This is no time to relax on expropriation without compensation
No sooner had the American secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, issued a warning to South Africa that its proposed expropriation policy would be "disastrous" than his ambassador in South Africa, Lana Marks, said it was not going to happen.
In an interview with the Mail and Guardian, Ms Marks said that "there will be no confiscation whatsoever of private land". She had personally advised all partners in the United States (US) of this. "Now is the time for major US investment in South Africa."
This is the second time a representative of a country with substantial assets in South Africa has issued such public assurances. During her visit here in August 2018, Theresa May, then still British prime minister, said she welcomed assurances from Cyril Ramaphosa that "land reform will be no smash and grab". Her government supported "land reform that is legal and transparent and generated through a democratic process". Ms May too then went on to say that "there's an opportunity to unlock investment".
These assurances notwithstanding, it is doubtful that major new investment into South Africa will take place. Quite apart from the crisis at Eskom, it will take a great deal more than assurances by Mr Ramaphosa to Ms May or Ms Marks to quieten uncertainties and anxieties about the ANC's proclaimed policy to confiscate property without compensation.
Although it is sometimes argued that President Ramaphosa's support for this policy is dictated mainly by his need to consolidate his support within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), he has spoken so often and so passionately on the subject that it is hard to believe that he does not believe in it as a matter of personal conviction.
He has also frequently endorsed the overriding ANC strategy of bringing about a national democratic revolution, of which the elimination of private property is an important component. Mr Ramaphosa has further said that "land reform is an essential part of inclusive growth". So whether expropriation is designed to further the revolution or the contradictory objective of fostering economic growth, Mr Ramaphosa seems committed to it.
What then is to be made of the categorical assurances by Ms Marks? In the experience of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), many Western diplomatic missions in South Africa tend to take a favourable view of the ANC, often giving it the benefit of the doubt. Criticism of that party voiced by IRR representatives has usually been met with hostility.
Dating back long before 1994, so many Western countries have invested so much aid money, intellectual capital, and emotional resources in the ANC that they find it difficult to accept that the organisation they once idolised has become a largely criminal enterprise pursuing socialist objectives (although they presumably do not object to the socialism as much as they might to the criminality).
Ms Marks's assurances, naive though they may appear, must nevertheless be welcomed. On the one hand, of course, assurances such as these may have the effect of dampening opposition to expropriation. Arguably, it is too late for that. The ANC has returned time and time again to expropriation. It has also made clear its intention to extend the scope of its expropriating powers – for example by transferring powers over compensation from the courts to the executive branch of government. In so doing, it has provided opponents of its designs with additional arguments.
Ms Mark's assurances provide another argument. Whether or not they were intended to contradict or soften what Mr Pompeo said, her categorical statement "that there will be no confiscation of any private land whatsoever" is something from which the US government cannot retreat without admitting to having been deceived by Mr Ramaphosa.
So the battle against expropriation must continue. It has indeed been under way for a decade at least, with the IRR in the lead. Quite apart from the constitutional issues, expropriation has major financial and economic ramifications. These extend far beyond farmers, who until now have been seen as the primary targets. But urban householders will also be affected if this legislation is enacted. So too will banks, asset managers, municipalities, and insurance companies.
Of course, if, as Ms Marks says, there is to be no confiscation of private land, the need for the legislation falls away.
* 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.