There's Madness In The Land Debate, But Not In Pointing Out Its Risks - Sunday Times

26 August 2018 - No, we are not mad. Neither has our analysis of what is transpiring been stupid or reckless. Whether the same can be said of the government ’s policy drive is wide open to question.

Terence Corrigan

Are they mad, asked Peter Bruce in reference to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in his column last week. His rhetorical accusation stems from our assessment of AfriForum’s list of farms targeted for expropriation.

We have good reason to believe that the list is genuine and that it is part of a move on privately owned assets and on property rights generally.

Whether or not AfriForum ’s publication of the list was “stupid ”, whatever impact it has had was made possible only because of the context created by the government and the ANC.

Indeed, seen alongside their conduct, doubts about the veracity of the list and the advisability of releasing it are of relatively little importance. As Bruce points out, the government’s handling of key economic questions leaves much to be desired.

Over the past decade, a steady stream of policy and regulatory proposals has sought to expand the state’s discretion to abridge and intervene in private property rights.

Since the ANC decided at its conference in December to embark on expropriation without compensation, the rhetoric has grown ever more strident. A few months ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa said memorably that “we are going to take land and when we take land we are going to take it without compensation”.

Even the constitution is up for amendment — a decision taken by a party structure without waiting for the official “consultation ” process to run its course. The determination to embark on the seizure of property without paying for it seems unshakable.

But what precisely this regime will look like is unclear. As we at the IRR have argued, the ANC and the government have managed to create just enough certainty to heighten concerns, but not enough to provide a reasonable platform for investment planning.

Bruce trenchantly observes that “the land debate on its own could do us enormous damage before even one hectare is expropriated”. In fact, it is already doing so. Investors and business owners in SA and abroad have repeatedly voiced concerns to us about the direction the country is taking.

The word “uninvestable ” is increasingly coming to the fore.

Meanwhile, another Sunday newspaper carried an interview with Rendani Sadiki, acting directorgeneral at the department of rural development & land reform. Once more, the authenticity of the list was denied.

There was no list at all, not even a list of 139 farms identified as test cases for expropriation without compensation, also loudly trumpeted in the media without any denial from her department. But when challenged on this, she said that, yes, a number of farms (could they be called a list?) had been identified as instances where agreement could not be reached on compensation.

Identifying such farms, Sadiki said, would be unfair to farmers. She was, she said, unaware of highly publicised comments by minister of rural development & land reform Maite Nkoana- Mashabane, that secrecy in the conduct of expropriation without compensation was necessary to ensure that the government held the upper hand in the process. “If I tell you now, you are going to have some spanners put on the wheel and make my life a little bit difficult. Let me act on the things I need to act on, and then let’s move on,” the minister said. “Some are going to offer to be lawyers to help defend those people, and I would have started a problem and not a solution for myself, and I refuse to do that.”

A sceptical observer might suggest that, with this background, denial from the department is only to be expected. And, unfortunately for the “long game” th eori s ts — those contending that this is all a sophisticated political ploy by the president to exploit political emotion around expropriation without compensation while gutting its substance — this is an issue that shows every sign of gathering a momentum of its own.

Besides, having effusively talked up the imperative to expropriate and its wondrous (though undeliverable) benefits, it will be very difficult for Ramaphosa to back off on implementation. That is, of course, assuming that backing off is his intention. Indeed, what looms, unspoken, over all of this is the lack of a limiting principle.

At present, expropriation without compensation has been expressed as a means to expedite land reform. There is no guarantee that it would remain confined to this — quite the opposite, more likely. The portfolio of attempted abridgments of property rights over the past decade certainly touched on other areas. There are far richer takings (not to mention better opportunities for patronage) to be found than land.

So, no, we are not mad. Neither has our analysis of what is transpiring been stupid or reckless. Whether the same can be said of the government ’s policy drive is wide open to question.

Corrigan is a project manager at the IRR        

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