US President Donald Trump has ordered his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo to study the ANC's decision to seize privately owned farmland without compensation and look into what he calls the "large-scale" murder of farmers. Screengrab: Twitter/ANA/African News Agency -

Donald Trump’s tweet on South Africa’s land politics certainly ignited a political firestorm. The flames it sent up were visible around the world, and they shone a very unwelcome light on the country and government’s intentions. If nothing else, the heat it generated moved government into action.

One reaction was that furtive attempts were made to identify the political arsonists. Suspicion rapidly fell on South Africans who had travelled abroad to voice their concerns to foreign investors, politicians and analysts. For the government, this was a statement of disloyalty, a misrepresentation of government policy and of the situation in the country. 

Minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, put it in these words: ‘There are South Africans out there going to Australia and other capitals of the world spreading untruths about what is happening in this country, and we want to use this opportunity to reach out to them and ask them to desist from spreading untruths about this country.’ 

Another reaction was to send out firefighters to contain the damage. Speaking last week, communications minister Nomvula Mokonyane pledged on behalf of government to better communicate its plans. Sisulu added that as South Africa needed trade and investment, it did not want ‘adverse’ relationships with any country.

In all of this, government received a remarkable amount of support. National pride, ideological affinity and (unmistakably) visceral hostility to Donald Trump rallied activists, journalists, academics and large parts of the public. 

The policy drive was certainly well primed for combustion. The very concept of Expropriation without Compensation will always be unsettling to investors and entrepreneurs. It communicates a very clear message of its own: the government has the discretion to confiscate privately owned assets, while taking no responsibility for the damage inflicted on its (former) owner. 

The ruling party, from President Ramaphosa down, has repeatedly endorsed this and has said that it will become policy. It has failed to specify what limitations, if any, will be applied. It stands to be undertaken by a state burdened with chronic deficiencies – the past decade brought that into blazing clarity. None of this would inspire confidence.

And concerns around EWC have been on a slow burn since the beginning of the year, both in South Africa and abroad. In March, for example, it was reported that finance minister Nhlanlha Nene was having to field questions from concerned investors and ratings agencies about this. 

The hard truth is that South Africa is integrated into a global system. The political choices its government makes will have consequences – the only real question is whether it is willing to accept them. (South Africa knows this, and has not, incidentally, always been strong-willed in the face of outside pressure. In 2009, South African emotions were briefly inflamed when the government effectively refused a visa to the Dalai Lama, reportedly to placate China.) 

The abridgement of property rights was always going to generate a heated reaction abroad, primarily because it would threaten foreign commercial interests, and also because it is likely to prove damaging to South Africa itself. And Trump is incidental to all this.

This is not the first time South Africa has done this. Its decision to terminate the bilateral investment treaties (BITs) with a number of European countries was received with considerable consternation and remains a concern even now. ECW will only compound these concerns.

Likewise, South Africa’s relationship with the US. In its voting record, the South African government has been among the most consistent opponents of the US at the United Nations. The stance of the ruling party has been at times quite extreme, often depicting the US as a sort of prime evil in the world – and this was so long before the presidency of Donald Trump. Its 2015 discussion document on foreign affairs for its national general council memorably painted ‘Washington’ as the centre of all that is venal in the world. Its former secretary general accused the US embassy of plotting ‘regime change’. 

The South African government has chosen to position itself as it has. This is its good right as a sovereign country. But it is responsible for the consequences of these decisions – one of which is likely to be degraded trust, and thus a restricted basis for ‘communicating’ its message.

In any event, it’s unclear what message the government wants to convey. It has no firm plan to present, merely a commitment to extending the power of the state to seize property. This is nominally in the interests of land reform, even though compensation requirements have never been shown to have been a hindrance. It committed to a public participation process on whether the bill of rights should be amended, which the president cavalierly white-anted by declaring that the ruling party was going to be driven through an amendment anyway. This has the appearance of a poorly managed ideological wildfire.

Essentially, government is missing the point. So have many of those who have come to its defence. The current crisis was sparked by the actions of the government and ruling party. Indeed, lobbying would have had little traction if the proposed plans were not deeply troubling on their own merits.
Government and the ruling party have been doing the policy equivalent of playing with matches. It is they who need to deal with the destructive conflagration. 

* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

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

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