Poor framing of land debate will lead to an irresolute conclusion

An extreme view around expropriation is that it is the silver bullet that will solve black people's problems./ALON SKUY
An extreme view around expropriation is that it is the silver bullet that will solve black people's problems./ALON SKUY

Public hearings on land expropriation without compensation are well underway.

Early on into the exercise it has become apparent that the deliberations and debate will not answer the pressing question of how to make land reform in South Africa work.

This will not be a reflection on the capacity of ordinary citizens to engage with complex issues, but on the capacity of the political leadership to offer firm proposals to address the country's most pressing problems.

There was already plenty of uncertainty going into this undertaking, even leading to jitteriness among investors. The hearings portend that the outcome of the constitutional review process may yet be a continuation, rather than an end to the irresolution.

The process is being overseen by the constitutional review committee set up by parliament and has provided for widespread participation.

Questions should be asked about the quality of that participation.

The hearings have thus far been to Free State, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. They run for a set period from morning to afternoon.

To allow for as many voices as possible, each speaker is limited to three minutes.

In this time, speakers are given an opportunity to state whether they are for or against the amending of Section 25 of the constitution and to offer possible alternatives or substantiations.

So far, there are two clear sides. The one side agrees with the proposal on the basis that black people were historically dispossessed and remain excluded from the economy.

The other side disagrees due to fears that such a move may destabilise the economy and entrench racial divisions.

Proposals for what should take the place of Section 25 or for policy measures to address landlessness and inequality are sorely lacking.

Given that this matter is not subject to a referendum and that the inputs given at the hearings, as well as the just under a million written submissions, do not constitute an aggregation of support or opposition, the content of the debate should be more nuanced.

The EFF and the ANC that sponsored the motion in parliament have been vague about the possible path to be taken should the constitution be amended.

They have not presented clear policy positions that would not only guide the debate but also provide the substantive basis for the deliberations that will ultimately shape the country's socioeconomic trajectory.

The lack of such explicit proposals has left ordinary citizens groping in the dark as they try to give content and a sense of purpose to the debate.

It is this lack of clarity on the aims of the ANC, in particular, that have left the question so open to interpretation that it has led to extreme views on both sides of the divide.

Whether it is the perception that the government plans to take land indiscriminately from [white] property owners or that expropriation is the silver bullet that will solve all problems that affect black people.

The committee cannot be expected to provide the substance for this discourse. That is beyond its mandate.

But the quality of this consultation can only be as good as the arguments presented. As the saying goes: If you want good answers, ask good questions.

The ANC's framing of this debate as the majority party in parliament - and thus the backstop to legislative and policy processes - is weak.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise should the review process deliver an ambivalent conclusion.

The political leadership cannot keep outsourcing to the public the role of leading and providing clear lines of policy on the country's social and economic trajectory.

As the parties present their manifestos and campaign, the electorate should be unapologetic in demanding this clarity. It should ask tough questions and express dissatisfaction with flimsy answers.

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