Guest Column

Truth does matter, and it's not just about Trump

2018-08-27 16:11
US President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci, AP, File)

US President Donald Trump. (Evan Vucci, AP, File)

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Terence Corrigan

Donald Trump may not be the most popular person around, and his recent tweet intervention on the ruling party's plans to undertake expropriation without compensation may not be welcome in all circles. Predictably, politicians, news platforms and social media have been alight with indignation. 

The government held forth on its Twitter account that it "totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past". 

"What happened to the principle of ask first, understand then act responsibly as a leader?" former public protector Thuli Madonsela asked indignantly. Communications Minister Nomvula Mokonyane expounded on diplomatic niceties, declaring that "any self-respecting nation would verify facts".

The Economic Freedom Fighters' Floyd Shivambu kicked this up a notch: "That's madness and highest form of foolishness by a racist bigot, who lacks the basic intelligence to understand anything. South Africa will never be intimidated by global racists who believe in lies."

And thousands of ordinary South Africans rushed to the ramparts of their Twitter and Facebook accounts to pour ridicule on Trump. He was stupid and ignorant, went one popular line. Another was that he should keep his nose out of "our" business. He was buying into the agitprop of Fox News host Tucker Carlson. It was all beneath scorn.

News outlets revelled in this. "Donald Trump's tweet on land expropriation gets vetoed," went one headline. "Trump tweets about 'land expropriation' and Mzansi was ready," proclaimed another. 

Still others connected Trump's tweet to the idea of "fake news" – something that has, for better or worse, come to be associated with Trump since his campaign for the American presidency. News24 tweeted an image under the name (or hashtag) #truthmatters. It read: "Carlson: Ramaphosa has begun seizing land from his own citizens because they are the wrong skin colour. Fact: No farms have been seized without compensation and race is not a part of the proposed constitutional amendment."

In all of this, there was a strong current of political theatre and exhibitionism on display. And it is difficult to imagine that hostility to Trump did not play a role.

This may not have been unexpected, but we should not blind South Africa to the very serious reality that his intervention signified. It is a demonstration of international concern about the government's determination to introduce a policy of expropriation without compensation. 

Trump is not alone in this. Our experience as the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), in our interactions with businesspeople – from South Africa and abroad – indicates that expropriation without compensation has become a dominant concern in making investment decisions. Perhaps more accurately, they have come to loom large in decisions to hold off on investment. Two of the government's investment envoys – Trevor Manuel and Jacko Maree – have indicated that expropriation without compensation is undermining their work. The security of property rights, which expropriation without compensation would seriously imperil, are fundamental to investors' decisions. 

In the case of the United States, there are the additional considerations relating to South Africa's participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) regime. Providing duty-free access to the US market, it has created tens of thousands of jobs in South Africa, not least in value-adding industries which government policy has sought to promote. Yet a move on property rights places that at risk, since eligibility for AGOA is conditional upon, among other things, the protection of property rights.

As an aside, foreign investors' concerns have not been allayed by governments' decision over the past few years to terminate its bilateral investment treaties, replacing them with a generic piece of legislation (which in turn guarantees protection under Section 25 of the Constitution – just the section that President Ramaphosa has committed to amending).

It must be made clear that there is no conspiracy here, and no ominous threat to South Africa's sovereignty. This is also not a "Trump issue". It is about the entirely predictable consequences of South Africa's government and ruling party having created a crisis that was never going to be confined within the country's borders. South Africa is simply too open and too integrated into the global economy for that. This is a truth none dare forget.

And, of course, News24 is to be commended for wanting to ensure that #truthmatters. This is an admirable conviction. Tucker Carlson can well be criticised for some shoddy journalism. It is true that no farms have been seized without compensation – yet. (Although instances of expropriation without compensation have been taking place for years, as predominantly poor people have been shunted out of the way to make way for the powerful and politically connected. Thus, the question naturally presents itself; what would constitute an appropriate moment to raise the alarm?)

It is, however, unclear why News24 chose to insist that "race is not a part of the proposed constitutional amendment". In truth, we have no idea what the constitutional amendment will look like. We have little clarity on what the endgame looks like. As it happens, we at the IRR believe that expropriation without compensation will be applied to all, on an ideological rather than racial basis. But a sharp turn to a racial nationalist agenda is not inconceivable, certainly not in view of much of the rhetoric that has surrounded the debate.

Indeed, the lack of clarity on what expropriation without compensation is meant to achieve, and crucially, what limiting principles will be applied, effectively nullifies government's commitment to communicate its plans better. There is no implementation plan to study at present – at least none that it has favoured the country with – and no sense of where expropriation without compensation will end. (Secrecy in respect of expropriation without compensation is deliberate: in March this year, the minister of rural development and land reform remarked that she would keep the identity of farms targeted for expropriation without compensation secret so as not to allow their owners the warning that would allow them to mount strong legal opposition.)

The media could do a great service in helping to inject a greater quantum of truth into these issues. Not just from Trump. They might fruitfully demand information on government's intentions, and raise the alarm when stakeholder groups present distorted information.

The findings of the land audit, for example, have been inaccurately represented by government representatives from the minister down, and even in the parliamentary resolution that called for a committee to examine the case for an amendment to Section 25. In truth, President Ramaphosa did this, too – even as the Trump controversy unfolded – in his widely publicised riposte in the Financial Times, by significantly understating the extent of state-owned land.

Truth might matter a great deal more if we appreciate what is at stake, and demand that those most directly involved in determining the country's future are held accountable for their adherence to it.

- Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the Institute of Race Relations by sending an SMS to 32823.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    donald trump  |  land  |  land expropriation
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