Peter Bruce Columnist
President Cyril Ramaphosa hasn’t yet explained how you remove property rights without putting the entire foundation on which we base our economy and our ability to create and distribute wealth at risk, says the writer. Picture: Moeletsi Mabe
President Cyril Ramaphosa hasn’t yet explained how you remove property rights without putting the entire foundation on which we base our economy and our ability to create and distribute wealth at risk, says the writer. Picture: Moeletsi Mabe

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I’m confused about the land debate. On Tuesday Parliament debated an EFF motion that section 25 of the Constitution be amended to accommodate the expropriation of land without compensation. The EFF accepted a few changes to its motion from the ANC and the motion was passed by a massive majority. It will now be discussed by a parliamentary committee and returned to the floor by the end of August.

The vote means President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his first real week as SA’s CE, has twice acted in the interests of his party rather than the country.

The first was a cabinet reshuffle that failed to act decisively against blatantly corrupt and incompetent ministers. The second was to sacrifice the principle of tenure.

In a way, I get it. Ramaphosa leads a divided house and you keep the ANC from imploding by making uncomfortable political choices that please its many factions. I also get the land issue. White colonialists without question stole land belonging to blacks, who have been deprived of meaningful property rights for centuries.

What do you do with a farm you expropriate if the previous white owner has a bond on it with Nedbank?

I also get that the deal at the end of apartheid (negotiated chiefly by Ramaphosa himself) was flawed. It chose reconciliation over justice. That was a mistake, but you also have to remember the context. Reconciliation was a big deal but ultimately didn’t deliver the contented society it promised.

Just as expropriating land without compensation is now also a big deal. But filled with danger. Ramaphosa has said he would push for expropriation without compensation provided it didn’t threaten food security or the economy. But he hasn’t yet explained how you remove property rights without putting the entire foundation on which we base our economy and our ability to create and distribute wealth at risk.

What do you do with a farm you expropriate if the previous white owner has a bond on it with Nedbank? Boring question, I know, but there are millions more like it that need answering.

But maybe it isn’t a train smash. Yet. It may even be an opportunity in the event the ANC can see beyond replacing a white farmer with a black one. There are only 35,000 commercial farmers in SA and millions of landless black people. If you took over every single viable white farm you would barely make an impression on "land hunger". What happens to the people who don’t get a farm?

I presume a standing committee in Parliament will come up with a new clause for section 25 of the Constitution that strictly defines the exceptional few circumstances in which expropriation of land without compensation may occur and the politics will calm down for a while. The DA will, I hope, test the new clause in the Constitutional Court and the result would be either that it passes muster or would need further work. All of this is okay.

Ramaphosa will hold a land summit alongside his jobs and investment summits. It’s public relations but important, optically, ahead of the general elections in 2019. All will be sweetness and light.

Don’t worry, says Julius Malema, you won’t lose your house or your flat. You’ll just lose your land. Interestingly, the EFF wants to nationalise all land (including the land your house is built on) and the ANC sort of doesn’t. It just thinks the government has a duty to own land, a fudge that will end up getting it into trouble because it isn’t based on ideology or principle. It’s just spin. But spin is important in this land game. Equally, so is opportunity.

 

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The fact is there’s little point getting into a froth about land. The issue is being pushed from the left of the ANC and its former left, which is now the EFF. There’s nothing to be done but wait and see, and understand that in the ANC the people who see the economic threat in all of this have the power, now, to ensure it ends reasonably well.

But the opportunity I speak about is equally real for business. Business should be looking for a way to actively participate in land reform. And with real money. Not long ago a proposal was being discussed between the government and the Chamber of Mines where the mining companies would make the land and soil on top of their operations available to black farmers. I think they were talking about 1-million hectares.

The mining companies would help with establishing the farmers and their infrastructure. They would help market the crops grown on the farms. They could create hundreds of black farmers who could pick a peach near Polokwane or Welkom on a Thursday and have someone buy it in Tokyo on Saturday. Then Mosebenzi Zwane shut down the dreamers with a Mining Charter that made an entire industry despair.

The point now, surely, is to accept that the argument for justice is inescapable. The wheels are in motion. You act or you pretend it isn’t happening. But once you’ve accepted reality you have to ask how you ensure that SA, in which we all belong, does not turn an historic injustice into an historic mistake. I see no sign of business in this debate and that is just insane.

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