South Africa’s Slide

President Ramaphosa tries the Zimbabwe and Venezuela way.

 
 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses a media conference at the end of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, July 27.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses a media conference at the end of the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, July 27. PHOTO:THEMBA HADEBE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
 

South Africa needs another enlightened leader like Nelson Mandela, but it keeps electing imitations of Robert Mugabe. President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed recently that his government plans to expropriate private property without compensation, following the examples of Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

Mr. Ramaphosa says he wants “land reform” to “unlock economic growth, by bringing more land in South Africa to full use, and enable the productive participation of millions more South Africans in the economy.” In his telling, South Africa’s ills are related to the proportion of whites and blacks tilling the soil, not the economic mismanagement of predecessor Jacob Zuma or the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

 
Supporters of expropriation claim black South Africans own less than 2% of rural land, and less than 7% of urban land, thanks to apartheid-era policies. But the government’s 2017 land audit used questionable data and underestimated land returned to blacks since the ANC won power in 1994. The Institute of Race Relations estimates black South Africans control 30% to 50% of the country’s land.

Mandela insisted that land reform is best achieved through a “willing buyer, willing seller” principle, as it is in other democracies with a strong rule of law. When polled, the vast majority of blacks prefer cash instead of titles. Many black South Africans have streamed into cities to find jobs and better schools for their children.

But the ANC’s Zuma-era economic follies left many of these migrants jobless, and sent crime rates rising. South Africa’s economy shrank 2.2% in the first quarter, as investors and capital fled. The opposition Democratic Alliance now governs Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria. Mr. Ramaphosa is promising more government spending to regain public support, but snatching private property is about as destructive a policy as there is. The ANC was founded as a revolutionary party, and the tragedy is that it won’t let the revolution end.

Appeared in the August 7, 2018, print edition.

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