When a crisis is not a crisis

It sometimes seems that SA is inherently unstable and beset by calamities that threaten to unravel the whole fabric of society. However, in a conservative and deeply resilient country such as SA, an apparent crisis is usually not a real crisis.

At first sight, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ambitious drive to boost foreign and domestic investment cannot be reconciled with his calls for land expropriation without compensation. Surely a crisis of confidence in property rights will destroy investor confidence?

The trouble with a real catastrophe is that once it strikes it is usually too late to do much about it.

The most astute politicians and business moguls recognise this fact. For this reason, they try to identify the potential solutions to major challenges in advance. Only then do they engender a sense of crisis that allows a chokehold on policy change to be released.

SA’s apparent crises are often the creations of canny politicians and businesspeople working in cahoots.

Take the democratic transition, in which Ramaphosa played such a crucial role.

The negotiators on both sides could see what a sustainable political settlement would entail. Their real challenge, however, was to bring their own constituencies into line.

How could white racial extremists, leftist anticapitalists and African nationalists be persuaded to support a constitutional settlement based on human rights and commerce? Only by creating a sense of historic crisis.

This admittedly violence-fuelled uncertainty encouraged unexpected compromises to be reached. Ultimately, it resulted in a settlement that could never have been sold to either side based on rational dialogue alone.

Less than a decade later, an HIV/AIDS calamity threatened fiscal crisis, social disintegration and the destruction of democratic politics. A crisis-awakened country responded with massive prevention and care interventions and with the world’s largest treatment programme. Conflict over HIV entrenched the legitimacy of an activist judiciary and established the fallibility of overbearing presidents.

It is arguable that the greatest challenge for AIDS policy in SA today is that the HIV epidemic is no longer viewed as a crisis. New HIV infections have fallen by half since 2010.

However, SA still has the largest epidemic in the world, with more than 7-million people living with the virus.

A little more than half of HIV-positive people are receiving antiretroviral therapies, rather than the nine out of 10 that is the government’s stated goal.

In SA, a crisis is sometimes needed to get the right things done. A land expropriation crisis may therefore be the opposite of what it seems: an opportunity rather than a threat.

Ramaphosa doubtless had little choice but to act on the resolution adopted by the ANC at its conference last December, but the political energy that has been unleashed by the “land question” may now be channelled towards long-anticipated and benign policy changes that have been blocked by entrenched interests.

Vested interests take many forms: traditional leaders who deny their subjects control over their own land in much of rural SA; commercial farmers who have used evictions to reduce their exposure to perceived political risks; municipalities that have failed to document ownership in peri-urban areas; parastatals and government departments that have blocked the use of their land for housing and economic development; and property owners who have used political donations and litigation to protect their private economic advantages.

Engendering a sense of crisis always carries risks, of course.

Having a land crisis in SA, however, may ultimately be far less hazardous than not having one.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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