Informal squatters’ shacks that residents of Morula View, in Mabopane, want council to remove. The writer says hunger for land is prevalent in urban areas. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA)
Land redistribution is necessary. But the way it is managed is critically important. It remains among the most sensitive topics in our country and can easily fragment and impede our society-building exercise.

It’s clear that the land issue is dividing South Africans. In recent years, race relations and much of our celebrated ideas around non-racialism have been withering.

And there is the growing feeling that the Ramaphoria period is over and our president is not able to resist populist temptation around the land debate.

Questions are being asked about whether the Constitution is a barrier to land reform. Perhaps not.

The failure with regard to land reform has a great deal to do with the lack of political will.

The forces around ex-president Jacob Zuma, including outright opportunists and people like Carl Niehaus and Andile Mngxitama, tried to blame the ANC’s failures on the Constitution to deflect popular anger from the party, and because they wanted a more authoritarian alternative. Ramaphosa has caved in. He has sacrificed his integrity by associating himself with Zuma’s opportunism.

It would be worrying if the land debate is intentionally intensified as the country grapples with new unemployment figures.

If Ramaphosa hoped a promise to change the Constitution would give hope to the unemployed, he is a very cynical man indeed.

The ANC’s land reform programme has long been subject to elite capture and there is no evidence to suggest that this will change any time soon. If more vigorous land reform does happen it is likely to benefit elites connected to the party rather than the millions of young people without work.

And, of course, most of these young people live in cities and no one seems to be really taking seriously the urgent need for urban land reform.

Ramaphosa is attempting to outpace the EFF and trying to renew the fading support for the ANC before next year’s election. The EFF may get huge media coverage but it has only 6% of the vote, and the polls show that it won’t grow much in the next election.

Ramaphosa really shouldn’t be worrying about the EFF and the fact that he is so obviously concerned about his increasingly militaristic and racist rivals make him look weak.

What Ramaphosa should be seriously concerned about is the urban majority that is rapidly losing confidence in the ANC. Some of these people vote for other parties with reluctance, while many more simply stay at home on election day. Many of this urban majority are poor, without work and desperate for urban land.

The social media-driven discourse on land is largely an elite discourse. This discourse focuses on commercial farmland. But when we look at popular politics we see clearly that there is no social movement struggling for rural land. But in every city across the country poor people are struggling for urban land. In some cases they are organised and in others not. But the vast scale of the struggle for urban land is undeniable.

If Ramaphosa was a more astute leader he would offer his support to this constituency, and commit his subordinates in the provinces and municipalities to take rapid action to release urban land to the poor.

This could all be done within the framework of the law and would generate a huge boost to his personal popularity, and to the ANC in the 2019 election.

Ramaphosa is doing an excellent job of cleaning up the stinking rot at state-owned enterprises. For this he must be commended. But he is not taking the same decisive action with regard to the education crisis and the related unemployment crisis.

On the land question we are not seeing the astute and decisive vision that we need. Instead we are seeing a man who looks panicked giving in to the most damaging forms of populism.

It seems that it will fall to civil society to offer a credible vision of the way out of the mess. On the land question it will be up to civil society to ensure that land reform does in fact happen, that it is not subject to wholesale elite capture and that the people who need it most - the vast numbers of people without employment - are the ones who benefit.

Ramaphosa needs to offer a clear vision of a better future.

Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.