President Cyril Ramaphosa
President Cyril Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa is playing a high-risk political game. While it is the duty of an elected politician in high office to serve his country, it is also a compelling priority to stay in office.

Ramaphosa’s eye is inevitably on the 2019 national elections. Like Theresa May when she took over the Conservative Party in Britain, he does not have an electoral mandate – that was owned twice, for all his faults, by Jacob Zuma.

Ramaphosa will be wary of May’s precedent (when she called an election that backfired on her and weakened her party). He desperately wants a mandate to consolidate his grip on the ANC.

This is why he is trying to outflank the populists in his own party, as well as the radical position of the EFF, announcing prematurely that the ANC supports a constitutional amendment to allow land expropriation without compensation.

It seems foolhardy, considering the public consultation process has not been completed, let alone any report that might come out of it. This, despite the fact that the constitution he seeks to amend requires that any amendment can only be adopted if there is meaningful public participation.

Irrespective, things are moving quickly. This week, news emerged that the ANC had identified the first 139 farms it wants to expropriate. However, the party has revealed no detail of where these farms are, or to whom they belong.

Let’s be clear: giving land to people who need it, and who’ve been robbed of land, needn’t threaten the economy. Provided the right land is chosen — unproductive state-owned land and abandoned properties, for example — it could even spur growth, not destroy it.

The problem is, this scenario is not what either the EFF, or the radical faction in the ANC, want. For them, productive farmland and commercial land are fair game. It is a statement, more than a solution, with ruinous consequences. But to avoid alienating this group, Ramaphosa has not yet spelt out what land will be subject to expropriation without compensation.

He has, however, taken care to remind us that the ANC’s own resolution last December in support of expropriation without compensation came alongside the statement that "we must ensure that we do not undermine future investment in the economy, or damage agricultural production and food security". Other than that, there’s no clarity.

So why does Ramaphosa, a respected businessman, enthusiastically support a proposal that he knows could be ruinous to property values, investor confidence and food security, if it is done the way the radicals want?

The only answer can be that he wants to retain control of the agenda. He has surely calculated that by the time the national election happens (in less than a year), the preparations needed to make expropriation without compensation a reality won’t be anywhere close to final.

It’s a high-stakes gamble. Investors with deep wallets don’t look favourably on losing it all. Who knows how he can marry expropriation without compensation with his goal of luring $100bn in new investment? Americans, who make up the lion’s share of global investors, will have read about SA’s land debate. This week, The Wall Steet Journal wrote a scathing editorial, headlined: "President Ramaphosa tries the Zimbabwe and Venezuela way". It read: "In his telling, SA’s ills are related to the proportion of whites and blacks tilling the soil, not the economic mismanagement of predecessor Jacob Zuma or the ruling ANC."

Foreign investors have no patience for political double-speak. Ramaphosa must spell out the terms for this expropriation immediately, if he doesn’t want to risk more damage.