Picture: David Ritchie/African News Agency (ANA)

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been forced to move on the thorny issue of large-scale land redistribution more quickly than he probably would have liked by the challenge from an upstart opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

More than two decades after the end of apartheid, one of the trickiest problems for Ramaphosa’s ruling ANC party is how to transfer large tracts of prime agricultural land owned by the white minority to millions of blacks from whose ancestors it was wrested by white settlers centuries ago.

Partly because the constitution forbids taking land without compensation and partly, critics say, due to government inertia, the African National Congress has been slow to deliver on one of its biggest promises to the black population, resulting in less than 10 percent of arable land being transferred since it came to power in 1994.

Still revered as the party of Nelson Mandela, the ANC has until now remained largely politically unscathed by its failure to undo many of the wrongs of the past and improve the economic lot of the black population.

But, in a situation with some similarities to neighbouring Zimbabwe, where now ousted President Robert Mugabe used land reform in 2000 to counter a spirited new opposition, the ANC is being forced to confront redistribution more robustly by the aggressive stance of the radical EFF, which has made it a rallying cry ahead of elections next year.

Ramaphosa’s dilemma

Ramaphosa, who took power only a few weeks ago, has to find a way to answer the thirst for land without wrecking the economy, as Mugabe did with his chaotic and corrupt land reforms after 2000.

The EFF, formed in 2013 by firebrand former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, has stolen some support from the liberation movement through populist rhetoric such as a call to nationalise the country’s mines – backbone of the economy – and expropriate land without compensation, both of which resonate with millions of blacks resentful of enduring white privilege.

Although the EFF won only about seven percent of the vote in 2014 national elections, it has proved a dangerous and skilful opposition, forming a strategic alliance with the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) in 2016 that ended the ANC’s control of three key municipalities, including the capital Pretoria and the economic hub Johannesburg.

The EFF has stepped up its demand for land transformation this year, warning the DA, which opposes expropriation, that it would have no qualms about dissolving the municipal alliances if necessary. 

Ramaphosa’s task is to woo back ANC supporters driven away by nearly a decade of misrule and inaction by his scandal-ridden predecessor Jacob Zuma.

But he would no doubt have preferred to focus his energy first on getting the stalled economy back on track and regaining favour with investors and ratings agencies that cut South Africa to sub-investment grade under Zuma.

The ascension of the former business mogul and one of South Africa’s richest men boosted financial markets, sending the rand to three-year highs against the U.S. dollar.

But in recent weeks he dismayed both commercial farmers and investors while pleasing millions of black voters by proclaiming the ANC’s commitment to land expropriation.

ANC wary of Malema

In a sign of the ANC’s wariness about Malema, the party last month supported an EFF motion to amend South Africa’s constitution to allow for expropriation without compensation. 

Given the ANC’s still comfortable majority in parliament, the motion passed easily despite opposition from the DA and other parties, and has been referred to a Constitutional review committee, which must report by August 30.

As justification for its new ardour, the government cited a recent state land audit showing that while black South Africans account for nearly 80 percent of the population, they directly own only 1.2 percent of rural land and seven percent of urban.

Lobby groups such as Agri SA, which represents mainly white commercial farmers, dispute that data.

The DA, which still faces accusations that it is a mainly white party even after appointing Mmusi Maimane as its first black leader, has tabled its own proposals to boost black ownership of both agricultural and urban land.

These include giving new and past recipients of state-subsidised housing full title and distributing thousands of government-owned farms and fallow land.

The ANC has bristled at suggestions that South Africa risks becoming another Zimbabwe, where Mugabe was forced to step down by the military last year after 37 years of rule that reduced his once prosperous country to penury. 

But while South Africa’s government insists land reform will be orderly, there has already been a spate of illegal land invasions across the Gauteng province around Johannesburg, which critics of land expropriation say bear out their warnings of property rights being chaotically and violently destroyed.

The issue looks like it will remain a major headache for Ramaphosa until and after elections next year.

* Stella Mapenzauswa is a journalist and media consultant who has covered economics and politics in southern Africa, particularly Zimbabwe and South Africa, for more than two decades. 

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

ANA/News-Decoder