At a high-level land dialogue in Johannesburg this week that featured Cabinet ministers, leading activists and agricultural business discussing the crucial land expropriation without compensation policy that has been mooted, the politician in charge of land gave a bizarre keynote speech.
The Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, floundered, leaving many in the audience scratching their heads, as she did not deal substantively with the topic everybody was looking forward to her leadership on.
Instead, it fell to Minister of Mineral Resources Gwede Mantashe to explain the ANC's position. Nkoana-Mashabane has only been in charge of land for about seven weeks, but she has clearly not been well briefed. For example, the minister uses a figure of black land ownership of four percent, which is disputed by everybody including her own government.
Nkoana-Mashabane spent a large part of her address saying things like, "It's good to be home," as she had spent a lot of time out of the country. Until February, Nkoana-Mashabane had been the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation for 10 years.
Then, the minister said that the quickest way to hide land was to start a game park, and she instructed no one in particular to "stop climbing around and deal with the original sin [of land dispossession]". Later, she spoke about "the cardinal sin" without explaining what she meant.
She added that:
"We pay people to draft documents, draw up position papers, but we can't eat position papers."
Then the minister spent a lot of time talking about the centenary celebrations of South African democracy's founding president and statesman, Nelson Mandela, and struggle hero Albertina Sisulu – without relating this to land.
"Did you know," the minister asked the confused gathering "that Nelson Mandela is the only human being whose birthday is celebrated by the United Nations General Assembly?" The odd questions continued. Nkoana-Mashabane then asked the meeting "What does rural development mean?" and added, "We are fighting colonialism of a special type."
Without referencing the challenges of the agricultural trade balance or market access, Nkoana-Mashabane complained that "we import jam to the initiation schools", and said that youngsters she had seen selling boiled peanuts at a Limpopo tollgate could not get their product into Woolworths.
"Woolworths sells peanuts, but I'm sure these (boiled) peanuts are not part of that value chain."
The minister continued, "As soon as you land at OR Tambo airport, you will find a Toyota kombi and you know who is the occupant – but they have nothing to do with the ownership of the kombi."
When she ended her eagerly awaited speech, the applause was tepid. It wasn't surprising.