Farmers ‘anoint’ President Ramaphosa, but is it just a matter of faith over hope?

‘The Bible says presidents and kings are appointed by the Lord. Mr President, you’re also anointed … David in the Bible was first anointed and then he was appointed, then he wrote the psalms. Mr President, I know that you’re going to write a lot of psalms for South Africa and it’s going to be a lot of excellent psalms.’ 

These words were spoken by a farmer at a recent event for President Cyril Ramaphosa at Beyerskloof Wine Estate. They are high praise indeed. 

More than mere praise, in fact. They cast the president as no mere politician, but as a man of almost supernatural destiny, within and around whom great cosmic forces are in motion. It is something that resonates in a society in which religious belief holds a prominent place.

Perhaps this is mere faith, and perhaps this is all that is really on offer. It is, after, all not entirely clear where Ramaphosa stands on any number of issues. 

True enough, at this event he put forward sentiments apparently sympathetic to the farming community – there would be opportunities for all, and farmers should look with optimism and positivity to the future.

But in reality, it is not clear whether this is just election-time bluster or a sincere view of the indispensability of the existing farming community. It’s actually rather unclear where the president stands on its role in the future. He has at times expressed appreciation and support for it. But he has also voiced contradictory sentiments.

Only a few weeks ago, he sternly warned farmers to cease their ‘resistance’ to government’s plans. What this ‘resistance’ constituted was unclear. Government’s handling of land reform has been less than stellar, and no credible evidence exists to suggest that ‘resistance’ has a notable role here. Yet it plays into a trope, popular in some quarters and always hostile to farmers, that the failings of land reform is due to plots hatched by reactionary interests deeply opposed to the upliftment of South Africa’s poor.

More directly, President Rampahosa has for a long time made driving land reform through abridging property rights – expropriation without compensation (EWC) – a signature priority of his presidency. It is a policy that places farmers and the viability of their businesses under a pronounced and immediate threat.

The president has not backed down from this. Even at the Beyerskloof event, he affirmed his support for the Expropriation Bill, which he termed ‘quite progressive’. This must be understood correctly: the bill places extensive powers and discretion in the hands of the state, at the expense of property owners. Its very definition of expropriation makes it possible to deprive an owner of property, but without this technically constituting an act of expropriation – creating no liability for the state to offer any compensation at all. Indeed, as Dr Anthea Jeffery has shown, it is a handy tool to take all land into state custodianship, along the model of water or mineral rights.

The Valuer-General’s Office – responsible for setting values to be used in cases of expropriation – last year adopted a formula for evaluating land targeted for land reform. This grants the government a substantial discount, as a matter of course. In most cases, the starting point is likely to be around half of market value, unless the property generates enormous daily revenues. Acting Valuer-General Pelekelo Mwiya recently told a parliamentary committee that through this formula, ‘one could get to zero compensation’.

And, despite some half-assurances over the past year that EWC would target marginal assets – abandoned properties, land held ‘purely’ for speculation and the like – President Ramaphosa’s party colleagues in the Northern Cape have compiled a list of productive properties which they intend to seize (evidently at no compensation) once the legal framework has been appropriately altered. Despite an outcry from organised agriculture, the President has said nothing to contradict or refute this. 

Taken together, this suggests scant ground for the expansive hopes that some farmers have vested in the president. Perhaps their words were merely aimed at ingratiation. Perhaps they were a recognition that – by the dismal standards of contemporary South Africa – President Ramaphosa represents the ‘best’ available. Or perhaps faith, defying evidence, is a compelling explanation.

Regardless, Scripture might offer an important perspective. For theologians have long wrestled with the contradiction between the apparent sanction by God of political authority, and the appalling injustices that such authority may produce. 

David, writer of Psalms, was himself given to bad decisions. As king, he coveted the wife of an officer, Uriah, and deployed him to be killed in battle. A lamentable act of betrayal, it is condemned by the prophet Nathan: ‘Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’

Perhaps an answer is that authority is inevitably wielded by weak and fallible humans. And perhaps the correct response is to look with scepticism upon it, always tempering confidence in the promises and assurances made with a clear-eyed understanding of what their words and actions show.

Or, to remember the advice of Psalm 146: ‘Do not put your trust in princes’. The farming community might do well to heed this.

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

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