President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: REUTERS

The emotional pain and the financial cost of historical land dispossession are enormous. For millions of people the loss of their land and homes is embedded in family memory and identity. The financial consequence was to condemn them to generations of poverty.

The importance of redress and restitution have to be the starting point of any discussion on land. Land reform must take place for reasons of fairness and for the pragmatic reason that it is an essential part of building a sustainable future. The social environment in which we live — 50% of the population live below the poverty line — is not sustainable. It is especially not sustainable when those people are almost without exception black and African; whose forebears were dispossessed through colonial conquest.

This is what the land reform discussion should have been about. It should have been an opportunity for black people to voice their anger and pain; and for white people and the society as a whole, to be brought to a realisation of the importance of reparation.

A process that undermines property rights or the perception of the security of property rights, is pointless because it will defeat the overall objective, which is to improve the lives of South Africans, most particularly those who are black and poor.

Instead, it has been a polarising, negative, politically opportunistic and a potentially dishonest process. It also has been very costly for the economy as it has thrown into question the future of property rights for both farmers and owners of property in general, particularly investors. Notwithstanding the grand announcement at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s investment conference a few weeks ago, the reality is that foreign investors, in particular, are spooked by talk of changes to the constitution and are staying away.

It is imperative that land reform is done in a way that doesn’t destroy the economy. A process that undermines property rights or the perception of the security of property rights, is pointless because it will defeat the overall objective, which is to improve the lives of South Africans, most particularly those who are black and poor. In countries that have done it well, land reform has been a boon for development and prosperity.

That is where political leadership should step into the picture. Political leadership needs to guide the process of restitution and of nation-building; it needs to make ideals into realisable goals.

That has not happened. The ANC’s decision, first to entertain and support an EFF motion on expropriation  of land and now to amend the constitution to “make explicit” expropriation without compensation, has been characterised by politics of the worst kind.

Fearful of the EFF and its populist promises and fearful that in fact it has not delivered, the ANC allowed itself to be the tail that wags the EFF dog. It knows very well that — and Ramaphosa said it when he explained the ANC position on the matter on the night of July 31 — it is not necessary to amend the constitution at all. It is being done because after raising the expectations of people across the country at public hearings — at which, incidentally, the ANC was overshadowed and outplayed by the EFF’s activism — the governing party believes it cannot risk not doing so.

This is where the entire process is at risk of being dishonest.

The reasons why land reform has been slow and so many projects have failed has little to with any limitations imposed by the constitution. Land reform has failed due to poor government capacity, policies which do not provide adequate support to emerging farmers, weak political will and corruption.

The institutions in charge of land reform — the Land Claims Court and the department of land reform — are weak and neglected. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that government officials have over the past 20 years, inflated market values of land purchased for land reform, in order to ensure kick-backs for themselves.

Honesty about these failings has been absent from the debate over land expropriation without compensation. But without it, land reform will not proceed with success and the country will have little prospect of over-coming the legacy of dispossession or of turning land reform to an economic advantage.

Changing the constitution will not deliver this.