President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to put his authority behind not just the cause of land reform in South Africa, but the expropriation of land without compensation, is political risk-taking of the highest order. If it works, he may succeed in building support for the ruling African National Congress ahead of the 2019 general election, as well as neutralizing his populist opponents inside and outside the ANC. But it also has considerable potential for blowback, with Ramaphosa ultimately pleasing no one and alienating important constituencies at home and abroad.
This inevitably raises some broader questions. Why has a president with a well-earned reputation as an operator with renowned political acumen staked so much on an issue where there would appear to be no easy political wins available, indeed quite the opposite—and so close to an election? Is it a sign that he feels insecure and threatened both by rivals within the ANC who want a “radical economic transformation,” and by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, and has to match their militancy with some of his own? Whatever the case, Ramaphosa will need all his political skill and finesse to find a route through this political minefield, one which satisfies legitimate demands for change, sends reassuring signals of stability to foreign investors, and allows him to emerge with his credibility intact.
Next year’s general election will be decisive in determining whether Ramaphosa strengthens his still-quite fragile position in the ANC. Land reform would have seemed an obvious issue for him to defer, at least until the election was safely out of the way, given its capacity to generate high emotions and political turbulence in South Africa. In seeking to explain Ramaphosa’s motives, several factors must be considered. The first is that he sees his presidency as marking an end to the politics of drift and inertia that characterized the rule of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Difficult issues will now be addressed rather than delayed, with land reform just one case in point.