COMMENT

Don't talk about what it's all about

John Kane-Berman says Patrick Gaspard & Co. seem loath to mention the threat of EWC

How odd. Patrick Gaspard, Barrack Obama's erstwhile ambassador in Pretoria, recently treated the readers of the Sunday Times to a diatribe against Donald Trump without mentioning what had led to Mr Trump's tweet about "land and farm seizures and expropriations" in the first place: the repeated threats by Cyril Ramaphosa to expropriate land without compensation.

Mr Gaspard told us that Mr Ramaphosa wanted to accelerate land reform, "a long, vexing, and simmering question". Into this "complicated" and "controversial" debate with an "existential importance" for the economy, Mr Trump had "hurled his grenade".

There is wide consensus in South Africa favouring "land reform" – whatever that may mean – but the issue with "existential importance" for owners of all kinds of property, and for the future of the free-market economy, is the threat of expropriation without compensation. Mr Trump may have exaggerated but he correctly identified a threat that Mr Gaspard fails to mention. Since the former American ambassador cannot be unaware of this threat, his failure to mention it means he has chosen to be economical with the truth.

Step forward President Ramaphosa. In his welcoming remarks last week to the British prime minister, Theresa May, he spoke of "accelerated land reform". However, he too failed to mention expropriation without compensation. No wonder various headlines on Ms May's remarks reported that she "backed" his approach to land reform.

And then there are AgriSA and Agbiz, who put out a joint statement after a meeting with the deputy president, David Mabuza, and other ANC officials in which the two organisations welcomed the ANC's "commitments on agriculture", among them that "no land grabs will be allowed". AgriSA subsequently acknowledged that the meeting had not addressed the question of expropriation without compensation. It did not explain this curious omission.

With the help of Mr Gaspard, AgriSA, Agbiz, and various equally useful journalists, Mr Ramaphosa is doing a spot of damage control. Perhaps he has been taken aback by the alarm engendered by his expropriation threats.

He thus changes his tune from time to time, depending on the audience. When he does not drop all reference to expropriation without compensation, he smothers it in sweetness and light. For example, an advertisement in Business Day last month had him suggesting that expropriation could apply to "unused land, derelict buildings, purely speculative landholding, labour tenancy, informal settlements, and abandoned inner-city buildings".

For the benefit of Ms May, he depicted land reform as "an opportunity to strengthen property rights". On another recent occasion he promised that the proposed amendment to the constitution "will provide certainty to those who own land".

This is a far cry from his statements earlier this year that expropriation without compensation did not count as "taking land from people" since it was "merely restoring land to its original owners", who had been "violently dispossessed of it" by the "original colonial sin" of the Land Acts.

So what now? The property rights of white farmers – supposedly acquired by "original sin" – will be among those to be "strengthened"? Or will they be excluded from "strengthening" and from "certainty" on the grounds that their property originates in "violent dispossession"?

According to Ms May, Mr Ramaphosa had commented that land reform "will not be a smash and grab approach". Maybe not – even though the chaotic South African government may not be able to prevent "smash and grab" encouraged by imprecations against white farmers by Mr Ramaphosa and some of his colleagues.

But dispossession does not have to be carried out by "smash and grab" of the kind that happened in Zimbabwe (often to applause from the African National Congress). It can also be carried out by a lawful process. Even though their planned constitutional amendment may require a 75% majority to get through Parliament, the stated intention of President Ramaphosa and his party is to arm themselves with the power to expropriate white farmers (and in due course no doubt others) without compensation. Those who pretend otherwise are trying to lull everyone into a sense of false comfort. Or they have their own heads in the soil.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.