Well, it’s back.

The ‘it’ here is Expropriation without Compensation, or EWC as it has become known in South Africa’s common lexicon. And its presence was announced at the ANC’s recent Policy Conference, by no less a figure than President Ramaphosa.

Those who thought with relief that the issue had been disposed of in December last year – with the failure to pass an amendment to Section 25 of the Constitution – will be disappointed, though they should not be. The President declared in his opening speech to the Conference that even though the resolution had failed, EWC as an idea could be pushed with other instruments, such as the Expropriation Bill. This has been exactly what my colleagues and I at the Institute of Race Relations have been warning about.

On the broad principle of seizing property without paying for it, the President was unambiguous: EWC, he said, was a tool ‘that we must utilise’.

His colleague Mmamaloko Kubayi, chairperson of the party’s economic transformation committee, added that conference delegates wanted the ANC to seek cooperation with other parties to push an amendment through. So, we might be back to square one on this, that is, back to 2018 when the country went through a tortuous ‘debate’ and even more tortuous consultation process about whether the constitution needed to be changed.  

The outcome of the latter was hardly in dispute and the President announced on television in late August of that year that the Constitution would in fact be changed, even though he obliquely conceded that this was not necessary in policy terms, and even though the public hearings had not been concluded.

Over this period, EWC loomed large over the President’s professed aspirations to make South Africa an investment destination of choice. His investment envoys confirmed that this theme was raised repeatedly with them and that communicating a response was a ‘challenge’.

Many astute and highly credentialled observers waved this away. President Ramaphosa knew – knew, we tell you! – just how destructive undermining property rights would be. The assumption was that he was playing a ‘long game’, a process of careful positioning and manipulation to neutralise his opponents, before launching a game-changing programme of reforms that would open South Africa up for growth. When the pandemic struck, it was greeted as a rare opportunity for the President to appeal to pragmatism as a justification for reform. EWC, naturally, would be quietly retired.

The Institute’s positions were often dismissed as alarmist, if not downright irresponsible.

Well, here we are. The ANC failed to push the Constitutional Amendment through – note, a measure that its own President had declared to be more symbolic than substantive – and this would have seemed an opportune moment to step back from EWC, at least in the constitutional arena.

Kubayi’s remarks suggest that even this remains on the table.

As for the broad policy thrust, empowering the state for the seizure of property, it is an ongoing imperative for the ruling party. (This while the President and his associates muse about the need for a social compact, for massive investment and for seven-digit employment increases.)

And this should not be surprising. President Ramaphosa has evinced very little appetite for pro-market or pro-liberty reform. Quite the contrary: despite occasional rhetorical flourishes, his instincts have been at root firmly statist.

More than that, he has not shown any inclination to break away from the ANC’s ideological master-narrative, the National Democratic Revolution – a heavily state-centric approach that sees the party as the central force in South Africa, reconfiguring both state and society in its own image. For many, the NDR is a necessary waypoint to a socialist or communist transition.

EWC would be a formidable tool in the hands of the state, and through it, in the hands of the party.

So, EWC is back. Predictably so.

Or more accurately, it never really went away.

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Terence Corrigan

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank promoting individual and societal freedom. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending...

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