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10 OCTOBER 2018
Moral panic on land reform blocks the path to inclusiveness

by Owen Skae: Director of Rhodes Business School.

Differing degrees of moral panic are being flashed in the mainstream and social media on the impact of expropriation without compensation.

The concept of moral panic was first coined by Stanley Cohen, an SA activist who left the country in the 1960s and came up with it while doing research at the University of London on the media coverage of rebellious youth who were deemed to be behaving in a dangerously antisocial manner.

Widespread fear was spread about how this could destroy the moral fabric of society, which led to a vast exaggeration of the issue with fiction being presented as truth. Cohen wrote: “In this environment society conjures folk devils out of those who go against the social norm and need to be, at best, stamped out and, at worst, dealt with in such a way that the social order doesn’t change.”

This leads me to the question of whether the moral panic over the land issue in SA is exaggerated or truthful. Given that land and property is the single most emotive issue in SA, different factions have tried to outdo each other in creating folk devils that are either hell-bent on destroying the economy, taking us down the route of Venezuela or Zimbabwe, or monopolising the existing economic and social structure of SA, which has failed to deliver the rainbow nation miracle we were all promised.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has inherited an extremely volatile problem at a time when our economy is in dire straits and our society is still very divided. It requires incredible statesmanship to find a workable solution as the sands of time are fast running out. Not only has the land reform process failed over 24 years, it has become the touchpoint for every failing aspect of our society, from racism to the schooling system to unemployment to dysfunctional municipalities.

As associate law professor Elmien du Plessis of North West University wrote in a HuffPost article: “My diagnosis is that the conversation about compensation for expropriation is not actually about compensation, and perhaps not even about land. It is about missed discussions on reparations, an incomplete restorative justice process, and national identity and cohesion. And those conversations also need to take place somewhere.”

Frankly put, we need to pull the context of expropriation without compensation out of the realm of moral panic and into the space of doing what needs to be done to get SA onto the path of inclusiveness and prosperity. Rather than outdoing each other in the labelling and folk devil caricatures that moral entrepreneurs use to drive their own agendas, let’s get to the heart of the problem and solve it. This isn’t going to be easy. It will be uncomfortable.

Maybe the moral panic has done some good as it requires our political parties to pin their solutions to the mast. In 2019, the citizens will decide which mast they like best. Then we will have to live with the consequences, for better or worse, including promises that have been made but can’t be delivered on.

The moral panic means that business leaders have to decide whether they will invest in our country and find ways to achieve that transformation goal that continues to elude us. Looking on the positive side, this is why we need to take heart that the government and AgriSA are talking, that the government and the financial institutions are talking, and that the government and the people are talking. Hopefully meaningful action will materialise that will give certainty on how expropriation without compensation will be proposed and implemented.

In so doing Ramaphosa has a responsibility to ensure that transparency and decisiveness prevail. The stakes are too high to fail. This is not about ruling party politicking. It is about what is best for SA.

The best option is to ensure that the basis of moral panic is defused with clear proposals that remove the ammunition of rhetoric that the moral entrepreneurs and opportunists use to incite their constituencies. Fact must prevail over fiction. Giving explicit wording to Section 25 of the constitution must clarify the circumstances. Giving priority to targeting state-owned, unproductive and highly indebted land can calm the nerves of those whose land is productively used. The status of property rights in SA must be legally enforced in the country’s best interests. And the system by which expropriation will be carried out has to be given the capacity and governance structures to ensure those who are meant to benefit from it actually do.

First published in Business Day on Thursday, 20 September 2018.
Useful resources:

Rhodes Business School
The essence of Rhodes Business School is ‘Leadership for Sustainability’ and our vision is to be the business school of choice for those aspirant leaders and managers who are committed to applying sustainable business practices. Visit our website.

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