* Zuma rhetoric aimed at ANC's rural base
* President seeks constitutional change
* South Africa has more safeguards than Zimbabwe
By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG, April 6 President Jacob Zuma's
pledge to expropriate South African land is unlikely to lead to
violent seizures of farms like those that impoverished
neighbouring Zimbabwe, but could still hurt the economy by
scaring off investors worried about property rights.
Zuma is fighting to retain control of South Africa against
opponents within the ruling African National Congress who want
him to resign the party leadership.
The confrontation came to a head last week when Zuma sacked
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who was often at odds with the
president but widely respected by financial markets and whose
dismissal triggered a credit downgrade.
Faced with opposition mainly from urban constituencies
within the ANC, the president has doubled down on appeals to the
rural poor, renewing promises to change the constitution to
expropriate land without compensation and redistribute it.
"You can’t have a constitution that keeps people in
poverty," he told traditional leaders last week.
Zuma has reminded the party that "expropriation without
compensation" was adopted as official policy at the ANC's 2012
More than two decades after the end of apartheid rule, most
of South Africa's land is still in the hands of minority whites.
Zuma's ruling ANC has long been committed to the principle of
But the pace has been slow, relying mostly on a "willing
buyer, willing seller" policy intended to respect property
rights seen as vital to sustaining Africa's most industrialised
South Africa has many safeguards that should prevent the
sort of lawlessness and violence that took place when followers
of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe stormed onto white-owned
farms in the early 2000s.
Zuma himself has said South Africa will not embark on the
kind of lawless land grabs that saw Zimbabwe slide from
breadbasket to basket case. Unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa has a
robust, independent judiciary to keep the government in line.
Nor is South Africa as dependent on farming for its income
as its northern neighbour: agriculture accounts only for about
two percent of gross domestic product.
But the threat to redistribute land could still harm a
sector which is a major employer and feeds a drought-prone
nation, and any move to curb property rights could have wider
economic repercussions by alarming investors in other sectors.
RHETORIC TO REALITY?
Changing the constitution as Zuma says he intends would not
be easy, with the ANC so sharply divided over his leadership.
"The checks and balances in South Africa and the waning
political support for the ANC itself make it difficult to
disregard or change the constitution," said Daniel Silke, the
director of Political Futures Consultancy. "We are in a very
different space to what was a very autocratic Zimbabwe."
Zuma's political woes, including electoral setbacks in major
urban centres in local elections last year, explain his populist
approach to the land issue.
It is part of a "radical economic transformation" drive
aimed at the ANC's increasingly rural support base. His plans
will be high on the agenda of a major party policy conference in
June-July, and another in December when Zuma's successor as ANC
leader is to be picked ahead of a general election in 2019.
"Deploying populist rhetoric is a powerful campaign strategy
that has worked for Zuma before," said Ruth Bookbinder, Africa
Analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform says
only 8 million hectares of arable land has been transferred to
black people since 1994, less than 10 percent of the 82 million
hectares available and a third of the ANC's 30 percent target.
Yet the ANC has not yet fallen into line behind Zuma's call
for constitutional change. In February, ANC MPs voted down a
motion by the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party
to amend the constitution to take land without compensation.
Zuma's bid for rural support has parallels with Zimbabwe in
2000, when Mugabe, then in power for two decades, faced a
challenge from an opposition rooted in the urban trade union
Mugabe responded by unleashing violent invasions of
white-owned farms that proved devastating to an economy already
in meltdown, with acute balance of payments pressures, raging
inflation, slowing growth, a depreciating currency and a
dependency for funding on the International Monetary Fund.
Zuma too faces challenges from urban quarters, including
calls for him to resign from the South African Communist Party
and labour federation Cosatu, both allies of the ANC.
The economy is barely growing, the rand currency is
vulnerable, inflation could reignite, and further ratings
downgrades could push South Africa into the IMF's embrace, which
would see it forced to adopt austerity measures that ANC
populists would baulk at.
Damaging South Africa's high-tech agriculture sector through
land seizures could have far-reaching consequences. Wandile
Sihlobo, an economist at the agricultural business chamber, told
Reuters he reckons the debt book for commercial agriculture is
around 160 billion rand ($11.6 billion).
Food security is a concern as South Africa recovers from a
drought, with forecasts showing another potentially looming.
Some analysts say such consequences will not dissuade Zuma.
"Zuma has shown he can be absolutely reckless in pursuit of
his political agenda," said NKC African Economics political
analyst Gary van Staden.
($1 = 13.7680 rand)
(Editing by James Macharia and Peter Graff)