Melanie Verwoerd

The nightmare 'land' situation we must avoid at all cost

2018-06-06 07:45
EFF leader Julius Malema (File, Cornel van Heerden, Netwerk24)

EFF leader Julius Malema (File, Cornel van Heerden, Netwerk24)

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Very little scares me and certainly, after all the years, very little in politics fazes me. However, during the president’s budget vote in Parliament two weeks ago there was an incident with the EFF that frightened me.

I have had a nightmare scenario playing off in my head around the land question for a while and what happened that day made me think that it is not so far-fetched.

Let me say upfront, yet again, that I am not anxious about the intentions of the governing party on this matter. Every document I have seen and every discussion I have had with senior ANC leaders point to a sensible and sensitive approach to the expropriation and redistribution of land. So, I am not worried about what will ultimately become policy – with or without a constitutional amendment.

What worries me is what comes between now and the final policy – especially given that we are entering an election year and that land is fast becoming the issue of choice to rally voters around. Frustratingly, this means that the middle of the road, sensible approach tends not to make the headlines. The radical, rowdy utterances on both sides of the debate fill the column inches and air time, because as any good political spin doctor will tell you: conflict makes news.

Which brings me to my nightmare scenario. I am petrified that at some point in the foreseeable future a group of EFF supporters illegally occupy a piece of privately owned farm land and that the farmer (with or without the help of other farmers in the area) takes the law into his own hands and shoots at the occupiers. The worst-case scenario will, of course, be if someone gets injured or killed.

It goes without saying that such a scenario would have severe repercussions for the country. Not only would it likely result in severe unrest, but it would be almost impossible for President Cyril Ramaphosa and his colleagues in government to control the direction and outcome of the land reform debate. 

The problem is that such a conflict would most probably benefit the EFF in their desperate search for more votes, now that former president Jacob Zuma is not around anymore. Which brings me back to what happened in Parliament.

EFF leader Julius Malema, in his response to the vote, was delivering a speech in his usual fiery tone. At some point there was a point of order against him, which resulted in the usual counter points by himself as well as his party members. He eventually gave in, but was clearly annoyed and suddenly his tone became even more charged. He said that it was clear that Ramaphosa was not sincere about land reform. Then came the threat.

Malema claimed that the EFF had asked their members not to occupy land illegally, but that he was now reversing the decision and calling on them to do so. "Occupy the land," he shouted into the microphone. That was worrying and chilling, but thankfully his time had expired.

After he sat down the deputy speaker, Lechesa Tsenoli, raised a concern that he did not believe that a Member of Parliament, who had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and the law of the land, should call on party members (under parliamentary privilege) to do something illegal.

This infuriated Malema and the other EFF members, who repeatedly jumped up and called on their party members to occupy land. Eventually Tsenoli asked them to leave the House. They did, but taking their time, whilst all the time chanting: "Occupy the land."

At that moment it became apparent that the EFF was looking for some major confrontation which would extend beyond the boundaries of Parliament. Their removal from Parliament is, after all, now same-old, same-old and barely makes the news. But since conflict is news they will have to shift the confrontation elsewhere if they want the media coverage required to impress their potential voters.

Some politicians are of the opinion that they would like to provoke a police reaction (shooting) and by doing so embarrass Ramaphosa by invoking memories of Marikana. I don’t believe that would easily happen. Following the tragedy at Marikana, I think the police would be extremely careful not to retaliate with live ammunition even under the most severe provocation.

However, we know that many farmers have lost faith in the police and if an illegal occupation happens in a remote area they could possibly retaliate.

If this scenario becomes a reality all of those spewing fear and hatred through populist narratives, be they on the left or right of this issue, would have blood on their hands. Whether it is the EFF, who have directly or indirectly encouraged their supporters to occupy the land, or AfriForum, who have with their lies and hyperbole petrified the farmers, they will be responsible for the lives lost.

It is therefore important that the politicians for once become more responsible and among other things NOT use parliamentary privilege to incite illegal actions – incitement which they would be prosecuted for if they raised it outside Parliament.

It is equally important that organisations that represent farmers such as AfriForum call on their members not to take the law into their own hands if occupations such as these occur.

The issue of land can be solved under the leadership of Ramaphosa. However, for that to happen we need cool and responsible heads to prevail. If not, we could see many lives lost and race relations damaged beyond any possible repair.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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