Don’t blame the Constitution

Douglas Gibson says expanding land ownership does not require eroding land ownership

South African politicians who fail are inclined to blame the constitution.  Equally, when some commentators are dissatisfied with the way in which the president exercises his powers they too blame the constitution. That constitution, much admired by scholars, democrats and politicians world-wide, is routinely trashed by the ANC Youth League, the president himself, various aspirant presidents and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

They seek to justify the abysmal record on dealing with pervasive poverty, the economic backwardness of the majority and particularly the landlessness of those in the rural areas, on the constitution.

Mr Mzwanele (Jimmy) Manyi now a Gupta-funded newspaper and media tycoon as the “owner” of New Age newspaper and ANN 7 television, in January this year, when he was the leading light in the Progressive Professionals Forum, pleaded for the country to abandon its constitution and embrace a majoritarian parliamentary system in order to address the socio-economic challenges besetting our society. 

Manyi stated that the concept of a constitutional democracy was a ploy of the Broederbond to clip the wings of the new government; he wanted it replaced by a majoritarian parliamentary system, presumably where the ANC would be able to use its majority to govern without the constraints of a rigid constitution and an enforceable Bill of Rights.

Manyi is by no means the only public figure holding these views. President Zuma has on occasion intimated that it is not democratic for the courts to be able to instruct the government what to do. He seems not to understand what a constitutional democracy is, but here we see that the very person who has endlessly and shamelessly sought and received the protection of the courts under the constitution to avoid his day in court has set the tone in undermining that constitution.

He and others in his wake talk about “radical economic transformation” and “expropriation without compensation” suggesting that if only they could, the government would make every poor person a landowner. Of course, it is all nonsense.  The powers that government has are more than adequate to succeed with land reform that would strengthen and not weaken South Africa.

In addition to buying and redistributing rural land, why has the government not negotiated with the chiefs who hold tribal trust land amounting to millions of hectares?  Rural folk could and should be given title to the tribal land they live on and at one stroke this would bring millions of our people into the modern economy.

Many urban dwellers live mostly on land that they do not own.  Despite promises and undertakings relatively little is achieved when they too could easily be given title to their houses.  Decades ago, the reviled “neo-liberal” Margaret Thatcher led the way in the United Kingdom by making it possible for tenants of Council Housing, as it was called, to become the owners.  The reason we have not followed that example is that socialists believe in public ownership (meaning the government owns everything) while pretending that they wish to empower the people.

Why do poor people have to wait endlessly for the government to build them a house?  The waiting lists are huge.  In Johannesburg alone, according to Mayor Herman Mashaba, the waiting list is 300,000 strong. 

His administration is striving valiantly to do something constructive and one notes both his efforts to transform the central city so that it offers safe, affordable housing and also that thousands of tenants elsewhere are receiving title deeds thanks to his efforts.  If one is honest, it will never in 30 years be possible to build all the houses that are required.  That being so, the answer is not to blame the Constitution; the answer is to seek new (radical?) solutions that have not been attempted by this government.

One of the “new” solutions was proposed in Parliament by the late Dr Van Zyl Slabbert around 40 years ago.  He said then that it was an impossibility for the government to build houses for all those who needed them.  The answer was obvious: site and service. The government would acquire land; survey it; provide the stands with basic services like water, electricity and sewerage and then give title to the new householders who themselves would build their own dwellings, upgrading them as they went along. 

I would be surprised if the new administrations in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay do not take the lead in the next few years along these lines.  The solution will cost money but if there is a will to solve an insoluble problem it can be done.  Action instead of empty lies will change the lives of millions of our fellow citizens.

In criticising the government and the president, some observers believe that the president has far too much power and that the constitution should be amended to prevent this. It may be justified in certain instances, but the answer is not to change the constitution.  Start fiddling with it at your peril. Rather change the government and the president. 

An electorate that elects the same party into overwhelming power for more than a generation, is inviting that party to become corrupt, inefficient and to believe that it has some sort of divine right to rule.  In most successful democracies the party in power gets dumped out of office every decade or so. 

The new governors generally behave themselves for a number of years and bring about the necessary changes before themselves being humbled by the electorate.  That is the change that South Africa needs: not a new constitution but a new government, with the current lot being taught that it is the people and the great principles of the constitution that really count and not the over-mighty trough-feeders who have more than had their day.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com

This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.