A New Era for South Africa: Cyril Ramaphosa’s Moderate Position On Land Reform

Written by: Caitlin Attaway

In February, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected to fill the vacant South African presidency after Jacob Zuma was forced to resign by the African National Congress (ANC) amid claims of corruption. President Ramaphosa has been as longtime ANC member, first elected as a Member of Parliament in 1994 (the first democratic elections held after Apartheid). To maintain the confidence of the ANC majority of Parliament, Ramaphosa is attempting to re-align himself with South Africa’s black majority population. Land reform has become a politicized topic which may allow Ramaphosa to quiet his connections with South Africa’s wealthy, predominately white elites and form ties with ANC’s base demographic. 

Cyril Ramaphosa’s past has raised concerns about this commitment to South Africa’s disadvantaged black population. After his failed bid for the presidency in 1999, Ramaphosa took a hiatus from the political sphere to join the corporate world. During this period Ramaphosa developed a close relationship with South Africa’s white elites. By 2012 he earned himself a position on the non-executive board of Lonmin, a platinum mining company already plagued in scandal. While serving on this board, accusations arose linking Ramaphosa to the Marikana massacre which resulted in the death of 34 striking mine workers; however, his involvement in the police agitation leading to the killings was cleared in 2015 by the Marikana Commission of Inquiry.

While no indictment against Ramaphosa was pursued, his lack of regard for the black community during his corporate career raises questions over his viability to represent both the ANC and South Africa. However, the controversy surrounding land reform poses an opportunity for Ramaphosa to become the champion of ANC base once again. 

In December of 2017, the ANC along with Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) approved a resolution to redistribute unused land to alleviate current racial disparities in land ownership. The proposed resolution would drastically alter the “willing seller, willing buyer” model. This current model requires the South African government to give financial compensation to white landowners in order to accumulate their property for redistribution to blacks. Under this policy, 72 percent of privately owned land remains held by whites, while blacks own only 4 percent. The “willing buyer, willing seller” has allowed remnants of colonization and Apartheid to remain into the present day. Black South Africans continue to be segregated into urban townships and rural reserves due their inability to obtain land which was taken from their possession unwillingly. The 2017 resolution gives Black South Africans new hope to take possession of their land. 

Ramaphosa has stressed his desire for the ANC resolution to remain within the legal grounds of South African Constitution. In his speech to Parliament on February 20th regarding land reform, Ramaphosa declared, “We cannot have a situation where we allow land grabs…we cannot have a situation of anarchy when we have proper constitutional means through which we can work to give land to our people.” Ramaphosa’s moderate position on the land reform keeps him in good standing with South Africa’s white property owners who do not wish to have their land unlawfully taken from their possession. At the same time, Ramaphosa has gained the favor of South Africa’s black majority – who still reside on small portions of land sanctioned to them during Apartheid – by fighting to end racial disparities that persist in property ownership. Ramaphosa’s political foresight to maintain a moderate position on land reform could guarantee not only his own victory but also an ANC’s victory in the upcoming election cycle in 2019.

Instituting land reform within constitutional means can only be accomplished if the ANC is ready to commit itself to the best interests of the people, casting aside internal corruption and government mismanagement associated with former President Zuma. Leaders within the ANC must put all their constituents, both Black South Africans and White South Africans, ahead of their own political agendas. Calls for a change of the South African Constitution through the means of the 2017 resolution are self-serving to politicians’ political prospects. If ANC leaders want real change for their people, they would follow the lead of Ramaphosa and conduct land reform within the constraints of the Constitution.