FILE PHOTO: Julius Malema. File Image:IOL

JOHANNESBURG - Julius Malema feels he’s got President Cyril Ramaphosa just where he wants him.

Since his expulsion from the ruling African National Congress five years ago, Malema, 37, and the Economic Freedom Fighters have targeted setting the national agenda before next year’s elections. The party has been key in pushing the ANC into a forceful stance in support of expropriation of land without compensation and free university education. Now it’s demanding that the ANC fulfill a pledge it made eight months ago to nationalise the central bank.

Ramaphosa last month announced plans to amend the constitution to allow the state to take land without paying for it to address skewed ownership patterns that date back to apartheid and colonial rule. The prospect of property rights being eroded has spooked investors, who the president is trying to persuade to pour $100 billion into the country to spur growth.

“The EFF is in charge -- the ANC is following us,” Malema, whose 25 lawmakers dressed in red miner and maid outfits regularly spark uproars in parliament, said in an interview. “Through their land announcement, they had to look for something that changed the narrative. That’s why they came out as desperately like they did.”

Land Redistribution

ANC Chairman Gwede Mantashe has suggested that land ownership should be limited to 12 000 hectares per farm owner and white farmers who hold more than that should cede the rest to the state for redistribution.

That approach, which is supported by a populist faction in the ANC, doesn’t tie with Ramaphosa’s reassurances that a policy change won’t damage production, as happened in neighboring Zimbabwe, where land grabs that started in 2 000 triggered an economic collapse.

The ANC’s U-turn on property rights comes after its support fell to a record low of 54.5 percent in a 2016 municipal vote when it lost control of three of the biggest cities, including the economic hub of Johannesburg, to opposition coalitions. The EFF won 8.2 percent support and the main opposition Democratic Alliance 27 percent.

Wagging The Dog

Since then, on the policy front, it’s become a case of the tail wagging the dog, according to Tinyiko Maluleke, a political analyst based at the University of Pretoria.

“So small is the EFF, it’s the tail in this case, it’s able to wag the big dog,” he said by phone. “The EFF always takes the opportunity when there are issues like this to call the ANC’s bluff, to say ‘if you have all these radical decisions to take at your conferences, we are going to help you implement them.’”

The ANC denies following the EFF’s lead on land, saying it came up with the idea of amending the constitution to ensure that the government could effectively manage redistribution while taking account of both investors and those who hunger to farm.

Fractious Debate

“If you occupy illegally the land without changing the constitution, you are shooting yourself in the head,” Jessie Duarte, the ruling party’s deputy secretary-general, said in an interview. “We are not responding to Malema. We discussed this, and we thought we need to do things properly.”

The fractious nature of the debate suggests South Africa has dispensed with the politics of negotiation that prevailed during the era of Nelson Mandela and led to the end of white-minority rule, according to Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst.

“This creates a very tense policy implementation environment, where political parties are exchanging ultimatums on policy, and shifting away from a consensus approach toward an either ‘my way or the highway’ approach to politics,” he said.

-BLOOMBERG