COLUMN-Commentary: Can Ramaphosa Solve South Africa’s Land-Grab Problem?

By William Saunderson-Meyer

SOUTH AFRICA (REUTERS) - Under the leadership of the recently ousted President Jacob Zuma, South Africans endured a decade of economic decline, political uncertainty, and an increasingly rancorous and racially charged public discourse. But the “new dawn” proclaimed by his genial successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has a thunderous cloud hanging over it.

The ruling African National Congress’s decision to replace Zuma with Ramaphosa last December was met with palpable relief, even among opposition leaders. It’s revitalized the ANC and reduced support for the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) – which polled 24 percent in 2016 – by around five percentage points.

However, Ramaphosa now must deal with the Zuma faction’s last-gasp dose of venom, injected into the body politic at the 2017 party conference that ended Zuma’s reign. The poison pill: engineering a momentous policy change that committed the ANC to land expropriation without compensation (EWC).

At a stroke, Ramaphosa’s faction was hobbled by having to try to bring a constitutional change that it wanted no part of and, indeed, that the entire parliamentary ANC had voted against just a year ago. On that parliamentary motion, the only support for EWC came from the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

As a former trade union leader who, during the negotiations for the 1994 democratic settlement built a legendary reputation as negotiator and deal-maker, Ramaphosa comprehends the ramifications of such a controversial move in a racially fraught country. As a very wealthy businessman, he is also aware of the potential for it negatively to affect investment and economic growth in a land where more than 50 percent of youths in the volatile 15-24 age group are unemployed.

Few know better than Ramaphosa that the entrenchment of private property rights in South Africa’s widely-lauded Constitution was critical to the peaceful transition of 1994.

But Ramaphosa was politically hamstrung last year. Narrowly elected as the leader of a divided party, he had to appear to embrace the poisoned chalice pushed upon him by the Zuma faction, while surreptitiously trying to dilute the potion.

Ramaphosa is captive also to the ANC’s almost pathological fear of being outflanked on the left, in this case by the populist EFF, which wants all private land to be owned by the state, as well as the nationalization without compensation of mines and banking. It is the tiny EFF, with 6 percent of the vote, which made the running on the issue and immediately tabled a parliamentary motion, now perforce supported by the ANC and carried by 241 votes to 81, which began the process of amending the Constitution to allow the expropriation.

Ramaphosa’s response to his dilemma has been to wax enthusiastically about EWC’s potential to address historic racial injustices that allowed white landowners to dispossess the black majority, while warning sternly that South Africa would not follow the “smash and grab” example of land seizures in neighboring Zimbabwe, which reduced that country to penury and sent some two million refugees fleeing to South Africa.

“We must not even see it as taking land from people,” Ramaphosa said disingenuously. “We are merely restoring land to its original owners. As this happens, we will keep in mind securing important resources such as food security.”

In Parliament this month, Deputy President David Mabuza – formerly aligned to Zuma and with an unsavory past that includes allegations relating to political killings that occurred during his tenure as a provincial premier – issued what white landowners will see as a veiled threat: “Land must be given back to the rightful owners… Those who have acquired this land, they must be aware that it’s time to release it.”

The government appears to be preparing to shoulder-charge an open door. The white commercial farming community has been desperate for decades to find an equitable solution to skewed land ownership, an issue that resonates greatly with both black and white firebrands.

There have been a number of government land reform projects, but implementation has been poor, mired in the lethargy and corruption of much of the state apparatus. Viable farms lie fallow and black farmers struggle to access the support necessary to succeed in a country where only 13 percent of the land is arable.

Of the roughly 76,000 successful claims in the post-apartheid restitution process, only about 5,800 chose to have land returned. The remaining 92 percent preferred cash compensation.

While whites still own most of South Africa’s land, ownership patterns have changed with the growth of the black middle-class. Although the land register does not specify race, a recent AgriSA analysis of hundreds of thousands of land transactions concludes that blacks own 26.7 percent of agricultural ground and control more than 46 percent of South Africa’s “agricultural potential” – referring to tribal trust and state lands, which amount to about a fifth of the country.

In urban areas, where 70 percent of the population lives and where the government housing program has been hugely successful, the proportion of black ownership is higher. On the basis of StatsSA surveys, economist Mike Schussler estimates that blacks own between 52 percent and 60 percent of household land.

That means there’s a large black landowning class that will be disadvantaged if their major asset becomes less financially leverageable. While it is still too early for statistical evidence, there is anecdotal evidence that bank mortgages on agricultural land have dried up overnight and residential property sales are also taking a hit.

Terence Corrigan, a Policy Fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations, warns that uncompensated expropriation will unsettle the economy well beyond agriculture. “It would throw a blanket of uncertainty over the very concept of property rights in SA. This would be equally true of all property holders, large and small, black and white.”

Business Day columnist Steven Friedman sees it differently. “Historically, the demand for the return of the land … was directed not only at ownership of farms but at minority control of the economy and society. That is why expropriation without compensation has become a rallying cry for many who have no interest in farming but who feel that a quarter century of democracy has not ended white privilege. It symbolizes a much broader demand for change.”

Friedman’s conclusion is sanguine: “Like all South African crises, this one will end in a compromise.” Unfortunately, South Africa’s political history has shown us that the problem is not whether there is a rational solution, but whether the hardliners on all sides are willing to find one. Ramaphosa has a track record of getting deals done, but this could be one of his toughest negotiations yet. 

(Reporting by William Saunderson-Meyer)

(William Saunderson-Meyer is a South African journalist and writes the nationally-syndicated Jaundiced Eye column. The opinions expressed here are his own.)