Is land a zero-sum game?

Somebody once said a week in politics is a long time, and if events around land reform in KwaZulu-Natal are anything to go by, this may be true.

No sooner had Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini tossed down the gauntlet at his land imbizo over the delicate matter of the Ingonyama Trust, than President Cyril Ramaphosa beat a path to his door in Ulundi to pour oil on troubled waters.

The king had made it quite clear that any suggestion that the Ingonyama Trust might be undone and the land under its control expropriated, amounted to a declaration of war against the Zulu people, and he exhorted his subjects to prepare to defend his suzerainty over the 28 000 km² – some 25% of KwaZulu-Natal’s land area – incorporated in the trust.

The hasty retreat that Mr Ramaphosa beat on this contentious issue bears scrutiny, and here’s why.

The original suggestion that the Ingonyama Trust be scrapped came about as the result of a high-level panel investigation into land reform, headed by past president Kgalema Motlanthe.

That recommendation comes as no surprise, since it has been around for some time now.

It is only when somebody who commands the allegiance of the single largest ethnic group in the country – the amaZulu people – challenges that recommendation that suddenly the findings of the high-level panel are dismissed as nothing more than “a recommendation”.

That Mr Ramaphosa does not enjoy the unqualified support of the citizens of KwaZulu-Natal is hardly a secret, and since it is the most populous province, it is in his – and by extension the ANC’s – best interests to secure the support of the Zulu king, in the hope that said monarch will exhort his subjects to support the ANC at the polls next year.

The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal is anything but united, and the Ingonyama Trust issue simply deepens those divisions, aided and abetted by those who lost out at the 54th elective conference at Nasrec in December, who feel that under Mr Ramaphosa, the patronage taps have been closed.

Although the Zulu king is the only trustee of the Ingonyama Trust, he relies on amakosi, the traditonal leaders of the Zulu nation, to administer the land and it is the amakosi who get to decide who gets access to what land, and under what circumstances.

Along comes the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), a non-governmental pressure group formed in 1987 by some traditional leaders of the then homeland of KwaNdebele, which has decided to climb into bed with Julius Malema’s EFF in the run-
up to the 2019 election.

Although the parties admit they are still at odds over the issue of communal land – Contralesa wants that land to remain in the hands of traditional leaders, the EFF wants it exproriated and administered by the state – the prospect of an election accord whereby Contralesa publicly supports the EFF must be sounding alarm bells for the ANC and Mr Ramaphosa, which may well explain why he has bent his knee to the Zulu monarch.

After his meeting with King Goodwill Zwelithini, Mr Ramaphosa made it clear that the 13% of land currently under the control of traditional leaders, communal land which includes the Ingonyama Trust land, is sacrosanct and will not be touched during the land reform process.

“Communal land is going to continue to be under the control of traditional leaders because they hold that land on behalf of our people. The land we are going to target for expropriation is the 87% of the land. We are going to do so within the confines of our laws and constitution,” Mr Ramaphosa is reported to have said.

The public hearings on expropriation without compensation taking place around the country, in support of the constitutional review committee’s deliberations on whether or not to amend the Section 25 property clause, although not yet complete, do seem, anecdotally at least, to be in support of this position.

That the land question must be resolved, and as rapidly as possible too, is self-evident, but it is the nature of the deal that is finally struck, that is now in question.

Last time I checked, 13% plus 87% equalled 100%, which suggests that the deal under consideration is zero-sum – a win-lose game.

Aside from the fact that such a determination is unlikely to pass Constitutional Court muster, there is also the practical matter of the impact complete expropriation without compensation will have on the financial sector, and by extension, our economy, and inward investment.

That Mr Ramaphosa would do all that he can to shore up the electoral prospects of the ANC with an election looming, makes good sense, but for him to suggest a pre-determined outcome to the processes currently under way amounts to little other than disingenuous populist rhetoric.

The racial divisions we confront as a nation are deep and wide, and the resolution of the land question will play a cardinal role in how these divisions are addressed.

A zero-sum, winner takes all philosophy will exacerbate an already fraught situation, whereas a modus vivendi, a compromise, will afford us the opportunity to heal the bitter divisions we confront.

Question is, do we have the will as a nation, to strike the compromises that will result in most of us being happy with the outcome of the land reform process?