OPINION | Land latest in effort to extend reach of state

President Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa
Image: File

The current drive by the ANC and the government towards a policy of expropriation without compensation (EWC) has been much discussed, but is too often little understood. The implications of what is unfolding are severe and far-reaching. These must be understood for what they are – and for how they have arisen.

Land politics in SA exists in the shadow of Zimbabwe’s chaotic and often violent experience, and all the more so at this time, as the latter country has just undergone a tumultuous election.

Against this background a number of commentators – such as Adriaan Basson and Mondli Makhanya – have warned that SA is making mistakes that push it down the same road as Zimbabwe.

A widely cited editorial in the Wall Street Journal made much the same point.

Meanwhile, others – such as Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershinsky – argue that SA is not Zimbabwe, and give some credence to the government’s promises that there will be no lawless land grabs.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement that his party would drive a constitutional amendment to facilitate EWC certainly raises legitimate questions about the direction the country is heading. For it is no small matter to commit to amending the constitution in pursuit of a policy goal.

It is even larger when the provisions in question are in the Bill of Rights and the failings of the policy are unconnected to it. This is precisely the case here.

Ramaphosa has repeatedly claimed SA will undertake EWC in an orderly manner, and within the law. There will be no replay of Zimbabwe.

This is a matter of perspective. Central to Zimbabwe’s rapid decline was indeed the breakdown of the rule of law. The willingness to manipulate the constitution might suggest SA’s government intends to undertake EWC within a constitutional and legal framework – although one that it seems intent on tailoring to its needs. (News reports now suggest the ANC hopes to reopen written submissions to parliament to ensure the public voice reflects what it wants to hear.)

A skeptical observer might remark that this is a very creative interpretation of the rule of law. Indeed, that same observer might also note that any process undertaken with predetermined outcomes – and which has been informed by ideological certainties, has appealed to racial solidarity, and has drawn on a long process of stigmatising key stakeholders (in this case, typically white commercial farmers) – might well not be susceptible to control.

There is no guarantee that SA’s institutions and the rule of law will withstand these dynamics." 

There is no guarantee that SA’s institutions and the rule of law will withstand these dynamics.

Voices have already been raised linking land invasions to promises made around EWC. In all of this, there are echoes of Zimbabwe.

That said, the real lesson of Zimbabwe may be a far more obvious one: where policies or actions undermine the environment for economic activity, economic activity suffers.

This is a truism independent of the background and objectives that supposedly animate such politics. World Bank researchers put it some years ago that “although redistributive policies have the potential to benefit the poor both directly and indirectly, they will do so only if redistribution does not jeopardise investment – this may be one explanation for the observation that, in the past, redistributive policies such as land reform have often failed to help the poor”.

So, when writers (such as Bershinsky) suggest the real issue is the scale of poverty and inequality in SA, they allude to a truth, but fail to understand its consequences.

The disruption that a move on property rights will cause to SA will be felt well beyond the country’s farm gates. EWC needs to be understood as something with an impact that will go far beyond land and agrarian reform. This is merely the idiom within which it has been expressed.

The constitutional provision targeted – Section 25 – deals with all property.

As emotional and resonant with history as land is, it is far from the only resource that might attract the attention of policy makers. It is certainly not the most attractive.

This is already on the cards. Over the past decade literally dozens of pushes have been made in policy, law and regulation seeking to restrict property rights and expand the reach and discretion of the state. These were by no means limited to land, targeting mining, intellectual property and the security industry among others.

All of this will be a message to skittish investors, local and foreign, that – at best – SA should be regarded with a wait-and-see posture.

Others have probably already decided that the country is uninvestable.

Expropriating without compensation could prove very costly indeed. And no one will pay this price more harshly than SA’s poor and unemployed, for whom the consequence will be their continued exclusion from the economic mainstream and the shrinking of already meagre prospects for upliftment. Perhaps not the intended outcome, but a predictable one.

There are multiple paths to penury. SA seems distressingly set on one of its own.

Whether or not it is Zimbabwe, what its leaders have chosen to set in motion stands to have distinctly Zimbabwean consequences.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations


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