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Ferial Haffajee: Where Ramaphosa failed on land in 2018

Dec 13 2018 14:08

I recently had coffee with a friend from the US with the biggest heart for South Africa. He tries to bring investors here all the time. So, when he said that there is an appetite to invest but that our dalliance with land expropriation without compensation is a disincentive, my ears perked up.

Having spent the year steeped in Sol Plaatje’s work on what he saw, and how he sought to stave off the Native Land Act – which legalised the mass expropriation of land from Africans and pushed them off it – I believe land reform can’t happen fast enough here.

It is, as President Cyril Ramaphosa has said, the original sin. 

No amount of revisionism by the white right, or threatened court cases by a wider grouping of conservative civil society, is going to take away that fact.

And no amount of populist rhetoric about land expropriation without compensation is going to take away from the work of the former president Kgalema Motlanthe’s high-level panel on land reform, that rigorous distillation of why we are where we are. 

He has drawn up a document that is of as fine a pedigree as Plaatje’s work, but in the politics of soundbites and populism, that document has been subsumed by the racket for expropriation without compensation as if that is the panacea to the pain of land.

It isn’t, but in 2018 we all pretended that it was. Motlanthe’s work sets too many challenges of a higher purpose on land (give people on communal land title deeds; consider the lethargy and inefficiency in the state as barriers to land reform; do a proper land audit) for a country now steeped in land populism.

On July 31, Ramaphosa’s presidency reached a low point – in a year that has been a high point – when he commandeered the public broadcaster at around midnight to announce a Constitutional amendment to allow for expropriation without compensation. 

He looked unsteady and unsure at that moment; and while aides said he had done it to steal a march on the faction that still seeks to topple him in the ANC, I’m not sure it worked.

Since then, Ramaphosa has done everything to secure an outcome that is both just and sensible, but he and his team have either not been brave enough or efficient enough to communicate it effectively to the nation.

To stave off the populist wing both within and outside the ANC, the governing party has passed a piece of modern expropriation legislation which has been long in the making. This law is about 20 years overdue because it was necessary to align it with the Constitution, which has always provided for expropriation of land.

The new expropriation law is sensible in that it carefully sets out the types of land that may be expropriated, while establishing the exhaustive procedure under which expropriation may happen. Ramaphosa’s government has failed miserably to market this expropriation law as being just, sensible and aligned with the values of the Constitution, as well as a law to honour our painful past. 

By not communicating this effectively, the President has allowed the loudest voices to own the land story. 

Ramaphosa and his band of aides have also not worked hard enough to communicate a lengthy and year-long process to find pragmatic outcomes. For all of 2018, black and white farmers, organised and disorganised agriculture, all political parties, business and civil society have worked bloody hard to find each other. 

"Land expropriation without compensation", as a phrase, has not made its way into any of Ramaphosa’s major speeches this year. Instead, he has spoken a much more inclusive and pragmatic language on how to deal with the original sin.

There are magnificent examples of effective land reform and partnership across the country that, if scaled up, can deliver the land reform necessary. Land Codesas have happened for all of this year, and they have helped to bring clarity to what people want when they speak of land: is it a house, a property, a plot, a farm? Or is it a proxy issue for racial justice in the workplace, in the banks and the other nodes for social justice, which has not yet arrived at impact?

Yet, sitting with my friend, who is one of the many who wants to unlock much-needed investment into South Africa, it became clear to me that Ramaphosa had failed to communicate the sterling efforts his Presidency and government made on land.

By failing to do this, he has left the door open for populists both within the ANC and other parties to turn land into a battering ram for the election campaign – rather than the story of hope and justice I have seen many good South Africans attempt to make real this year.

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