Addressing the failures of land reform would involve taking a hard look at what actually ails land reform rather than what fits an untidy ideological narrative.

The push for Expropriation without Compensation (EWC) has regained momentum, most visibly in the renewed drive for an amendment to Section 25 of the Constitution. According to the chair of the committee formed to draft it, Dr Mathole Motshekga, the process should be completed by March next year.

Speaking on radio last week, Dr Motshekga presented himself not as a representative of the African National Congress (ANC), on whose ticket he had been elected to Parliament, but as a statesman carrying the duty of seeing through a grave task for the good of society.

‘It’s a matter,’ he averred, ‘that must be decided in the best interests of the people of South Africa as a whole.’

This was a matter that required wisdom and the judicious balancing of options. ‘It’s not a matter that depends on who has more numbers,’ he added.

Perhaps he meant that magnanimously, in the sense that his party would not (or at least would not like to be seen to) use its numerical preponderance to force through its preferred version of the amendments.

Then again, perhaps the reference is to the process that brought the committee into existence. Last year, Parliament engaged in an extensive consultation exercise – at least at first glance – intended to measure the views of the public about the need for a constitutional change. Given that the ANC and its partners in the matter, the Economic Freedom Fighters, commanded a majority and had pledged that EWC would become policy, the process was always attended with a suspicion that it was fundamentally a theatrical one to legitimate a foregone conclusion.

Sadly, this seems to have been the case. President Cyril Ramaphosa demonstrated as much in his late-night announcement on 31 July 2018 when he announced that his party had decided to amend the Constitution – it was ‘patently clear’ that this is what ‘our people’ (a sinister phrase, referring to something other than ‘South Africa as a whole’) demanded. This, while the ‘consultation’ process was still ongoing.

In the event, this claim was incorrect. The volume of responses was quite remarkable, with well over 700 000 reportedly having been received. A heavy majority – 65%, according to Stanford Maila, co-chair of the Constitutional Review Committee – were opposed to amending the Constitution.

While some creative reasoning was employed to deflect this – ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule remarked without any justification that oral submissions outweighed written ones – it could not disguise the fact that amending the constitution did not reflect the preferences of ordinary South Africans. And so representatives of both the ANC and the EFF resorted to declaring this irrelevant. It was, to appropriate Dr Motshekga’s words, ‘not a matter that depends on who has more numbers’. (Interestingly, the putative will of the ‘majority’ is regularly invoked to justify policies in other areas.)

Indeed, polling by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) confirms that EWC is not a majority position. During 2018, as EWC dominated politics, an IRR-commissioned survey sought to canvass public views on the matter. Some 73% of voters had heard of EWC. Among those who were aware of it, well over half (or 41% of the overall total) opposed it, against 30% who supported it. The remainder had no clear opinion. When asked about the prospect of compensation-free expropriation being used to deprive them of their own property, support collapsed – only 9% of South Africans were sympathetic to this. Altogether, a clear rejection of EWC, in other words.

Having dodged the issue of popular endorsement of EWC, Dr Motshekga put forward an explanation of why it would be necessary: ‘The triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality is very high. Our economy is not in good shape and we believe that if this land question is sorted out, we will be able to speed up the processes of building the economy of this country.’

He is correct about the challenges confronting South Africa, and about the economic anaemia that confounds the country (something that is not unrelated to the economic stewardship exercised by his party over the past decade). And a well-executed programme of land reform holds some promise for South Africa, although it hardly matches even the rudiments of a comprehensive solution to the problems of a rapidly urbanising society, where the most lucrative opportunities are to be found in cities and depend on education and skills.

And if ‘land reform’ is to be defined by government intrusion into private property rights via EWC, and a statist approach to landholding (existing policy sees the state as landlord for the ‘beneficiaries’ of much of its land reform endeavours), this will only undermine South Africa’s prospects. Concerningly, this appears to be the path that the country is on – and it is one that has already served to push investment and growth opportunities away.

Fortunately, it is not too late to step back and listen to the injunctions of popular sentiment and economic rationality. We at the IRR have put forward ideas for both rural and urban land reform, based on private titling, upskilling, investment in infrastructure, the provision of adequate funding made accessible through new mechanisms such as a Commercial Farming Fund and Farming Empowerment bonds, and the like.

In other words, addressing the failures of land reform would involve taking a hard look at what actually ails land reform – as opposed to what fits an untidy ideological narrative – and adjusting accordingly. And while ‘numbers’ may not be decisive in good policy, such a change would have the pleasing advantage of aligning neatly with what most South Africans would like to see.

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

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