President Cyril Ramaphosa went in to bat hard for the Constitution during a question-and-answer session in the National Assembly (NA) on Wednesday, reiterating his support for far-reaching land reform policies within the ambit of its existing legal provisions.
The head of state, in office exactly one month on Thursday, has come under fire for the ANC's policy of expropriation of property without compensation and a subsequent parliamentary motion to open debate about amending the Constitution's property clause. Critics have lambasted him for seemingly targeting private property, jeopardising the economy and stunting foreign investment.
But on Wednesday, Ramaphosa – balancing different power blocs in the ANC and having to fend off a challenge from the EFF – gave the strongest indication yet that he is not in favour of amending the Constitution. The president has been consistent in his messaging since the governing party's elective conference – that expropriation without compensation will be pursued only where it does not endanger food security, harm the economy, or destabilise the agricultural sector. Wednesday did not seem different.
Here are our five takeaways from Ramaphosa's remarks in the NA.
1. The president believes the Constitution is fine as it is
The president referred to the transformational intent of the Constitution, and then used two words which indicate that he's fine with it as is: "assert" and "recognise". He told MPs the democracy's founding document has at its heart the transformation of society and that the debate about land provides South Africans with an opportunity to affirm and confirm the document. Not to change it. He said it's "an opportunity to assert the intent of the Constitution... to recognise the property clause..." Ramaphosa is saying: "The Constitution is there; let's use it."
2. Section 25 is part of the Bill of Rights
There is much debate about how inalienable the right to property is according to the Constitution. Elmien du Plessis has argued there is no right to property, but that section 25 merely guarantees that property won't be grabbed illegally if you own it. Rampahosa located the property clause in the Bill of Rights, which sets out the ground rules for society. He added that it already, as it stands, provides government with a mandate for "radical transformation".
3. Even though the Constitution is cool, change must come
Ramaphosa, at every opportunity where he has addressed the land question, has acknowledged the wrongs of the past and the need to correct them. Wednesday was no different, but he reiterated that the imperative of transformation is at the heart of the Constitution and on more than one opportunity referred to it as a "transformational" document. In other words, a set of guidelines and principles to enact change. This change, in terms of land, is guided by the property clause, he said.
4. Don't change the Constitution; just be more effective
The Constitution, through section 25, instructs the state to take reasonable legislative and other steps to ensure access to land on a fair basis. The state should also ensure, Ramaphosa said, that the law guarantees security of tenure and restitution of land to those affected. He told MPs there is a strong case to made (well, former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke and former president Kgalema Motlanthe have already done so) that expropriation without compensation is "entirely consistent" with the Constitution. "It is our responsibility to use the provisions in the Constitution more effectively and more directly," he said.
5. Only talking about expropriation and compensation is silly
Don't reduce the debate to a simplistic one about land grabs, the president said. South Africans, and especially government, need to look at the country's land-reform programme since 1994 in its totality and identify shortcomings. It is an opportunity, he said, "to realise the full meaning of the Constitution". Meaning: "We have the tools, we haven't used them properly – let's do so."