Just 18 months ago, the drive towards land expropriation without compensation (EWC) seemed unstoppable. Now, less so.
At the 2017 party leadership conference, Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC moderates were blindsided by Jacob Zuma and the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) zealots. After an intensely emotional debate, the Ramaphosa faction had forced upon it a poisoned chalice – a policy commitment to EWC which, if implemented, would on previous experience, beggar the nation.
Ramaphosa then appeared to have a change of heart. Instead of digging in his heels, he became an enthusiastic EWC proponent, which he said would be executed “differently” from Zimbabwe’s chaotic land grabs.
This may have been a real change of heart, a pragmatic realisation that his survival as president depended on it. Alternatively, it may just be a temporary stratagem to outflank the leftist wing of the ANC as it tilts towards the EFF, only then slowly to rein it in.
After all, a runaway riderless horse can’t be stopped by simply standing in front of it. The trick is to nip in from the side, seize the reins, and incrementally try to slow the momentum.
It’s no different in SA politics when trying to contain thundering EWC populism, once the wild-eyed radicals have the bit between the teeth. Better to grab whatever tenuous control possible to avoid lasting damage.
Whatever Ramaphosa’s initial game plan, this is what appears to be happening. Some semblance of rationality is slowly reasserting itself.
A fortnight ago, former president Kgalema Motlanthe came out strongly against EWC. “If property is not protected … society, as we understand it, will disappear because the anarchy and chaos that would ensue is difficult to imagine.”
Motlanthe’s intervention is important. This is a man respected by both factions of the ANC, an old unionist, a blooded former MK soldier, and the Marxist intellectual whom Zuma had wanted to head the ANC’s political education for cadres. His views matter, especially in the RET camp.
It’s not only such internal currents that are important, but pressure from outside.
Despite the lure of the “take back the land”, opposition parties opposing EWC performed credibly in the general election. The land-invasion-favouring EFF did grow, but not as much as feared, perhaps indicating a growing political maturity in the electorate.
What is important, and leaves the ANC incandescent with rage, is the lobbying of SA political groups overseas. No doubt, it scours deeply the ANC psyche that the same arguments it used to convince the West to pressure the apartheid regime are being successfully deployed against it.
And it’s beginning to work. In response to SA lobbyists, US President Donald Trump has made clear his feelings and at stake, just for starters, is preferential access to US markets.
Then there is the Netherlands, important because the Dutch were enthusiastic supporters of the exiled ANC. The Dutch this month passed a motion condemning EWC as contrary to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter of Human Rights.
This is the first such motion passed in a Western assembly but unlikely to be the last. Here is potentially a fertile political field for the likes of Solidarity and AfriForum, which have eschewed the racist rhetoric of the rabid right, to calmly but remorselessly hoist the ANC on its own petard, that of international law.