COMMENT

EWC: the penny drops at Agri SA

John Kane-Berman says the organisation appears to have learnt that appeasement isn't working

Four months ago Agri SA issued a statement expressing its "appreciation" that senior officials of the National Congress (ANC) had made "specific policy commitments" on agricultural property. Among other things, productive agricultural land would be protected and property rights would remain a key priority in agrarian development. The farming organisation "welcomed" these "important" commitments after a meeting with the deputy president of the ANC, David Mabuza.

One month ago Agri SA appeared to have changed its tune. No sooner had a parliamentary committee agreed to amend the Constitution to allow for expropriation without compensation than Agri SA was promising to draw the line against this, inter alia by mobilising internationally. Two weeks ago Agri SA committed itself to pursuing all credible avenues to protect property rights, including going to court to challenge the decision by Parliament to make the necessary amendments to Section 25 of the Constitution. Clearly, the organisation no longer believes the promises made to it four months ago.

This is a healthy development – not because the promises have proved to be empty, but because Agri SA appears to have learnt that appeasement is not working. A growing number of organisations is now recognising this in agriculture and even in the mining industry. Organisations that include the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) have been vindicated in their determination right from the start to fight the land confiscation policy adopted by the ANC at its 54th national congress in December last year – and subsequently endorsed with enthusiasm by Cyril Ramaphosa.

ANC insiders have indeed complained to some of my colleagues at the IRR that we have made things difficult for President Ramaphosa in that he has been repeatedly challenged about expropriation when he goes on trips abroad to drum up investment.

The ANC is ideologically committed to confiscating land from whites. The only thing that might prevent it from doing so is a long battle waged in whatever forums are available, among them the media, the courts, investors, foreign governments, and international organisations.

Waging such a battle means adopting the ANC's own approach. Its ability to implement its revolutionary programme depends on the prevailing "balance of forces", as it has pointed out in its "strategy and tactics" documents. These have in the past stated that tensions over property – "at the core of all social systems"' – need to be managed via "dexterity in tact and firmness in principle".

Accordingly, those who wish to preserve property rights need to take all necessary steps to ensure that the "balance of forces" remains permanently tilted against expropriation without compensation. This in turn requires perpetual vigilance. In particular it requires vigilance against dextrous tactical retreats, such as the headlined assurances against "land grabs" that Mr Ramaphosa sometimes gives foreign audiences, among them the German president on his visit to South Africa last month.  

Right now, vigilance is required against attempts at incremental changes to property legislation that do not generate as much public attention as the threats to amend Section 25. One such set of changes came into operation on 30th November, when regulations were gazetted empowering the government's valuer-general to reduce the value of properties targeted for expropriation to promote "land reform" to way below market value. These regulations are probably unconstitutional.

Other incremental changes are contained in a revised expropriation bill approved by the Cabinet earlier this month. According to City Press, expropriation without compensation will apply only in specific cases. Such cases include where land is owned for "purely speculative purposes" or has been abandoned. However, such cases may not be limited to the ones specified.

There are no doubt many in the ANC – perhaps even Mr Ramaphosa himself – who favour a big-bang approach to amending Section 25. The alternative is a piecemeal approach which will generate less opposition. Both the new powers for the valuer-general and the revised expropriation bill demonstrate that while Mr Ramaphosa is trying to set at least some minds at rest, the government bureaucracy is quietly putting in place the building blocks it will need to implement the ANC's confiscation policy.      

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.