A referendum on land won't solve anything

Eugene Brink responds to former Sowetan editor John Dludlu's proposal

The ANC’s ambivalence on land and expropriation without compensation now seems to be landing them in a marsh. This is what happens if you allow yourself to be dictated to by parties such as the EFF without having properly considered the implications of the matter. Sooner or later you are going to come into conflict with one of your key support bases, something a party like the EFF does not really need to worry about.

For example, President Cyril Ramaphosa had to explain in great haste to King Goodwill Zwelithini that tribal land would not be forfeited to the state. These days, Ramaphosa is treading on eggshells like never before to satisfy everybody. Only time will tell whether it will be successful. So far, all of this proves that he and his party did not properly consider certain proposals and their implications, and now they must contend with furious Zulu kings threatening secession.

Consequently, the issue of expropriation has now become anything to anybody and confusion is rife. Ramaphosa promises that black land will not be touched, but he says expropriation without compensation is a sure thing. On how this is going to happen he is as cryptical as an Egyptian tomb. And then we were told only unproductive land would be taken.

Recently, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, following months of silence on what is probably the most important issue in her portfolio, said government would still sell suitable state land to private individuals and companies for development. This was not the initial idea with the motion, but at least she has broken her silence, even though neither she nor the government are putting their money where their mouths are by immediately beginning to sell state land. The question therefore is: Why didn’t they start selling land this way long ago if this is their point of departure? According to conservative estimates, about a quarter of all agricultural land is directly or indirectly owned by the state.

All this confusion leaves the ANC with red faces (one of the obvious objectives of the EFF as a smaller party) and creates much doubt as to what is really at stake with the public hearings and motion and what will eventually result from the whole process. The public hearings have so far made it clear that members of the public insisting on land reform are still largely in favour of private ownership and not state ownership – whereas the motion is essentially aimed at state ownership of land.

This ambiguity and (intentional or accidental) confusion has led John Dludlu, a former editor of The Sowetan and self-appointed expert on land reform, to argue in Business Day that a referendum would be the only solution to the land issue.

Once again, this is a gross oversimplification of an extremely complex matter. Dludlu was presumably alluding to black and white people voting in predictable ways, leading to a neat result in favour of black people. However, it isn’t as simple as that.

Referendums and elections

The difference between a referendum and an election is that a referendum is usually aimed at approving or rejecting a single and specific proposal, policy or law. A question is put to the people of a country, giving them a choice either to reject or approve it. Usually this is rather fixed with a very limited choice. In an election, however, you vote for a party or a candidate and their broad ideological viewpoints, and such party or candidate, if they win and govern, may subsequently implement certain policies and decisions – but it is by no means certain that they will do what they promised. An election is therefore much more vague and broad than the “yes-no” scenario and one-off issues characterising a referendum.

Take Brexit as an example. The Conservative Party and David Cameron as Prime Minister of Britain drew more than 50% of the votes in 2015 and Cameron used this dominant position to hold the Brexit referendum. Subsequently, he himself was opposed to Brexit, yet he still wanted to hold the referendum, inter alia to silence the backbenchers in his own party and to shelve the issue in order to focus on other matters without being distracted.

Against all expectations – including Cameron’s – Brexit was approved in the referendum. However, it was no foregone conclusion that Cameron would indeed call the referendum, although it was highly likely, while the referendum resulted in today’s mess of uncertainty over Brexit. Three prominent pro-Brexiteers and Tories, Boris Johnson, Steve Baker and David Davis, recently resigned from Theresa May’s cabinet due to the way she is handling the Brexit process.

(Which) question and reply?

Be that as it may, there are similarities to the South African land scenario. As with Brexit, there is the issue of exactly what to ask the public. In short, what issue will be at stake and what options will be offered? Will it involve all land, only agricultural land, or perhaps “white” agricultural land, unproductive agricultural land or “white” unproductive agricultural land? Will the remit be widened to include all property, and will only tribal land be excluded? The classification of such land, possible arguments against such classification (on grounds other than section 25 of the Constitution) and the bad publicity the process may garner are already highly problematic.

Secondly, what will happen to such land, i.e. what are the options? Should it be expropriated by the state and put under state control (“black” land included), or should it be taken away from white people and given to black people (in the case of “white” land)? Or should it be taken away and sold at a later stage, as suggested by Nkoana-Mashabane? They could also follow the National Party route of 1992 and ask that the current state-led land reform process be supported or rejected – but this would be an unnecessary and meaningless exercise. And just think of what any of these options would mean to Ramaphosa’s “new dawn” and foreign investment, and to unity in the ANC.

The point is that a referendum on something like land is a last resort and one that should offer answers that can be implemented. What is more, any of the permutations among the abovementioned questions and options will not be accepted willy-nilly and will result in numerous countermoves and contestations. Each one could simply end up in a marsh again (as with the current public hearings) as the public become confused on what they are essentially voting on and how the result will eventually be implemented.

If such a referendum is followed by a period of further ambivalence and inaction, the ANC will be humiliated and their supporters will be antagonised. This issue – that could come in handy to divert attention from their numerous other serious failures – will probably have to be put on the back burner and the ANC will be forced to focus on more important issues (and their failures). The current confusion of course suits the ANC and draws out the issue, but a referendum on land is not going to provide the certainty Dludlu hopes for, and the ANC does not need a referendum to create confusion on this matter.

Of course, many of us would now say: But the ANC (with or without the EFF) can eventually simply take the land and distribute it among prominent ANC members and their relatives and cronies? This certainly is true, but even a referendum will not allow this to be done in an orderly and legal way; and a referendum will never justify it or shield the country and the ANC from its consequences. So, if they want to do this and damn the consequences, no referendum is needed.

The complexity and problems of Brexit show just how an equally complex issue like land reform in South Africa cannot be solved by a single short and easy process or a one-off referendum. Also, beware of quackish writers who try to solve such complex issues in one sentence when even the ANC with all its political power and numerous experts and roleplayers have not succeeded in doing it.

Dr Brink is Strategic Advisor for Community Affairs at Afriforum.