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Vol 58 No 6

Published 17th March 2017

South Africa

How to repeat the Mugabe mantra

By calling for land redistribution without compensation, Zuma is following his Zimbabwean counterpart and throwing his foes into confusion

Just as mounting political crises again threatened to overwhelm President Jacob Zuma, he pulled out the land card to buy himself breathing space before the African National Congress's elective conference in nine months' time. The beleaguered ANC leader demonstrated his capacity for coming back against all the odds when he endorsed the idea of a 'pre-colonial land audit', followed by 'a single law to address the issue of land restitution without compensation'. This gambit could restore his political fortunes by winning new allies on the left. It would require abandoning the existing constitutional mechanisms for land reform and compensation, and moving to a more radical, expropriatory model.

At the same time, Zuma faces an explosive situation when up to 17 million welfare recipients could fail to receive their money. On 1 April, a 2014 Constitutional Court ruling comes into effect that declared unlawful the government's contract with the main provider of cash services for its US$10 billion in benefit payments. Social Welfare Minister Bathabile Dlamini has consistently refused to make alternative arrangements for the payments.

However, land reform is fast becoming the hottest political issue in the governing party and the country at large. Property rights are protected in Section 25 of the constitution, which endorses the principle of land reform, land restitution and security of tenure, and establishes the principle of 'just and equitable' compensation for expropriation carried out for public purpose.

Any attempt to introduce 'expropriation without compensation', which has now become the war cry of Zuma's supporters in the ANC, would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament to change the constitution. It would remove one of the key pillars of a document embodying the lengthily and thoroughly negotiated compromise that 23 years ago ended apartheid and ushered in majority rule

Rapid reaction
Zuma's intervention drew a range of reactions: Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who won 6% of the vote in the 2014 general elections, had already called the ANC's bluff at the end of last month by proposing a motion in Parliament for the law to be changed to allow for land expropriation without compensation. That was defeated by 266 votes to 33 but the ANC's commitment 'to return the land to the people' appeared on the surface somewhat hollow. The faction supporting Cyril Ramaphosa helped to defeat the motion and is believed to be in effective control of the ANC's parliamentary caucus. The ANC's two Triple Alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, which support Ramaphosa, also oppose expropriation without compensation.

The EFF would support the ANC if it brought in a motion to change the constitution in favour of 'expropriation without compensation', a senior party member told Africa Confidential this week. 'For us, constitutional change is victory… For us, land is paramount.' The EFF will also endeavour to use the issue to deepen the split in the ANC between the Zuma and Ramaphosa factions, we hear.

Land is likely to become the central issue in the 2019 general elections, when the ANC will be in danger of losing its simple majority in Parliament and will be seeking new political allies. The implications of Zuma's ploy are already apparent. The current arrangement whereby the EFF supports the centrist Democratic Alliance in two key cities, Johannesburg and Tshwane (Pretoria), is one of convenience. It is very unlikely to last if the EFF can extract such fundamental concessions from the ANC; some say it would amount to a reverse take-over of the governing party.

Conservative white farmers warned of a 'race war' if the ANC proceeded with changing the constitution but the markets, which would have gone into free fall if an ANC leader had made such an announcement even a couple of years ago, hardly reacted. The market calm suggested that Zuma's intervention was little more than rhetoric to deflect attention from deep divisions in the ANC, its failure to move on promises of land reform and the series of political storm-clouds hanging over his government. Land rights expert Aninka Claassens, who heads the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, said that the call for expropriation without compensation was an attempt to distract attention from the fact that government still held ownership over the vast majority of 'tribal' land. The ANC had opted to support a system of tribal patronage rather than implementing genuine and lasting land reform, she added.

Land experts have ridiculed the notion of a 'pre-colonial audit' because the government has failed in over two decades to complete even an audit of the land it does own, let alone an audit of land ownership before the 1913 Land Act which allocated a vastly disproportionate part of the land in South Africa to white people. The negotiated settlement in 1994 used 1913 as the cut-off point for defining property rights.

From 1994 to date, 4,850,100 hectares have been acquired through the land redistribution programme and financial compensation amounting to 11.6 billion rand (US$882 mn.) was paid out to land claimants who opted for this alternative. Zuma is also attempting to placate restive chiefs hungry for land in the former black homelands set up in the apartheid era, which is still owned by the central government.

The Congress of Traditional Leaders, which is part of the ANC alliance, has hinted at withdrawing from it unless the government transfers land tenure to the Leaders in their traditional areas to shore up their patronage over those who reside in the former homelands. Zuma has long appeased traditional leaders as he sees their power as crucial to ensuring his own political survival and that of the ANC in 2019 (AC Vol 58 No 4, The state of Jacob Zuma's presidency). He has repeatedly raised the issue of land expropriation without compensation in addresses to such leaders, the most recent being when he addressed the House of Traditional Leaders just four days after the ANC had rejected the EFF motion to amend the constitution.

Not policy
A further indication that Zuma's intervention on land was more about politics than giving notice of the ANC's intention, was the fact that there is no trace of any proposal to change the constitution or introduce land restitution without compensation in the documents, which have just been published, to be presented at the ANC policy conference in June. One document overseen by ANC economic policy head Enoch Godongwana and approved by ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe firmly rejected land expropriation as ANC policy. Both men have aligned themselves with Ramaphosa's campaign. Zuma tried at the ANC's January extended National Executive Committee meeting to have the draft economic transformation discussion changed to make expropriation explicit ANC policy but the Ramaphosa faction opposed it.

The proposals emerging from the conference will not become official policy until they are endorsed at December's elective conference, which will choose an ANC leader before national elections in 2019, when Zuma's turn at the helm officially ends. Now though, a growing body of opinion in the ANC leadership says he should step down after a new party leader is elected in December (AC Vol 57 No 21, Stalwarts push for Zuma's exit).

While land reform is one of the most pressing issues in the ANC – and in society as a whole – all references in the policy documents still stress that land restitution should take place within the constitution, which means abiding by property rights.

Zuma's critics say that he has failed to implement land reform within the existing constitution, which provides ample mechanisms for restitution. They argue that the government already has the power to transfer land title to millions of black people living on rural and peri-urban land with a single law, which would have a hugely stabilising effect.

Two strategies
Deputy President Ramaphosa, who is seen as the main rival to Zuma's former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in the race to succeed him, insisted pointedly that there were two strategies for much-needed land reform: one was to change the constitution and the other was 'implementing what is in the constitution' (AC Vol 58 No 1, Power struggle goes nuclear). 'The ANC's commitment is deep and thorough,' said Ramaphosa. 'We will solve this problem.'

Meanwhile, Dlamini-Zuma, who is still seen as the front-runner in the succession race, was preparing to visit the United Kingdom later this month to talk to investors and think-tanks, and attend a lunch at Buckingham Palace. She has been trying to campaign below the radar in the Eastern Cape and other areas with mixed success, despite a six-month hand-over period at the African Union which runs until mid-year and the fact that the ANC does not favour campaigning by aspiring candidates.

Dlamini-Zuma's ex-husband has taken strategic control of her campaign for the presidency and is moving the populist gambit on land reform and 'radical economic transformation' to the centre of her electoral appeal, say ANC sources. That will create a powerful and telling contrast with the moderate Ramaphosa and can mobilise huge numbers of poor electors for whom there is no more emotive issue than land. The fine details of the ANC's failure to move on land reform and the existence of heavily negotiated provisions in the existing constitution will be washed away, the strategists say, in an emotional frenzy. For Ramaphosa and his supporters to call this tactic 'naked opportunism' may not help them.

Meanwhile, Dlamini-Zuma's main backer, Welfare Minister Dlamini, who also chairs the ANC Women's League, has faced furious public criticism for her mishandling of the welfare payment crisis. The senior EFF member told AC that his party was as implacably opposed to Dlamini-Zuma taking over from her ex-husband as it was to Zuma himself: 'As far as we are concerned, she would be a terrible choice.'

Suspicions about Bathabile Dlamini's motives run so deep that the musings of a Rand Daily Mail anonymous columnist, 'Lily Gosam', are spreading well beyond the paper's traditional readership. In a column entitled 'Zuma's secret blueprint for total power', the author claims that Dlamini and Zuma have plotted to ensure that welfare payments do not reach their recipients on 1 April. The claim is that if that happens, Zuma will lay the blame at the door of the Treasury, controlled by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, and that will finally give him an excuse to sack Gordhan, as he has long desired. Zuma and his allies judge that even though Gordhan's department is not responsible for welfare payments, most less-educated welfare recipients will blame it nonetheless.

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