Former president Kgalema Motlanthe has come out against expropriation of land without compensation. File picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Just 18 months ago, the drive towards land expropriation without compensation (EWC) seemed unstoppable.

Now, less so. At the 2017 party leadership conference, Cyril Ramaphosa and the moderate wing of the ANC had been blindsided on the issue by Jacob Zuma and the radical economic transformation (RET) zealots.

After an emotional debate, the Ramaphosa faction had forced upon it a poisoned chalice - a policy commitment to state seizure of agricultural land which, if implemented, would, on previous international history, beggar the nation.

Ramaphosa then appeared to have a change of heart. Instead of digging in his heels, he in a flash became an enthusiastic proponent of EWC, which he said would be executed “differently” from the chaotic land grabs that destroyed Zimbabwe.

This may have been a real change of heart.

Alternatively, it may just be a temporary stratagem to outflank the leftist wing of the ANC, as it tilts towards the EFF, only then slowly to rein it in as it becomes weaker and less influential.

After all, everyone knows that a runaway riderless horse can’t be stopped by simply standing in front of it. That’s to risk being smashed to pulp. The trick is to nip in from the side, seize the reins, incrementally try to slow the momentum, and feverishly to pray for assistance.

It’s no different in SA politics when trying to contain thundering EWC populism, once the wild-eyed radicals have the bit between the teeth.

Better to grab whatever tenuous control possible and rely on support arriving quickly enough to avoid lasting damage and tears.

A fortnight ago, former president Kgalema Motlanthe came out strongly against EWC. His intervention is important. This is a man respected by both factions of the ANC, an old unionist, a blooded former Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier, and the Marxist intellectual whom Zuma had wanted to head the ANC’s internal “school” of political education for cadres.

His views matter, especially in the RET camp. Important are not only such internal currents, but pressure from outside. Despite the lure of the “take back the land” populists, opposition parties that oppose EWC performed credibly in the May general election.

The land-invasion favouring EFF did grow, but not as much as feared, perhaps indicating a growing political maturity in the electorate.

What is particularly important, and leaves the ANC incandescent with rage, is the lobbying of SA political groups overseas.

No doubt, it scours deeply the ANC psyche that the same arguments that it used to convince the West to pressure the apartheid regime - international conventions on human rights - are being successfully deployed against it.

And it’s beginning to work. In response to SA lobbyists, US President Donald Trump has made clear his feelings and at stake, just for starters, is SA’s preferential access to US markets.

And there is also the Netherlands, which was among the most active European supporters of the exiled ANC.

The Dutch this month passed, by 86-64, a motion condemning EWC as contrary to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter of Human Rights.

This is the first such motion passed in a Western legislative assembly but unlikely to be the last.

Here is potentially a fertile political field for tilling by the likes of Solidarity and AfriForum, which have eschewed the racist rhetoric of the rabid right, to calmly but remorselessly hoist the ANC on its own petard, that of international law.

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