EWC: Be careful of false assurances

John Kane-Berman says what really counts is the law

Expropriation: what counts is the law, not assurances

Prominent among the organisations that delivered petitions to Parliament last week opposing land expropriation without compensation was the IRR. We have long experience of governments that enact potentially harmful laws and then promise that they will not be abused. Once the laws are on the Statute Book, those promises carry little weight.  

Ever since the African National Congress (ANC) put expropriation without compensation firmly on to the political agenda at its conference in December last year, it has given assurances that this will be done without harming agriculture or food production. The main focus, we are told, will be on under-utilised state land, and on land in "lazy hands". Many media commentators, economic analysts, and business leaders have accepted these assurances. Some have dismissed criticism of the ANC's expropriation plan as "scaremongering", "hysteria", "jumping the gun", "panic-mongering", or "overly alarmist."

Many of these dismissive comments have been accompanied by the arguments that President Cyril Ramaphosa has "no choice" but to embrace expropriation. He has thus had to "appease the [pro Zuma] losing faction in his party" and "neutralise the Economic Freedom Fighters".

It has been pointed out that Section 25 of the Constitution already allows for expropriation for the purposes of land reform and that this may be done in certain circumstances without compensation, but that this has never been put to the test. If anyone is then "jumping the gun", it is the parliamentary resolution earlier this year setting up a committee to look into amending Section 25 to get rid of the compensation requirement. The committee is due to report back to the National Assembly in September.

Almost entirely overlooked by all those claiming that Mr Ramaphosa is merely involved in political manoeuvring is the possibility that he is driven by ideology and personal conviction. In July last year, he told the South African Communist Party that the ANC and the SACP were "inextricably bound to the success of the national democratic revolution". Shortly after replacing Mr Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC, he said he would work with alliance partners to lead that revolution. Delivering the ANC's 8th January statement earlier this year, he again emphasised the need to advance that revolution.

This, too, might be political manoeuvring. But ideological commitment is apparent in plenty of what Mr Ramaphosa has said more recently. Black land dispossession was "original sin". The ANC was not "taking land from people" but "merely restoring [it] to its original owners", from whom it had been "forcibly taken". Speaking to the Afrikanerbond earlier this month, he emphasised the demand in the Freedom Charter that "the land shall be shared among those who work it".

Also contradicting the view that Mr Ramaphosa is merely involved in political manoeuvring is his reminder on 8th January that South Africa was entering "the second phase of our transition, with a focus on socio-economic emancipation". The expropriation without compensation which he now routinely promises is consistent with the move of the national democratic revolution into its second phase.

This does not mean that legislation will be speedily enacted. The ANC is too incompetent for that. It is also smart enough to sometimes beat a tactical retreat when it runs into opposition. As its "strategy and tactics" documents state, "property relations are at the core of all social systems". Implementation of redistribution therefore requires "dexterity in tact and firmness in principle". In line with this, Mr Ramaphosa himself once said that white dispossession should take place incrementally rather than all at once so as to avoid provoking too much resistance.

What of assurances that expropriation will be carried out in such a way as to avoid damage to agriculture? In evaluating them, we should remember that likely damage to the economy and to numerous state institutions has seldom previously acted as a brake upon the implementation of ANC objectives.

Moreover, once an expropriation-without-compensation amendment to the Constitution has been enacted, whatever assurances might have been given to minimise resistance to it are likely to prove worthless.      

* 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.