Urban land reform plan could be an easy win for Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (AFP)
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (AFP)

"Rebuilding the capacity of the state is going to be more difficult than what it was the first time, because the gift of patience granted by the people since 1994 has been withdrawn and the state has been corroded by poor governance and maladministration."

The gift of patience has been withdrawn. This was how former finance minister Trevor Manuel put his finger on the pulse of the unfolding winter of discontent in a speech at the University of the Western Cape last week.

History tells us that people can be patient for years, sometimes for generations, while waiting for their dreams and ideals to materialise. Then when something suddenly occurs that gives them an injection of hope, or there is some new promise of change, they can become impatient very quickly and often insist on drastic action.

The people of South Africa have since 1994 been incredibly patient and understanding of the complexities of fundamental transformation after a long era of injustice. Over the years I have been astonished at especially black South Africans' capacity to wait and wait for the promised better life; to remain peaceful and conciliatory while they were watching poverty and inequality stay the same or even grow.

It was only during the last few years of the administration of Jacob Zuma, when it became abundantly clear that he and his inner circle cared more about their own enrichment than the development of the country, that things started stirring. The vigorous new agitation of civil society organisations, as well as the populism of the EFF, helped spur this on.

The genie finally escaped from the bottle when Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president in December and boldly promised renewal, rehabilitation and change. All the cooped-up impatience and frustration suddenly boiled over. That "better life for all" that the ANC had promised all those years, that "new dawn" Ramaphosa is talking about? We want it now. Not next year, now.

The timing couldn't have been worse for Ramaphosa. Not only are the state coffers empty and the economy dragging its feet, but he has to win an election in a year's time while large chunks of his party are trying very hard to sabotage him.

And so, land became the primary symbol of this new impatience.  Symbolism, history and black pride all play a role, as do the optics of most agricultural land still being in the hands of whites. It is also true that there are a number of aspirant black farmers yearning for land, some for commercial farming, others for smallholdings.

But at the heart of it is the terrible reality that millions of black South Africans still live in shacks in over-populated, dangerous and dehumanising slums in our cities and towns from where they travel to work four hours every day.

There hasn't been any violent occupation of commercial farms the last few months that I have taken note of, but there is now a land occupation in urban areas virtually every week. Two-thirds of our population are urbanised, after all.

Stilling the urban land hunger is actually something the Ramaphosa government can do relatively easily. It should, of course, have been done many years ago.

As I understand the government's thinking, the plan is to identify unused parcels of state land in a very short period of time, supply basic water and sewerage infrastructure and then hand stands to people with title deeds and the right to build their own homes within a broad set of prescriptions. The new owners can use their properties as security, but can only sell it after eight years and have to give the state first right of refusal.

At the same time, so it was explained to me, privately owned land near the city centres and job opportunities will be targeted for the same purpose and this is where we could see the first experiments of expropriation without or with very little compensation within the parameters of the Constitution as it stands. These would then be the test cases Ramaphosa and his team need to show that there is no real need for a change in section 25 of the Constitution.

I think it is an excellent initiative and could satisfy many people's restiveness, but only if implemented quickly and nationally and if it is ambitious enough the grab people's attention.

The big question is whether the national, regional and local bureaucracies can handle such a big project with great speed and not much corruption.

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.

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