Columns 29.8.2018 08:30 am

Cyril’s lies of the land trump the truth

South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

The president’s contradictory statements ultimately appease neither populists nor investors.

US President Donald Trump’s tweet about South Africa has increased the need for clarity about the ANC government’s intentions regarding land expropriation without compensation.

Until now, we have had to puzzle over contradictory statements that ultimately appease neither populists, nor investors.

But has clarity been achieved since Trump turned the international spotlight on to our property rights? Even if this nation were united in condemning Trump (which it isn’t), are we any closer to certainty? Who is able confidently to say there is a bright future for property ownership in South Africa?

If Trump is peddling untruths, what is the truth? Is there a coherent counter-argument that goes beyond pointing out Trump’s character flaws? We should not let Trump become the issue. Property is the issue. We need to know what the ANC intends.

For that, we look to President Cyril Ramaphosa, who produced an article for the UK’s Financial Times in which he dismisses the notion that his government is intent on a land grab. Nor is there an assault on private property ownership, he said.

“The ANC has been clear that its land reform programme should not undermine future investment in the economy or damage agricultural production and food security”.

That’s what the president tells international investor audiences.

Ramaphosa also told the publication that government had embarked on a big investment drive to stimulate economic growth and create new jobs.

“It [government] has begun to tackle the obstacles to growth by working towards greater policy certainty”.

Yet he has done more than anyone to exacerbate policy uncertainty.

When he launched the ANC’s Thuma Mina (send me) campaign in Tembisa, East Rand, in May, Ramaphosa was in land-grab mode: “We are going to take land and when we take land we are going to take it without compensation.”

Unambiguous. In a late-night televised broadcast on July 31, Ramaphosa said: “It has become patently clear that our people want the constitution to be more explicit about expropriation of land without compensation.”

In so doing, he undermined the parliamentary hearings on the matter, pre-empting any outcome. Never mind that most written submissions so far are against amending the constitution.

Ramaphosa’s interpretation of what “our people” want takes precedence. Who are “our people”, and who are not our people?

Without any intervention from Trump, or from right-wing interest groups, Ramaphosa has been damaging investor confidence.

Indeed, former finance minister Trevor Manuel and ex-banker Jaco Maree, both appointed by Ramaphosa to help secure investment, say that explaining this land debate is difficult.

It will remain so after Ramaphosa’s Financial Times piece, which does not settle the argument. In fact, by understating the extent of state-owned land, Ramaphosa has laid himself open to the accusation that he is not telling the whole truth.

There is a disconnect between what he says to populist audiences and the measured tones used in the Financial Times. And ne’er the twain shall meet. He cannot sell sweet reason to those whose land hunger he has helped to stoke.

Despite all attempted reassurances, the ANC is indeed planning to expropriate without compensation. No matter what the people say.

Martin Williams, DA councillor.

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