Checkmate to the kleptocrats?

Jeremy Gordin says it is the ANC's patronage bosses, not Cyril, who are playing and winning the "long game"


So, having announced on Tuesday that the ANC would support an amendment to a section of the Constitution “explicitly” to expropriate land without compensation, the president of the Republic, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, has explicitly succeeded in shtupping himself straight up the wazoo. More importantly, he’s done the same to the rest of us, especially the unemployed and destitute.

But perhaps he hasn’t done himself an injury; and perhaps, as Max du Preez and others would argue, he had to do what he did. Let’s unpack this a little.


Why is expropriating land without compensation such a bad idea? I won’t insult your intelligence and knowledge by answering this question in detail, but I’d like to make just four points, if I may.

One: as irritating as it might be for dyed-in-the-wool (spiritual) lefties such as myself, it seems clear that economic prosperity and property rights are as tightly linked to one another as your head is to your shoulders. Investing in and owning property creates wealth – and not just for an individual.

Two: not to have property rights in a society – for a situation to pertain in which a government (or any one or any “structure”) can expropriate your property – means you have lost one of your basic democratic rights; and such an expropriation is as destructive of your society (politically as well as economically) as it is of you as a citizen.

Three: it’s hardly a secret that the SA economy is in trouble; the fiscus is, to put it mildly, hard-pressed; our currency is weak; and inter alia the country requires more local and foreign direct investment (FDI). In the words of Business Day’s political editor yesterday: the Ramaphosa announcement followed “yet another quarter in which the South African economy has shed jobs, with Statistics SA announcing an increase in the unemployment rate on Tuesday.

The move is set to further dent investor sentiment and confidence by local business in the economy.” Regarding FDI, the same BD article noted: “Ramaphosa’s own investment envoy, former finance minister Trevor Manuel, said in June that explaining SA’s ongoing land debate to investors had been tougher than expected.” Surprise, surprise, Trev; welcome to the National Democratic Revolution. 

Four: the Constitution is “merely” a constitution but it’s also more than that. It’s a contract that was compiled, agreed to and promulgated some 22 years ago by those who wanted a just and equitable society in which the rights of all (including property owners) would be protected. Fiddle with it and you sully the treasured compact on which the “new” South Africa is based.


I could have added two other points. The first is that to expropriate land and everything that goes with such a “process,” one needs an efficient and conscientious bureaucracy, civil service, and government. And generally in most areas of the public sector, SA has scant efficiency and little care.

Second, let’s talk about plain ludicrous. Along with the announcement about planning to amend the Constitution, did you catch that stuff about giving tractors and seeds and such-like to potential farmers so they can work the newly-expropriated farmlands?

C’mon, get over yourselves. No one’s rushing to be a farmer. Who’s going to farm the land – Floyd Shivambu and Ace Magashule? Can you see it? Will we start a kibbutz system? Farming is back-breaking work and, for the most part, profits are meagre. Even someone as stupid as I knows that serious modern farming world-wide has shifted increasingly to be less labour-intensive. Last year I spent three months dog-and-cat sitting in a secluded house in Burgundy, France, in the middle of hectares upon hectares of farm land, and never saw another soul for days on end. Know why? The massive surrounding farmlands were run by about two guys and the latest agricultural equipment; and they’d gone home by the time I got up.

Anyway, the return to the land, at the expense of others, was tried by a neighbour of ours; en kyk hoe lyk hulle nou.


So what’s with the ANC and expropriation without compensation (EWC)? Conventional wisdom holds that the ANC is pushing EWC so as to foil the EFF. Here’s the aforementioned BD article of July 31: “... to neutralise the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) whose members have been dominating parliamentary hearings on whether the Constitution should be amended”. Conventional wisdom goes even further, claiming that the ANC has to push the EWC issue for reasons of next year’s national elections.

I don’t think so. What made the EFF a real “player” on the national stage was its campaign against a very unpopular president JG Zuma. Similarly, with the DA. By bringing Ramaphosa in the ANC took the wind out of these opposition parties’ sails. Have a look at recent polls. Both the EFF and the DA have apparently lost (as far as large parts of the electorate are concerned) their respective raisons d'etre.

This is about something else. The ANC delegates coming to the national elective conference at Nasrec knew that they and their movement had thrown in the towel as far as effectively (and cleanly) governing the country was concerned. What do you do in the circumstances? Well, you do what other divided, perpetually greedy, and disgraced national liberation movements have almost always ended up doing in the circumstances: you bring up the ol’ land question.


So: is Ramaphosa just plain stupid? No, he certainly isn’t. Why then would he make himself the flag-carrier for a move that is so palpably moronic and destructive and is above all contrary to his premier stated aim, revitalizing the country’s wrecked economy and restoring its financial well-being?

The short answer is that Ramaphosa’s been told to support the move because that is what the NEC wants. But, says our old friend conventional wisdom, don’t worry, he may be going along with all this lunacy now, but he’ll fix it later. Ramaphosa is, we are told, playing some sort of “long game” – once he is swept back into power by an overwhelming majority in July 2019, he will be powerful enough to clean out the stables properly and do the right and rational things.

I think not.

In December the ANC power-brokers and looters realised they were in deep electoral doo-doo and that the problem was Zuma. So the shrewder among them put together a deal in terms of which they divided the NEC between themselves and put in Ramaphosa as president. He could do his job provided he kept within limits and behaved himself. In other words, don’t fire our fine colleagues Bathabile Dlamini or Malusi Gigaba – they have clout in this party – and if the party wants EWC, then play your part, son. Okay, you can have a commission into state capture and have the SOEs cleaned out, but don’t push that stuff too hard.

Ramaphosa was ostensibly Mr Clean – and would blot out the spectre of Zuma and his Indian buddies and bring back the voters. That was and is Ramaphosa’s mandate. And that, by the way, is Ramaphosa’s leverage: he’s the man who’ll deliver the votes. But here’s the thing: after Ramaphosa has led the ANC to a fine victory next year, and even into coalition with the EFF, what leverage will he have after that? None that I can see; he’ll have served his purpose; the ANC will be untouchable for five more years; and, the real powers-that-be will no longer have any need of him (or Pravin).

So much for the “long game”.

In summary, the kleptocrats only need Ramaphosa now to re-legitimise the ANC and win it a big majority in the 2019 elections. They’re willing to tolerate Gordhan going around cleaning up things in the interim (which will also help the ANC at the polls) and the SOEs are all effectively bankrupt anyway. The fat pickings for the looters lie in a private sector about to be stripped of its constitutionally enshrined property rights.

So the clever thing for the real party bosses, Zuma & Co. etc., is to wait until after the election – which will deliver the ANC a thumping majority – and then clip Cyril’s wings completely. This way they can have their cake and eat it, and then take ours and gorge themselves on that too. Why do you think Zuma called on his supporters outside court to vote for Cyril? 

Will the power-brokers actually dump Ramaphosa after the elections in favour of David Mabuza? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, though they may prefer to keep him on for a couple of years as a puppet and front man.


To conclude, everything turns on the "short game". The kleptocrats are but one or two moves away from checkmating Cyril, us, and the country's future. And the only way to avoid this fate is for Ramaphosa to use his leverage now – while he still has it.