It’s over … except it isn’t

Terence Corrigan | May 24, 2019
There is little reason to imagine that the reckless policy course that prevailed throughout 2018 and into 2019 is anything but the ‘direction of policy’ today.

All eyes are now on the formation of a new Parliament and the Cabinet. Who’s in and who’s out? A wonderful procedural drama, it will provide fodder for columnists and talking heads to speculate on the 'direction of policy’.

Paradoxically, such speculation is often paired with a remarkable complacency, and the expectation that the ‘direction of policy’ will revert to form. In other words, with the election gone, things can revert to the fetid, quasi-functional stasis to which we have become accustomed. 

For many businesspeople and analysts we deal with, this is an almost welcome prospect, if for no other reason than that it is familiar. Things can continue as they are, because this is the state in which we have been operating. Sure, it means that the country’s long-term maladies will remain unaddressed, but some opportunities will exist at home, while others are sought abroad (together with bolt-holes for personal and corporate wealth). 

And maybe, just maybe, President Ramaphosa will pull off the Machiavellian ‘long-game’ that has been ascribed to him – although not by himself or his close political associates – that will see him dispatch counterproductive policy proposals, and embark on an ambitious programme of market-friendly reforms.

At the very least, some of the more pathological ideas that have coloured the past eighteen months or so will be off the agenda. Things like expropriation without compensation, nationalising the reserve bank, racial nationalism and the like.

Well, it never hurts to hope, does it?

Hope is not an inherently useful as a guide to action, unless fortified by evidence. 

The available evidence pushes in the other direction. At the Walter Sisulu Memorial lecture, African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Ace Magashule was crystal clear about where the ANC intended to take the country: ‘Our mandate is to expropriate land without compensation, our mandate is to nationalize the Reserve Bank, our mandate is to transform the financial institutions and banks in order to serve the needs of our people, our mandate is to implement national health insurance, our mandate is to implement the minimum wage, our mandate is to stop retrenchment of the working class, our mandate is to stop privatization of state owned enterprises, our mandate is to achieve free and universal education, our mandate is the transfer of the political and socio-economic power into the hands of the overwhelming majority of our people, Africans in particular, and the black people in general.’

The picture is pretty clear – continue with the existing trajectory. If any reform is envisaged, it will be to fortify the dominance of the state. Just to be clear on the ‘direction of policy’, he included a swipe at White Monopoly Capital. 

Those tempted to dismiss these sentiments as being merely those of an embittered outsider (Cyril, after all, now has his ‘mandate’) might consider that they do, in fact, merely restate party policy. And, substantively too, they reflect what the ANC promised in its manifesto.

Indeed, the key ingredient of this mix, Expropriation without Compensation, has been not only an ANC policy, but arguably one of President Ramaphosa’s flagship projects since he took on the leadership of the party. Memorably, he declared early last year that ‘we are going to take land and when we take land we are going to take it without compensation’.

It was an explicit commitment in the ANC’s manifesto. The groundwork has already been laid by regulations under the Property Valuation Act and by the Expropriation Bill (extolled by the President to an audience of farmers as ‘progressive’). An amendment to the Constitution is in the offing – again, explicitly supported by the president.

In fact, according to Mr Masiphula Mbongwa, a senior official at the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, part of the Constitutional amendment will be a mass custodial taking of all land in South Africa. This he said to an audience at the World Economic Forum at Davos earlier this year. If ever there was a venue at which it would make sense to be serious and sober – not to mention business-friendly – this would be it. Since this message, hardly likely to garner a receptive response from those in attendance, was put out with no refutation, it would be wise to take it seriously.

(A document sent to the IRR, purporting to be the text of the constitutional amendment – which we are not able to verify as genuine or not – does exactly as Mr Mbongwa promised.)

All of which suggests grounds for caution. There is little reason to imagine that the reckless policy course that prevailed throughout 2018 and into 2019 will be abandoned. If anything, the recent past demonstrated that in pursuit of ideological satisfaction, considerable economic damage would be tolerated. All indications are that this is the ‘direction of policy’.

To pretend that these threats have vanished is an exercise in hope without evidence. This often pushes into delusion.


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


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