A con­ve­nient route to power, med­dling with land ex­pro­pri­a­tion will pay off — but only for politi­cians

Sunday Times - - Opinion - BAR­NEY MTHOMBOTHI

His­tory will record that it was on the very week of the fifth an­niver­sary of Nel­son Man­dela’s death — the tail end of year­long ac­tiv­i­ties mark­ing his cen­te­nary — that parliament de­cided to be­gin the process to emas­cu­late per­haps his most shin­ing and en­dur­ing legacy: the South African Con­sti­tu­tion. The tim­ing was ap­po­site.

To say MPs were danc­ing on Man­dela’s grave is per­haps putting it too strongly, but the tim­ing was al­most un­real. The de­ci­sion to fid­dle with the con­sti­tu­tion in or­der to al­low for ex­pro­pri­a­tion of land or prop­erty with­out any re­course to law­ful means will be no sim­ple or straight­for­ward amend­ment. It al­most feels like a vi­o­la­tion of a sa­cred text. It is a mo­men­tous de­ci­sion that’ll tin­ker with the very essence of so­ci­ety, and will fun­da­men­tally change the or­der of things.

Which is ob­vi­ously what is in­tended, but where that takes us as a na­tion, no­body has a clue. Scary.

The adop­tion of the re­port by the joint con­sti­tu­tional re­view com­mit­tee rec­om­mend­ing the amend­ment of sec­tion 25 of the con­sti­tu­tion was greeted by scenes of ju­bi­la­tion and bravado by vic­to­ri­ous MPs. That’s prob­a­bly un­der­stand­able. The ap­proval, though by no means the fi­nal say on the mat­ter, is a cul­mi­na­tion of a long-run­ning cam­paign that has sharply di­vided so­ci­ety and, un­for­tu­nately, wors­ened race re­la­tions.

It in­cluded barefaced lies and emo­tive lan­guage aimed at dis­cred­it­ing the 1994 ac­cord that ush­ered in the new dis­pen­sa­tion. That set­tle­ment was rub­bished as hav­ing sold black peo­ple down the river, and lead­ers such as Man­dela and his com­rades who were in­stru­men­tal in ne­go­ti­at­ing its cre­ation were dis­missed as Un­cle Toms or lack­eys of white in­ter­ests. Bell Pot­tinger, it seems, has been worth its weight in gold.

But the stuff that was ped­dled, though un­true, found fer­tile ground be­cause, for the black ma­jor­ity the new democ­racy, other than giv­ing them the right to vote, has yet to pro­duce any mean­ing­ful ben­e­fits or im­prove­ment to their lives. Al­most on ev­ery front — be it work, ed­u­ca­tion, hous­ing etcetera — their lot has largely de­te­ri­o­rated in the 24 years since lib­er­a­tion. In­equal­ity has, in fact, in­creased.

If you’re a young black per­son wal­low­ing in a town­ship or out in the sticks with no prospect of ed­u­ca­tion or work and there­fore a pro­hib­i­tively bleak fu­ture ahead of you, you’re more than likely to buy the lie from a sharp-suited politi­cian that the rea­son you’re poor and des­ti­tute is that the lead­ers agreed to a con­sti­tu­tion that al­lowed white peo­ple to keep the land they stole from your fore­fa­thers. What is there­fore re­quired is to change the con­sti­tu­tion so that we can get our land back, and voila! ev­ery­thing will be hunky-dory. Why not? Who doesn’t want free things? That skills and cap­i­tal are re­quired in or­der to work the land be­fore it can even be­gin to be pro­duc­tive barely en­ters the dis­cus­sion. What he gets sold is ob­vi­ously pie in the sky, and that, un­for­tu­nately, in our pol­i­tics more of­ten than not works like a charm.

But our youth are in such a predica­ment they hardly no­tice when they’re be­ing sold a yarn. Ram­pant cor­rup­tion and in­com­pe­tent man­age­ment of re­sources by our politi­cians are largely to blame for the dire sit­u­a­tion in which we find our­selves. What’s even more tragic is that the politi­cians, the au­thors of our mis­ery, are quick to ex­ploit peo­ple’s mis­for­tune. They ben­e­fit from the very mess they’ve cre­ated. It’s a vi­cious cir­cle.

So in this almighty gam­ble with our fu­ture, there’ll likely be no down­side for the par­ties driv­ing the coun­try head­long into a ditch. Pol­i­tics is a risk-free en­ter­prise. The EFF, es­pe­cially, are en­ti­tled to crow. They’ve scored what they con­sider a mag­nif­i­cent vic­tory and hope to reap rich re­wards in next year’s elec­tions. For this is pri­mar­ily what it’s about: power. Noth­ing to do with the ab­so­lu­tion of the wrongs of the past or rescuing peo­ple from poverty. The party has recog­nised that land ex­pro­pri­a­tion is a con­ve­nient ve­hi­cle to more power. Since its in­cep­tion, the EFF has cam­paigned on noth­ing else. The ANC has only re­cently de­cided to tag along, an ele­phant be­ing led by an ant. Call it stu­pid­ity, hypocrisy, cow­ardice — they all fit the bill.

The hunger for land is real and gen­uine, and was right­fully recog­nised and pro­vided for in the con­sti­tu­tion. But the ANC has to­tally bun­gled the en­tire project. Land resti­tu­tion has be­come a com­plete and ut­ter fi­asco. Large tracts of land lie fal­low, un­claimed, or have ended up in the wrong hands, es­pe­cially those of se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. Cor­rup­tion is rife. The con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment there­fore will al­low the ANC a way out of the mess it has cre­ated. A party that can hardly keep the lights on can­not be ex­pected to carry out such a huge un­der­tak­ing with­out botch­ing it.

In a sense Cyril Ramaphosa has been lucky. He’s been given the sort of lat­i­tude that would never have been af­forded Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had she been pres­i­dent. Be­cause he’s re­garded as some­body with busi­ness acu­men, peo­ple seem to be­lieve he would not have un­der­taken a pol­icy that would be ru­inous to the econ­omy if he hadn’t fig­ured it all out. They know his heart is not in it (he was bounced into it) but they hope he’ll some­how be able to pull a rab­bit out of a hat.

On the land is­sue, the ANC un­der Ramaphosa seems to have farmed out its au­thor­ity to the EFF the same way Ja­cob Zuma turned power over to the Gup­tas.

How this fi­nally pans out, only time will tell. As the say­ing goes, we should hope for the best, but pre­pare for the worst.

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