Parliament has recently attracted some attention for its handling of the public participation process into the possible amendment of the constitution to facilitate expropriation without compensation.
Media reports indicate that results tallied so far suggest a significant majority of submissions opposed any such constitutional change. This has apparently caused some consternation among those on the committee who favour an amendment and wish to push ahead with property takings.
The word is that a new report will be produced, and there were even some murmurings a while back about reopening the process in an effort to achieve a more favourable outcome.
President Ramaphosa unequivocally stated that the African National Congress (ANC) leadership regarded it as ‘patently clear that our people want the Constitution be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation’ – even though the consultation process had not run its course. His colleague, Ace Magashule, airily dismissed the results of the consultation process on the wholly unsupported basis that the smaller number of oral submissions made at public hearings outweighed the larger number made in writing.
“We have seen throughout the country,’ he said, ‘without any doubt, that the majority of South Africans have actually called for the Constitution to be amended.’
Magashule’s confidence notwithstanding, the recently released opinion poll conducted by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) casts great doubt on that contention.
Previous polls (and not just those of the IRR) have shown that land reform is a relatively low priority for South Africa’s people. The current one is especially informative as it probes this question in light of today’s noisy policy debate.
In line with previous polls, a small minority of respondents – some 4% – identified land reform as something the government should prioritise. Far more interest was shown in job creation, dealing with drug abuse and crime, and in providing education.
Testing views on EWC, the survey found that some 73% of voters had heard of the policy idea. Of those who had heard of it, the weight of opinion was a clear rejection. Of the 73%, well over half (or 41%) opposed it, as opposed to 30% who supported it. The remainder had no firm opinion.
Looking at land reform in general, respondents were offered four positions, and asked which of them most closely matched their views. Only 17% said that there was ‘no need for land reform’; 22% believed that land reform was necessary and should be conducted on a ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ basis; 29% believed land reform was necessary, and should primarily consist of distributing government-owned land; 30% thought land reform necessary, and the government should ‘take from whites without paying’.
EWC, therefore, was by no means a majority position.
Meanwhile, there was a clear attachment to the idea of private ownership of land, with more than two thirds of respondents (some 68%) endorsing this view. By contrast, some 31% felt that all land should be owned by the government with people having the right to lease it.
This is important, since the idea of state custodianship of land has not only been a key demand of the Economic Freedom Fighters, but has featured in official policy suggestions for some time. It was, for example, one of the recommendations made by the land audit. It may yet arise as a real option for the country’s landholding system – and it is important to recognise that it is by and large rejected by the public.
Perhaps most significantly, respondents were asked whether they would support giving the power to take property without compensation if that might be used against them. Here, support fell dramatically – only 9% were inclined to endorse this. In other words, when there is a risk of this policy being applied to oneself, and to one’s own property – when it moves from the abstract to the practical – support largely evaporates.
Support for EWC, somewhat thin at best, hinges on the assumption that this will only ever affect ‘other’ people.
This is by no means a given. Quite aside from the dissuasive impact of EWC on investor sentiment towards South Africa (as we at the IRR have repeatedly heard first-hand), the ruling party has offered nothing concrete in the way of assurances or limiting principles. In any event, having expanded state discretion through a constitutional amendment (and probably through new expropriation legislation), there is scant guarantee that the appetite for expropriations will not grow as time goes by, and leaderships change.
The ANC and the President may have taken a decision to proceed with EWC, and to amend the constitution to do so. They may or may not be swayed in this by the public participation process. But there is nothing to suggest that they have public support behind them. Quite the contrary – and it is dishonest to make that claim.
Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the Institute of Race Relations sending an SMS to 32823.