Op-Ed: South Africa’s rush into populist politics in a policy vacuum

PUBLISHED: Fri, 03 Aug 2018 15:42:14 GMT

By Gary van Staden, Senior Political Analyst at NKC African Economics

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday, July 31, took a leaf form his predecessor’s play book and sprung a late-night surprise on the nation with the announcement that the constitution would be amended to facilitate land expropriation without compensation, rendering futile any further discussion and representations on the issue.

It was a legalistic, populist political gambit that merely reinforces the belief that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has no unclouded vision of where it wants to go but is determined to go there anyway.

The decision taken at the ANC’s two-day National Executive Committee (NEC) lekgotla was apparently informed by the views expressed at the ongoing hearings on land taking place across the country and headed by Parliament’s Constitutional Review Committee.

The fact that the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) voiced the view in favour of expropriation without compensation the most loudly spooked the ANC NEC and led to what is a premature decision.

The decision to amend the constitution to facilitate something the constitution already allows for was explained as a need to allow for the “explicit” expropriation of land without compensation.

Local media reported that Mr Ramaphosa said it had become “patently clear that our people want the constitution be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation, as demonstrated in the public hearings. The lekgotla reaffirmed its position that a comprehensive land reform programme that enables equitable access to land will unlock economic growth by bringing more land in South Africa to full use and [will] enable the productive participation of millions more South Africans in the economy.”

It would be difficult to find a reasonable South African who would deny the urgent and necessary need for land reform, but such a reasonable person would also want to see the plan to understand the strategy and policy framework that would guide such reform in order to ensure that it would succeed in its mission of empowering the dispossessed and unlocking economic potential.

What they would have seen on Tuesday night was an ANC terrified that the EFF was going to stake a leadership claim on the issue of land redistribution and that was politically unpalatable.

So, we were treated to another dose of populist rhetoric with no clear answers or even a hint to the critical questions of what land, where, how, for whom under what policy and regulatory environments, and with what predetermined outcomes.

While it would be reasonable once again to accept that such details and agendas and policy frameworks could not be explored at Tuesday night’s late briefing, there is a real concern that these details, agendas and policy guidelines do not in fact exist and that the detailed issues of land redistribution and the myriad problems that the whole saga brings to the fore are seriously lagging electoral concerns.

There are several institutions and NGOs who have done sterling and valuable work on the ‘backstage’ issues, problems and complexities of a serious land reform programme that would address the real problems and facilitate real solutions without political grandstanding and empty rhetoric.

These institutions deal with key aspects of a land reform programme and offer various scenarios for taking the entire process forward, but these solutions do not always carry the electoral windfall political parties are seeking to tap into.

There is broad agreement among those organisations serious about land reform that constitutional amendments are not required to facilitate the process, but this detailed practical set of policy initiatives is far less sexy than political posturing on electoral platforms and the late, late press show.

The problem is that the consequences of these press shows are often dire and, given the lack of any context or any reasonable framework in which to place the dramatic announcements, inevitably lead to negative financial and economic consequences and undermine confidence.

There was a chance here for a successful land reform programme that would involve both benefit to our people and a growth of investor confidence in how well the issue was managed. That outcome is now off the table.

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