by Anthony Egan SJ

President Cyril Ramaphosa is not naive. Pressured perhaps – by populists in his own and opposition parties. As he apparently embarks on land expropriation he cannot but be aware of the moral dilemmas inherent in land reform.

From the perspective of justice alone, the issue may seem obvious. Land claimed by conquest and laws implemented in the apartheid era and before should be restored to descendants of those displaced. This seems all the more urgent in South Africa, where the gap between rich and poor, historically, but today not exclusively based on race, is consistently the greatest in the world.

But simple moral answers, any ethicist will tell you, are often unhelpful. Moral absolutism with a ‘one size fits all’ application doesn’t work. All principles that seek the good need to be applied to the specifics of a problems. And all moral actions have consequences, intended and unintended.

On the latter, land reform in general and land expropriation (with or without compensation) has had an, at best, ambivalent outcome. The obvious neoliberal capitalist biases of the Wall Street Journal and similar newspapers aside, land expropriation in countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe have been pretty disastrous, undermining countries’ food security and harming the very people it claimed to be helping: the poor. In many places, poorly trained (or untrained) new farmers wrought havoc, through no ill-will of their own, on the land creating food insecurity, leading to spiralling inflation and increased poverty.

Combine this with reduced investor confidence leading to declining investment and even disinvestment, and sometimes economic sanctions, and the recipe is chaos. Chaos that often leads to the rise or strengthening of populist demagoguery and the decline of democracy.

One could, I suppose, still invoke the doctrine of double effect in such cases, arguing that the morally neutral or good acts (land reform, restoration etc.) had good intentions (equality, justice, promotion of the dignity of the poor) but (at the risk of sounding flippant) ‘unfortunate’ side effects. (Some ethicists might add that since the effects could be foreseen as a real possibility, the doctrine here might not apply). A simple risk-benefit analysis of consequences might convince many that the decision is wrong, despite the high moral principles.

Careful application of the Catholic principle of the Common Good creates a more fruitful moral space, I suggest. Faced with at least two moral goods – greater equality rooted in justice and food and broader economic security, both need to be taken into account in making any decision, which must be rooted in prudence: carefully balanced reasoning that seeks the wisest choice.

In practice this suggests thinking outside the current box to create alternatives: allocation of land only to those suitably trained to use it well (i.e. both productively and ecologically), intensive state training and technical support for potential new farmers, even profit-sharing between current owners and historical claimants.

Above all, as they pursue their course, President Ramaphosa and his colleagues need to clearly distinguish between what is good and what is politically fashionable. Populism in socio-economic policy-making is poison to the common good.