President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

In an eerie reprise of former president Jacob Zuma’s "night stalker" communication strategy, President Cyril Ramaphosa waited until all the little ones were in bed on Tuesday night before issuing a recorded statement on the ANC’s approach to amending the Constitution to enable land to be appropriated without compensation.

The statement, coming as it did hours after it was announced that SA’s unemployment rate rose to a frightening 27.2%, appeared to be yet another populist feint aimed at keeping a growing cohort of economically marginalised voters onside.

Why else make the announcement while an ANC-initiated parliamentary process — replete with nationwide hearings — is already under way? Why not wait for it to reach its conclusion?

The economic cost of Ramaphosa’s surprising declaration was apparent by morning. The rand, which had been on course to achieve its best level since mid-June before the announcement — around R13.10 — had retreated steeply by mid-morning to R13.28.

What remains opaque is exactly what Ramaphosa’s announcement will mean in practice.

Ramaphosa is the master of being both vague and precise in the same breath, and his statement demonstrated this.

He said: "The ANC will, through the parliamentary process, finalise a proposed amendment to the Constitution that outlines more clearly the conditions under which expropriation of land without compensation can be effected."

But then he appeared to contradict this, saying: "A proper reading of the Constitution on the property clause enables the state to effect expropriation of land with just and equitable compensation and also expropriation without compensation in the public interest." The obvious question is this: if the Constitution already allows for expropriation, why amend it to allow for expropriation?

The answer seems to be that the amendment seeks to appease those who made submissions to hearings during the parliamentary process.

"It has become patently clear that our people want the Constitution to be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation, as demonstrated in the public hearings."

The battle over the amendment now shifts from the public domain — presumably the public hearings will be wrapped up now that the ANC has made up its mind — to Parliament.

Parliament must follow the procedure outlined for the amendment of the section 25 property clause.

In order for this clause of the Constitution to be amended, a bill will have to be passed by the National Assembly "with the supporting vote of at least two-thirds of its members", and the National Council of Provinces "with a supporting vote of at least six provinces".

The ANC will need the EFF — or a less likely backer like the DA — to achieve a two-thirds majority.

The scene has been set for a major contest over the wording of the bill.

Will the bill, as the EFF has been demanding, hand over all property rights to the state, which then leases land to the people? Or will it enable the state to transfer ownership from white to black hands in the interests of redistribution?

Will the clause include qualifications that have already been publicly stated by Ramaphosa and others that limit expropriation without compensation to cases where agricultural production and the country’s economy are not harmed?

If so, will the EFF agree to these?

Would such detailed amendments to the bill pass constitutional muster?

The sensible approach for the ANC would be to amend the Constitution to clearly state the general principle of expropriation without compensation and then mandate Parliament to enact legislation that spells out in detail how expropriation will take place.

This will return power to the ANC, which can shape how expropriation takes place using a simple majority to pass a law.

No doubt Ramaphosa, who is always playing the long game, knows exactly how this is going to end.

He is setting out to craft a powerful victory for the ANC at next year’s election so that his position within the party is strengthened and he can finally shake off the endlessly scheming Zuma acolytes that still surround him.

Let’s hope that he doesn’t achieve this with his hands tied behind his back by populist commitments that would prevent him from achieving the greater goal of turning around the economy.