Is Ramaphosa willing to sacrifice our rights to the Zulu king's blackmail?
Those who witnessed Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini's imbizo this week may have been forgiven for thinking they had strayed back to a South Africa many had thought to be in the distant, and unmourned, past. Even more eyebrow-raising was that the gathering in Ulundi was being held to drum up support for a law passed in the final days of apartheid, at the behest of IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who demanded it as the price for his participation in the election of 1994. That election was meant to usher in a new era of democracy and equal rights under a constitutional democracy underpinned by the rule of law and freedom from oppression of all types for all South Africans - including Zulus.
The imbizo seemed to rejuvenate Buthelezi. He must have felt vindicated in the stance he took in the days before the 1994 election, when he all but threatened a breakaway movement unless he got his way. And it gave corporal Carl Niehaus, an avid supporter of former president Jacob Zuma, a chance to "apologise" to the Zulu nation on behalf of the ANC, which both he and the ANC later denied was the case.
In any event, we got the point. And so, it seems, did President Cyril Ramaphosa. The dust had hardly settled in Ulundi when Ramaphosa was beating a trail to the king's door to assure him that the government had no intention of taking Zulu land away. And no, Ramaphosa apparently assured Buthelezi, the government had not accepted former president Kgalema Motlanthe's recommendations flowing from his parliament-mandated report on post-1994 legislation.
For those of us looking on, Ramaphosa's attitude in this instance appears to lend credence to a growing perception that while he demonstrates great political nous and sophistication, this may sometimes be at the expense of the straight talking we also expect him to do. Surely the facts, in this instance, demand that he do so.
Take this excerpt from Motlanthe's report, compiled after hearings in the province: "The [Ingonyama] Trust is meant to exist and function subject to existing land rights under customary law and not act in ways that undermine and abrogate such customary and other underlying land rights. However, the Trust in some instances regards itself as the outright owner of land and therefore not subject to any duty to consult or to obtain community consent in dealing with the land. This has given rise to instances where the Trust has leased land to external third parties (for example shopping centres) without having first consulted and obtained the consent of those whose informal or customary land rights were subsumed by the shopping centre."
The trust has introduced draconian rules, including 10% yearly rent increases, compelling lessees to fence the land within three months and the cancelling of leases for failure to pay rent. Moreover, any structures on the land remain the king's property.
The Motlanthe report continues: "Significant revenue is generated for the Ingonyama Trust by such lease agreements. In the 2015-16 period, rental income was R96130563. There is little evidence that the revenue generated by leases is used for the benefit of communities or their material wellbeing."
Of course, all this clearly suits the king and any others who may find in his stance support, direct or indirect, for their as-yet unspoken political objectives.
But we would have expected Ramaphosa to speak for the rights of all South Africans to enjoy the benefits extended by the constitution, freed from the strictures of the less palatable aspects of traditional rule. Perhaps he did, but in the absence of proof to the contrary, his silence on the inalienable rights of all South Africans speaks loudly in itself.
As an aside, perhaps, if the land of the Zulus dare not be touched for fear of a civil war, where does that leave proposed plans to expropriate land without compensation? Or will the threat of violence always get one a better deal — even in a South Africa with a constitution that promised a clean break from the past?..