King Goodwill Zwelithini. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
King Goodwill Zwelithini. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

When the ANC resolved to alter the constitution to allow the government to seize land without compensation in 2017, King Goodwill Zwelithini was not one of those who thought it long overdue.

For the Zulu king, the ANC’s flagship policy — arguably adopted to ensure its frustrated supporters do not become easy pickings for the EFF — signalled he would lose control over vast tracts of land in KwaZulu-Natal.

As President Cyril Ramaphosa constantly reminds investors that property rights would remain the cornerstone of our constitution, he equally treads carefully when it comes to land under the custody of the Ingonyama Trust — an entity whose sole trustee is Zwelithini.

The policy is highly emotive in a country where racial inequalities remain entrenched 25 years after the end of apartheid when millions of black people were dispossessed of their land by racist white minority rule. 

It is hardly surprising that the president’s own advisory panel on land and agrarian reform came back with some politically sensitive recommendations on how to go about transferring land to black people.

The most obvious of these was that the constitution should be amended to allow for expropriation without compensation in certain instances, but that it cannot happen wholesale as this would collapse its core underlying values that property rights are sacrosanct. 

Legislators in parliament are already working on how section 25 of the constitution would be amended, so this recommendation is a foregone conclusion. It is a recommendation on Ingonyama Trust that is likely to be ignored. 

The panel recommended that the legislation governing the trust either be amended or repealed, as it has “perpetuated the existence of KwaZulu-Natal as a homeland within a unitary state 25 years into a new democratic order”.

The panel said the legislation and the “unlawful practices that persist especially insofar as gender discrimination are concerned, are clear violations of the constitution”.

The trust was established in 1994 to be the custodian of land that was previously administered by the KwaZulu-Natal government. The Ingonyama Act was passed hastily on the eve of the 1994 elections to secure the involvement of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the country’s first democratic election. The IFP had been at war with the ANC in the province.

The panel is not the first to raise concerns that the existence of this legislation tramples on our constitution. The team led by former president Kgalema Motlanthe also called for a review of the law. That drew an angry reaction from Zwelithini, who threatened violence against anyone who touched the trust. 

Ramaphosa backed off. The reason for that is not clear. But from where we stand, it had nothing to do with threats of violence but more to do with ANC seeking to keep electoral control of KwaZulu-Natal.   

Given the ANC’s already dire performance in the 2019 general elections in which the party fell just over 10 percentage points from the 64.52% it received in 2014, it would be politically impossible to follow through on the recommendations on the Ingonyama Trust.

If the ANC, however, does the unimaginable, the 2021 local government elections will get a lot trickier in the province which was once a stronghold of the ANC under the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma and in which the governing party now flounders.

It is a high-stakes political gamble Ramaphosa should take. But he won’t because he knows Zwelithini wields considerable influence among voters in the province roughly the size of Hungary in central Europe. 

Zwelithini’s office’s reaction this week that the report by Ramaphosa’s panel was  a “kangaroo court” which had an axe to grind with the Zulu people is the clearest sign that he would be willing to enlist SA’s most populous ethnic group to have his way.  

It is a depressing quid pro quo: let the ANC keep the votes in exchange for the king to keep on assaulting our constitution.