South Africa’s Zimbabwe Moment
President Jacob Zuma is toying with land expropriation policies that threaten the country's economy — and his own leadership.
JOHANNESBURG — For the 23 years it has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC) has resisted populist calls to strip white landowners of their property and redistribute it to black South Africans. Now the party’s embattled leader is calling for exactly that, using incendiary rhetoric around land expropriation in a desperate bid to cling to power, and, when the time comes, deliver the ANC into the hands of his chosen successor.
As Jacob Zuma’s scandal-plagued presidency heads for yet another no-confidence vote after his abrupt cabinet reshuffle earlier this month sent the rand tumbling, he has called on black parties to unite in order to amend the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation — a move that contradicts the ANC’s official policy, which calls for land acquisition based on “just and equitable” compensation.
The ANC previously pursued a “willing-buyer, willing-seller” approach to land reform but failed dismally. More than two decades after the end of apartheid, the vast majority of South African land remains in the hands of the minority white population. The party has sought to speed up the redistribution process with a bill that would let the government expropriate land without the owners’ consent as long as it pays fair compensation. The bill was recently referred back to parliament after lawmakers failed to get adequate public participation in the process.
Zuma has adopted a more aggressive stance, calling for a “pre-colonial audit of land ownership, use, and occupation patterns” to be followed by a new law to allow the expropriation of land without compensation. “We need to take bold steps that will transform our economy, including land ownership, very fast,” he said in a speech on Feb. 24.
The president’s rhetoric has drawn harsh rebukes from the political opposition. Mmusi Maimane, leader of the liberal, pro-business Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, on March 3 accused Zuma of having “gone rogue on land reform.” Others have compared Zuma’s approach to that of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who famously expropriated thousands of white-owned farms only to watch the economy nosedive and inflation reach more than 500 billion percent, according to some estimates.
Few analysts see South Africa taking such a disastrous route, in part because most doubt that Zuma has the will or the political capital to follow through on his inflammatory rhetoric. But investors have already signaled their unease with his leadership, in particular over his recent firing of a respected finance minister, which sent borrowing costs through the roof and prompted rating agencies to slash South Africa’s credit rating to junk. Anti-Zuma demonstrations were held around the country on April 7, and protesters are expected to take to the streets again this week.
“Weak or removing property rights have been shown globally to be disastrous,” said Peter Attard Montalto, an emerging markets analyst for the financial services group Nomura. Mere talk of expropriation without compensation, he added, “conjures up the Zimbabwe scenario in people’s minds.”
Analysts say that Zuma’s populist turn is designed to drum up enough grassroots support to enable him to deliver leadership of the ANC to his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former minister and chairwoman of the African Union Commission. He is due to step down as the party’s leader at a crucial conference in December, where the ANC will anoint his successor.
“I don’t think [Zuma] actually believes in aggressive policy here, but he is happy to use it as a political tool and wedge in the party to help win the December elective conference,” Montalto said.
Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist, came to power thanks to a populist touch that energized a largely rural base of supporters. But as his popularity has waned, the president has found himself outflanked by more radical firebrands like Julius Malema, a former ANC youth leader turned Zuma rival who has been beating the land expropriation drum for years now — and gaining steam.
Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, which made land reform a central pillar of its policy platform, is less than four years old. But already it is the third-biggest party in the country, playing kingmaker in last year’s local election and helping tip the opposition to victory in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
“Zuma and the rest of his gang realize that the ideas of the EFF are winning in society,” said Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, the EFF’s spokesman. “To remain popular they are plugging into those ideas.”
Meanwhile, the ANC had its worst-ever electoral showing last year, narrowly losing power in several major cities where opposition parties formed coalitions. While ANC leaders pledged to win back voters, the party has been distracted by factional battles before its December conference.
The ANC’s internal elective process does not permit open campaigning, and the debate about land expropriation appears to have become a proxy for competing factions within the party. There is significant opposition within the ANC to Zuma and his backers, who are viewed as a patronage faction, from a more pragmatic, pro-business faction associated with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Zuma has more than a passing interest in who succeeds him as ANC leader and, by extension, the country’s president. He is facing 783 counts of corruption and fraud related to a 1999 government arms deal, with the charges still winding their way through the courts. It is thought that Dlamini-Zuma would be unlikely to jail the father of her children.
Other party heavyweights have distanced themselves from Zuma by sticking to the more cautious party line on land reform. “The official ANC policy is expropriation with compensation. That’s our formal policy,” Pravin Gordhan told Foreign Policy earlier this month, before he was sacked from his post as finance minister. Gwede Mantashe, the party’s secretary-general, said that land redistribution should be sped up “within the existing legislative framework,” an implicit repudiation of Zuma’s position.
Zuma’s success in mobilizing supporters around his radical land reform proposal partly reflects the ANC’s failure to resolve this highly emotive issue in a satisfactory way. According to Mcebisi Ndletyana, a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg, this failure has made the issue ripe for manipulation by ambitious politicians, in particular Malema, who has spent the past few years loudly reminding black South Africans of the ruling party’s failure to deliver on struggle-era promises of land restitution.
“Increasingly, the ANC is realizing that the demand is gaining popular resonance,” Ndletyana said. “Not only is it gaining popular resonance, but [it] is also portraying the ANC as a sellout. [Zuma’s] advocacy of this issue has a populist agenda in mind, but the issue itself remains legitimate. That is why it has resonance.”
Regardless of whether Zuma succeeds in installing his ex-wife as his successor, experts say that pressure to tackle land reform issues is unlikely to dissipate, especially as South Africa faces sluggish economic growth and high unemployment. “The key question is, how will the ANC and the government handle this?” said Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. “Will this be done with respect for the law, or recklessly?”