File photo Cyril Ramaphosa. Photograph:( Reuters )
South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) is forging ahead with plans to change the constitution to allow the expropriation of land without compensation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa made the announcement late on Tuesday in a televised address to the nation, underscoring the political significance of the move.
The following explains some of the issues surrounding the emotive issue of land in Africa's most industrialised economy.
Some legal experts argued there was no need to amend the constitution because Section 25 states that if land is taken from a property owner, "compensation ... must be just and equitable."
To some, "just and equitable" could mean no compensation, depending on the circumstances in which previous occupants or owners were deprived of or removed from the land, either in British colonial times or under apartheid.
Citing recent public hearings, Ramaphosa said South Africans wanted the constitution to make clear when compensation was or was not justified.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED?
South Africa has a history of colonial conquest and dispossession that pushed the black majority into crowded urban townships and rural reserves.
The 1913 Native Lands Act made it illegal for Africans to acquire land beyond these reserves, which became known as "Homelands".
While blacks account for 80 percent of South Africa's population, the former homelands comprised just 13 percent of the land. The traditional leaders that oversaw the homelands still hold significant sway.
Estimates vary but the consensus is that most privately owned land remains in white hands, making it a potent symbol of the wider economic and wealth disparities that remain two decades after the end of white-minority rule.
WHAT HAS BEEN DONE?
Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ANC has followed a "willing-seller, willing-buyer" model under which the government buys white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks. Progress has been slow.
Based on a survey of title deeds, the government says blacks own four percent of private land, and only eight percent of farmland has been transferred to black hands, well short of a target of 30 percent that was meant to have been reached in 2014.
AgriSA, a farm industry group, says 27 percent of farmland is in black hands. Its figure includes state land and plots tilled by black subsistence farmers in the old homelands.
Critics allege that many farms transferred to emerging black farmers have failed because of a lack of state support, an allegation Ramaphosa addressed on Tuesday.
"The ANC has further directed government to urgently initiate farmer support programmes in depressed areas before the first rains this year," he said.
HAIL TO THE CHIEFS
The 17 million people who reside in the former homelands, a third of the population, are mostly subsistence farmers working tiny plots on communal land.
Critics of ANC land policy say that instead of seizing farmland from whites, such households should be given title deeds, turning millions into property owners. Reformers in the ANC have signalled their support for such a policy.
Former president Kgalema Motlanthe, who headed a panel of inquiry into the land issue, described traditional leaders as "village tin-pot dictators."
Tribal chiefs were not amused, and warned the ANC in July to exclude territory under their control from its land reform drive. The Zulu King evoked the Anglo-Zulu war and the spectre of conflict over the issue.
Markets and investors are wary because of concerns about wider threats to property rights. The rand fell sharply and government bonds weakened after Ramaphosa's announcement.
Analysts say South Africa is unlikely to follow the route of Zimbabwe, where the chaotic and violent seizure of white-owned farms under former president Robert Mugabe triggered economic collapse.
Ramaphosa has repeatedly said the policy will be implemented in a way that does not threaten food security or economic growth. ANC officials have said unused land will be the main target.
Still, the risks are substantial. South Africa feeds itself and is the continent's largest maize producer and the world's second-biggest citrus exporter.
Agriculture accounts for less than three percent of national output but employs 850,000 people, five percent of the workforce. Threats to production would also fan food inflation, hurting low-income households.
Analysts say the ANC wants to appeal to poorer black voters, the core of the ANC's support, ahead of elections next year.
The move also cuts into the platform of the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, headed by firebrand Julius Malema, who has made land expropriation without compensation his clarion call.
The ANC is expected to fine-tune its proposal and then take it to parliament, where a two-thirds majority is needed to change the constitution. Together with the EFF, it has more than enough votes in the 400-seat parliament to effect the change.