Last week Parliament passed a motion on land reform which resulted in a lot of panic, both domestically and internationally.

It was immediately assumed that South Africa was about to copy Zimbabwe with indiscriminate land grabs.

I was South African Ambassador to Ireland when the Zimbabwean land grabs happened. Literally overnight investment into Zimbabwe came to a standstill. Foreign investors immediately turned their attention elsewhere and, almost two decades later, Zimbabwe has still not recovered.

At the time, the question I was repeatedly asked was: “Will South Africa go the same way as Zimbabwe?” I would explain at length why not – amongst other that property rights had been guaranteed in our Constitution.

Unsurprisingly after last week’s motion, I again got calls from all over the world. “So you are going the Zimbabwean way after all?” they stated, more than asked.

I want to be clear that I believe that we urgently need to address land reform. It has not been implemented speedily or comprehensive enough and it is not morally or politically sustainable that Africans do not own the majority of land in this country.

As long as Malema doesn’t become president, I also don’t believe that we are heading for the Zimbabwean model. I am confident that the cooler heads in the Ramaphosa-led ANC will prevail and that land reform will be escalated, but in a responsible manner.

It is important to understand how dangerous the issue of land reform is, not only to the country, but also for Ramaphosa. At the ANC’s Nasrec conference in December, the issue of land expropriation without compensation was the only thing that nearly caused violence. Many believed that the Constitution should not be messed with and that the concept of no compensation should be treated with extreme caution.

The more radical (read former president Jacob Zuma) faction was, however, adamant and viciously insisted that it must go through. Faced with the possibility of violence and a total breakdown of the precious “unity” on the last day of the conference, the Ramaphosa camp had to make a quick decision.

In order to prevent a total collapse of the conference, they accepted the principle of land expropriation without compensation, but with the qualifications that it can not impact negatively on food production and food security in the country.

In doing so, peace was restored and the conference could conclude. However, there was and is a very dangerous issue at play here. Many in the ANC believe that the former Zuma faction was setting Ramaphosa up with the land issue.

Let’s not forget that it was Zuma who started the emotional and racial narrative about land expropriation without compensation to gain support in his dying days. The former Zuma-ites know how emotive the issue of land is and they know that it is the easiest way to mobilise people inside and outside of the ANC.

Once that genie is out of the bottle, you can’t put it back.

If Ramaphosa therefore does not deliver on land reform in a dramatic fashion, they can, and most likely will, use that as a reason to try and get rid of him at the next ANC conference. So enters President David Mabuza, and if you are afraid of land reform under Ramaphosa, you should be petrified at the prospect of Mabuza taking charge of the process.

Of course the current Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, is also not known for being very diplomatic with the more politically sensitive issues. (As the Irish would put it, we need her like a hole in the head – pun intended – on this issue!)

Yet, under Ramaphosa’s watchful eye, I still believe that overall the issue of land reform will be handled with a skilled and gentle hand by the ANC government.

However, the most dangerous component of this issue, is the debate between now and when the policy is put into law and then implemented. As we have seen with the parliamentary debate, if words are not carefully chosen, it creates large scale panic. It also plays into the hands of global Afropessimism.

Having worked with a number of big foreign investors I know that the majority don’t have the time to try and figure out political details and possible nuances. Why would they? They just go somewhere else.

It is therefore crucial that all politicians tread very carefully when they address this issue; not for the sake of keeping the status quo, but as we saw in Zimbabwe, those who will suffer most if this is not handled correctly will be the poorest of the poor – those who the politicians with their Rolex watches and Mercs (and often huge tracts of land) claim to represent.

The politicians are not the only ones to blame. Those who are scared of losing property, and especially farms, must be really careful in how they convey their concerns. They need to firstly understand the historical context and pain that lies behind this issue. To purely blame the ANC for failed land reform shows a historical amnesia which only aggravates the whole issue.

Even worse: to warn foreign investors against investment in the country and to encourage land owners (read whites) to protect their property is extremely inflammatory and irresponsible.

The land issue is an enormous opportunity. We should use this to surprise the world one more time. Instead of doing what they all anticipate – i.e. bunkering down on one side and grabbing land on the other with a dramatic increase in racial tensions, we should do the opposite.

We should all put our heads together and find a solution that will not only address the inequalities, but improve racial relations.

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

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