The myth and the reality of expropriation
I am on board Crystal Serenity, described as one of the best luxury cruise liners in the world, in Hong Kong harbour. I am lecturing to the passengers on world affairs. After my recent trip to Taipei to speak at the East Asia Peace Forum, I returned home before flying to Manila in The Philippines and sailed to Hong Kong on the way to Singapore, via Vietnam and Cambodia. Of course, I keep up with South African developments, sometimes seeing them from a different perspective, comparing them with what happens in other countries.
Herman Mashaba, the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, can only dream of a financial position like that of Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post reported this weekend that Hong Kong has a reserve fund equal to up to fifteen months’ expenditure and also has a budget surplus this year of HK$138 billion (R210.7 billion).
The city has immaculate streets and pavements and everything works. There is no urban blight, no vandalised and abandoned buildings, no hijacked buildings, and the city feels safe because the crime rate is extremely low. The shopping is world class but very high end and the weakness of the Rand because of the poor management of our economy becomes ever-more evident as one compares prices with those at home. Not long ago our currencies were around the same value; no more. R1.00 is now worth HKD 0.65.
Of course, the challenges of running Johannesburg are enormous and are not helped by the difficulties of finding the funds to put right the neglected, shabby city the coalition government inherited after a generation of ANC rule. I was appointed as a non-executive director of City Power a year ago and I am aware of the valiant efforts being made to bring it back to profitability, despite the billions required to restore the aged infrastructure.
For example, the new chief executive officer, with the unanimous support of his executives, quite remarkably recommended to the board that no bonuses should be paid to himself and his top executive team for this year because targets had not been met. This almost unprecedented decision is a reflection of the new spirit that the Mashaba administration has engendered.
In my view, the mayor is doing a splendid job. After a good deal of initial criticism by the media and some sections of the public, Herman Mashaba has become one of the most popular politicians in the country. Given a few years he will turn the city around. For this reason, I was more than a little upset to read on the internet that a couple of disloyal creeps in the DA caucus had attacked the mayor, breaching caucus confidentiality, and accused Mashaba of “pandering” to the EFF. Of course, the leakers remain anonymous but one knows from a lifetime in politics that they are generally inadequate people who have not been promoted to posts they think is their due.
They simply have no idea of the balancing act and the sensitive conduct required from a mayor who is dependent on a multi-party coalition and additional non-coalition votes to maintain a majority. Of course, Mashaba is greatly helped by the pathetic showing of the ANC opposition in the council. It is surely not in the interests of the citizens of Johannesburg to hand the city back to the ANC for yet another dose of corruption, looting, neglect and lousy service.
One of the important examples being set by the DA-led council relates to the rejuvenation planned for the city centre. Mayor Mashaba plans to restore the several hundred hijacked buildings to health and in the process have decent living conditions for thousands who live in utter degradation, exploited by criminals who take buildings from the owners, pack in far too many desperate tenants, often illegally connect to electricity supplies, charge the tenants for the privilege and then fail to pay the council for the services.
The mayor wants the criminal occupation ended, the buildings restored to the rightful owners and renovated so that new life is brought to the city centre. If the owners do not wish to participate or if they have disappeared and abandoned their property, Mashaba says the city will expropriate in terms of existing law and the constitution taking ownership for public purposes after paying proper compensation. Often the buildings are millions in arrears on their service payments and those amounts will be set off against the fair compensation for often derelict buildings.
The plan is a brilliant one, founded on the Rule of Law and the Constitution. It is the exact opposite of the “plan” by the ANC and the EFF that would require constitutional amendments to legalise the theft of property from the owners. The president tried to suggest that Mashaba’s expropriation move had something in common with the ANC/EFF expropriation without compensation. That is simply not true and the president is trying to propagate a myth. The reality is somewhat different.
In pandering to the EFF, and in fact using them to provide himself and his party with a ready excuse for a generation of relative failure of land transformation, President Ramaphosa has bitten off somewhat more than he can chew. The constitution will not be amended before the election and after it the ANC/EFF will lack the majority required. Any constitutional amendments that do pass will spend years being adjudicated by our courts. Nothing will come of all the promises to the landless poor that they are about to become property owners. In Johannesburg, on the other hand, the Mashaba plan will transform the central area and do so in accordance with the law and the constitution. That will be something to be proud of.
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.