I have had a deal with a few of my friends who are farmers, that I will tell them when it is time to panic about the proposed expropriation without compensation. Until then, I advised them to relax.

Last night after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation in which he announced the ANC’s decision to propose an amendment to the Constitution to expropriate without compensation, I got many texts asking: “Is it time yet?”

Let me say upfront that I think the ANC has been handling the land debate very clumsily (to put it politely). It is clear that the narrative has consistently been running away from them and every time in an attempt to regain control, they seem to cause more confusion and anxiety with investors as well as current property owners.

It started with the passing of the resolution at Nasrec, which was a compromise in order to prevent a collapse of the conference when the more radical forces wanted to use the land issue to retaliate against the Ramaphosa victory.

Following Nasrec, the ANC became occupied with convincing President Jacob Zuma to resign. The EFF, needing a new reason for their political existence, used the vacuum provided by a distracted ANC to table the motion on land in Parliament. A few days into the Ramaphosa presidency, the moderates in the ANC did not pay the necessary attention to the debate in the National Assembly and thus had to do a hasty amendment to the resolution. By passing the issue on to the Constitutional Review Committee the ANC clearly thought it could buy some time, while getting its own house in order on this issue.

Unsurprisingly, the EFF used these hearings as opportunities for political mobilisation. As more and more of the meetings took place it became clear that the EFF had succeeded in creating a false public narrative around the necessity for the constitutional amendment. It became generally accepted that any argument against the amendment of the Constitution implied a resistance to land reform. This despite the fact that the ANC at their land summit made it clear that they did not think a Constitutional amendment was necessary to use expropriation in the implementation of land reform. Yet, they were seemingly unable to assert this into the public debate.

With this inability to control the public narrative, the populist pressure (in an election year) became too much and thus we saw the announcement last night.

So, is it the end of the road for property rights as many are predicting today?

I don’t think so.

It is important to remember that the ANC has always been clear that they could expropriate without compensation, therefore the constitutional amendment is intended to only clarify the current provision. Of course, it is crucial to first see what these clarifications will be, and it is a real pity that the president did not again emphasise in his address last night what they intend and perhaps more importantly what they DON’T intend to do.

Ramaphosa’s answers earlier this year in Parliament as well as ANC policy documents clearly indicate that the governing party does not intend to expropriate people’s homes or productive farm land. They are talking about very specific instances of derelict buildings, unproductive farm land, land obtained through illegal means, etc. They are also adamant that it will be done on a case by case basis and not through a general blanket land grab as proposed by the EFF.

Although an amendment to the Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights should not be taken lightly, a carefully considered clarification of the section relating to expropriation without compensation would give more certainty to this issue than subjective interpretations by political operatives now and in the future. Again, the devil lies in the detail of the amendment, but it is important to remember that any amendment would still have to be approved by the Constitutional Court.

Ultimately, last night’s announcement does not indicate a radical change in the ANC’s policy. From the cautious wording of the statement it is clear that Ramaphosa is still trying to straddle the legitimate demands of the masses for land and economic transformation on the one hand and the stability of the economy and the country on the other. This is an almost impossible task, but he has to do it if he wants to survive politically. Of course, his survival is crucial for a positive outcome for the country in the foreseeable future.

The announcement is clearly also another attempt by the ANC to regain control of the narrative around the issue of land. However, the danger is that the EFF will, in response, increase the radical nature of their rhetoric and demands. Not only will they almost certainly racialise the debate even more, but they will most likely also turn their focus on the definition of “property” in Section 25(4)b wanting to make it wider than just land.

In order to not let this narrative run away with them again, the president and ANC will have to clarify urgently what the conditions are that they wish to insert in the Constitution. This is crucial not only to give certainty to the financial markets, but also to ensure that this time no vacuums are left that enable the EFF to once more gain control of the debate.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.