Is SA the next Zim?

I NEVER used to struggle to answer the question, “is South Africa going down the road of Zimbabwe?”.

My stock answer, until recently, was: “No, of course not. We have a strong judiciary and a fearless media. We have free and fair elections. The rule of law reigns supreme.”

After reading my colleague Mondli Makhanya’s seminal opinion piece on Zimbabwe in the City Press on Sunday, I am no longer sure I can answer that question with absolute conviction.

Mondli brilliantly traces the devastating road Zimbabwe took when that country traded the supremacy of the law for short-term economic expediency and applies the test to what is now happening in South Africa.

His diagnosis is dire: President Cyril Ramaphosa must choose between populist land expropriation policies or the Constitution.

He cannot have both.

If he chooses the former, we may well wake up in a Mugabe-esque nightmare.

How ironic that Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has lately been championing compensation for white farmers who lost their land during Zanu-PF’s violent land grabs of the 2000s.

It is increasingly clear to me from the way the party is handling this sensitive matter that the ANC is completely out of its depth.

This is not a matter of organising the office Christmas party; this decision is central to the future of South Africa’s economy and wellbeing.

There is absolutely no coherence in the way different ANC leaders speak and think about this tinderbox matter, and unfortunately it seems that facts did not play a big part in the governing party deciding on its latest course of action.

One group of younger ANC leaders, which has the president’s ear, is paranoid about the EFF making inroads into the ANC electorate by using land expropriation without compensation as an election slogan. The EFF, which is still polling at only seven percent of the national support, has championed the popular rhetoric of a nirvana for black people who will “get back our land”, under EFF rule. Without any detailed policy on how the party would achieve this if all land belonged to the state, the EFF has done enough to convince Ramaphosa, and some of his ANC colleagues, to amend the Constitution, albeit only for sentimental reasons.

At the same time, Ramaphosa gets an earful from the remaining constitutionalists in the party who would have preferred the ANC to follow former president Kgalema Motlanthe’s advice by testing the Constitution before amending it, and from the remaining Zuma-supporters-turned-radical-economic-freedom-fighters, who will basically do anything to acquire more power.

I am reliably told that the ANC’s own internal research shows that land is not one of the top three, even five, issues that worry the electorate most.

Crime, unemployment/poverty and corruption are the three issues ANC supporters feel most strongly about.

Sadly, this factual argument didn’t make it very far when the national executive committee of the ANC met last weekend to resolve its latest move on land.

The constitutionalists in the party defend Ramaphosa’s announcement last Tuesday that the ANC will amend the Constitution by saying the devil is in the detail. By this they mean only slight tweaks will be made to section 25 (the property clause) of the Constitution to “explicitly” clarify which land may be expropriated without compensation, thereby satisfying the popular demand for constitutional change.

“Remember, Ramaphosa has always said this will be done in a way that doesn’t hurt the economy and food security,” they say.

If this is indeed the president’s thinking, he is playing with fire.

The thousands of people who turned up at Parliament’s land hearings are not expecting semantic changes to section 25. They want “our land back”.

Ramaphosa and the ANC are providing absolutely no guidance or detail on how they will give all black people “our land back”.

Incredibly, unpacking the failure of the past 24 years’ land redress and redistribution programmes is nowhere on the agenda. The voices of Derek Hanekom, Thoko Didiza, Lulu Xingwana, Gugile Nkwinti and Tina Joemat-Pettersson, respective ministers of Agriculture and Land Affairs since 1994, are completely missing from the debate.

No former directors-general of these departments or land claims commissioners have been grilled by the parliamentary hearings on the billions that were spent on buying up farms over the past 24 years.

Instead, Ramaphosa has stumbled along in the clumsiest of ways, one day promising King Goodwill Zwelithini that the Ingonyama Trust won’t be touched, while he preaches security of land tenure the next.

In the meantime, land invasions continue unabatedly in Hermanus, Stellenbosch and elsewhere, and police officers and Red Ants are forced to deal with the matter while the ANC dithers on the biggest economic decision in 24 years.

I can think of only two groups who are licking their lips at the unfolding land shambles Ramaphosa is spearheading: lawyers who will build their careers on a series of land cases, and the DA, who couldn’t have dreamt of a better cause to campaign on in next year’s elections.

• Basson is editor-in-chief of News24. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanBasson