President Cyril Ramaphosa’s accession to power was greeted with relief by those who hoped not just for an upturn in the probity and effectiveness of governance and for better economic prospects, but for a higher standard of politics.
The urbane new president, with the breadth of his life experience, would exercise real leadership. He would help steer the country away from division and destructive racial nationalism towards constructive debate and durable solutions.
Last week, at a ceremony handing over land in Ebenhaeser in the Western Cape, the president pointed darkly at the (supposed) reasons for the failure of land reform.
‘Resistance’ from farmers needed to stop. While some farmers were cooperating, he issued a stern warning: ‘To those who are still resisting, we are saying: please come to your senses. This is a programme you cannot stop, that you cannot resist. Please come work with us. This is land that we must all share.’
It’s not immediately apparent what he is talking about. Land reform as a principle is accepted by all stakeholders in the agricultural sector. If there are differences in emphases and disagreements about the most appropriate policy model, this is inevitable in a democracy – supposedly a point for pride for South Africa.
Farmers have at times launched legal challenges to land acquisitions or restitution claims. This is not only entirely within their right, it is an expression of the rule of law. Our courts – rather than guns and bombs – exist to allow people to assert and protect their rights. Every legal system worthy of the name, after all, is meant to restrain both the state and those subject to it. With his legal background, one would imagine that President Ramaphosa would appreciate that.
Perhaps, though, ‘resistance’ is best understood as a sort of evidence-free zone in which any questioning of the writ of the government can be deposited. ‘Resistance’ is a phantom lurking in dark corners, an unidentifiable entity that serves no purpose other than to foster paranoia and division. This is all of a kind with the sort of cynical recklessness that has proved so damaging to the country in recent years.
Most immediately, it shows a failure of leadership. The land reform malaise owes very little to ‘resistance’, but to a swathe of other factors, many of which are squarely the responsibility of the government which President Ramaphosa heads. One could start with the sheer incapacity and incompetence of much of the land reform bureaucracy. Or the disjuncture between government departments responsible for land reform and agriculture. Or the meagre budgets made available for land reform.
Dealing with these is essential if any reasonable land reform programme is possible. But they also mean addressing ingrained and extremely difficult problems in the state, and tackling them comes with political costs. It demands real leadership – indeed, statesmanship – to do this. It’s far easier to point at an imaginary enemy.
More than this, a failure to recognise, name and address these problems means that successful land reform is essentially not possible. Deflection and stigmatisation may provide some short-term political cover, but the long-term consequences cannot forever be avoided. Anyone doubting this should think about Eskom.
Sadly, this is an established pattern in the land ‘debate’. As it raged last year, President Ramaphosa’s government and party chose to place this issue front-and-centre of its agenda, offering little but Expropriation without Compensation (EWC) as a solution. President Ramaphosa himself sometimes put this in messianic terms – it would turn the country into the Garden of Eden.
EWC is meaningless to successful land reform – it promises nothing more than to enhance the discretion of a state that has shown a lamentable inability to manage the process thus far. But the debate around it is now recognised to have undermined the country’s prospects over the past year. What might have been a ‘Ramaphoria dividend’, with a bump in investment and employment and positive sentiment towards South Africa, was thrown away.
Meanwhile, it’s revealing that while the president warns farmers not to ‘resist’ (perhaps meek acquiescence in whatever questionable endeavours his government might come up with would be preferable?), it has shown a remarkable degree of accommodation when others have done so.
Foremost here was the reaction last year of South Africa’s traditional leaders to the possibility of losing control of their landholdings. No one exemplified this more than the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini. His rhetoric around the issue drew harsh and uncompromising lines. Anyone who pushed to remove land from his control was ‘an enemy of the Zulus’.
Speaking of those who might meddle in the land under his jurisdiction, the King said to his subjects: ‘They laugh with us in front of the world but when they meet, they plan to backstab us. Wake up and show your anger over your land. Show them who your forefathers are. They want to steal your land in broad daylight.’
He also called for monetary contributions to challenge (dare one say ‘resist’?) the government in court.
Assurances swiftly came from government that nothing would be done to undermine traditional leaders’ control over land. Recently, Parliament passed two Bills – the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill – which affirms this authority, over land and the fate of the people under leaders’ control.
Dr Aninka Claassens, hardly a land reform ‘resistor’, described them as measures to ‘undermine the citizenship and property rights of 17 million of the poorest and most vulnerable South Africans living in former homelands.’
So it seems also that ‘sharing’ the land is not a universal aspiration for President Ramaphosa’s government.
In his role at the helm of the country, the president must surely be faced with the question, where does this policy trajectory lead? It may well lead successfully through the upcoming elections, for South Africans are not always averse to conspiracy theories and scapegoating, nor fastidious in checking the claims of their leaders. But it will come at a steep cost for South Africa’s future, expressed in misplaced policies, deepening economic crises and unresolved social tensions. It would be strange indeed if President Ramaphosa would be content to have this as his legacy.
Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR, and to mandate it to speak on this issue, by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).