Last week's warning to South Africa by the Trump administration about property rights and the rule of law could not have been more timely.
In his state-of-the-nation address the week before, Cyril Ramaphosa had sung the praises of "social compacts" or "social compacting" at least ten times. Such compacts, based on "collaboration and consensus", on "partnership and cooperation", were "the very essence of who we are". New compacts in the pipeline include one on electricity, and one "to end the crisis of violence perpetrated by men against women".
Yet Mr Ramaphosa also said that his government stood ready to amend section 25 of the Constitution and to table a bill to provide for expropriation without compensation. He thus again made it clear that the African National Congress (ANC) intends to undermine South Africa's founding "social compact" – its Constitution.
The proposed constitutional amendment will not only demolish the property rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. If the ANC has its way, it may also erode the rule of law by transferring decisions over compensation from the courts to the executive branch of government. The very first section of the Constitution states that the supremacy of the "rule of law" is one of its "founding provisions".
The entrenchment of property rights in the 1996 Constitution came at the end of a long process of hard bargaining which began during the negotiations that led up to the election of 1994 and the transfer of power to the ANC. In seeking now to nullify these rights, the president and his party are signalling that adherence to social compacts is not "the very essence of who we are" but "the very essence of who we aren't".
Among the early indications that the ANC does not consider itself bound by compacts was its violations of the various peace accords it signed in the early 1990s even as it was intensifying the "people's war" that helped bring it to power. Once it was in power, it swiftly gave yet another indication that it does not consider itself so bound when it failed to honour the agreement over international mediation that brought the Inkatha Freedom Party into the 1994 election. The South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) warned at the time that this was an "ominous" development. Nor did the ANC's breach of these various undertakings redound to the credit of Nelson Mandela.
Almost from Day One in power, the ANC's top leadership has made it clear that they do not regard the Constitution as binding upon them. In 1995, for example, Thabo Mbeki, then one of the country's two deputy presidents, said that the negotiations for an interim constitution were "contrived elements" of the transition necessary to end white domination". In 2012 President Jacob Zuma blamed slow progress towards economic freedom in part on the compromises the ANC had had to make in the constitutional talks. During those talks Mr Ramaphosa said the ANC's strategy for dealing with whites would be like boiling a frog alive, which is to raise the temperature very slowly so that it does not jump out of the water.
He and his colleagues – mainstream ANC, not any radical faction – have been in bad faith all along.
The ANC's "strategy and tactics" documents make it clear that the "elimination of apartheid property relations" is critical to the success of the national democratic revolution. The ANC's commitment to its own Freedom Charter overrides the commitments and compromises it made during the constitutional negotiations.
Progress in eliminating private property rights has always been dependent on altering the "balance of forces" in such a way as to favour implementation of the revolutionary programme. When business commentators and banks publish naive and erroneous assurances that nothing fundamental will change when the Constitution is amended, they help to shift the balance of forces in favour of the ANC and its communist and trade union allies. The IRR's campaign to protect private property rights is designed to shift the balance of forces against expropriation and in favour of sticking to the Constitution.
The warning last week by Mike Pompeo, the American secretary of state, is therefore especially important. It follows an instruction to him by Donald Trump in August 2018 to "study farm seizures and expropriations" and a state department comment that expropriation without compensation would "risk sending South Africa down the wrong path".
Speaking now in Addis Ababa, Mr Pompeo used tougher language. He said that the proposed expropriation policy would be "disastrous" for the South African economy as well as for the people of this country. He also warned against failed socialist experiments and stressed the importance of private property rights and the rule of law. And he did this right after he talked about failed states such as Zimbabwe.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.