deny or conceal this. The current consultation process is merely about method. Is a constitutional amendment required to grant the state the necessary discretion to expropriate without offering anything in return?

But this question, too, has apparently already been decided. In a late-night television address at the end of July (as leader of the party, rather than president of the country) President Ramaphosa announced that the constitution would indeed be amended. ‘It has become patently clear,’ he declared, ‘that our people want the Constitution to be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation, as demonstrated in the public hearings.’

That the consultation process had not been completed was apparently not especially relevant – at that point, public hearings were ongoing and parliamentary hearings had not even begun. It seems the President and his colleagues had heard enough.

Whether they had heard what was being said – as opposed to what they wanted or expected to hear – was doubtful. Media reports suggested that written submissions to the parliamentary committee were opposed to changing the constitution, while those made verbally in the public hearings were in favour. Since the former were rather more numerous than the latter, this suggested that in fact a majority of those who had participated in the process were opposed to an amendment.

In fact, last month, an interim report on the submissions received revealed that some 59% of a sample of 149 000 submissions were opposed to an amendment.

Undeterred, ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule simply declared that his party believed that most South Africans wanted the Constitution amended. With no apparent evidence, he was reported to have said that the views expressed at public hearings ‘outweigh’ the written ones. ‘That’s why emphatically without any doubt we must amend Section 25.’

This is a remarkable perspective, lacking any constitutional or legal foundation. It also – along with the posture of the president – calls into question the good faith in which this process has been undertaken.

South Africa’s transition was a remarkable feat of negotiation and compromise, attempting to bring disparate interests on board. President Ramaphosa is rightly to be honoured for the role he played in this. But he does a disservice to the democracy he helped to bring into existence by pretending that the current process is geared to finding the sort of participation, consensus-building and inclusivity that the transition and constitution-making processes embodied.

Indeed, if the drive towards expropriation without compensation is indicative of the crafting of a ‘South-African made solution’ in 2018, it is a sad comment on the direction the country has taken.

* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read, SMS your name to 32823.

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