South Africa’s parliament has approved a bill which allows state expropriation of land to redress racial disparities in land ownership.

The land question remains a highly controversial and emotive issue in the country and across Africa, where the problem has not been resolved.

The bill will enable the state to make compulsory, “expropriation of property for a public purpose or in the public interest, subject to just and equitable compensation”.

The Simonsberg mountain towers over workers harvest grapes on the Bouwland Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, about 50 kms outside of Cape Town 19 February 2004. ANP/AFP Photo/Anna Zieminski
The Simonsberg mountain towers over workers harvest grapes on the Bouwland Wine Estate in Stellenbosch, about 50 kms outside of Cape Town 19 February 2004. ANP/AFP Photo/Anna Zieminski

The new law would give the state the power to acquire land or property without the owners’ consent, provided the “property is required for a public purpose or in the public interest” and the state is obligated to “pay compensation which is just and equitable, [to] expropriate property”.

It is commonplace knowledge that most of South Africa’s land remains in the hands of white people and the slow pace of land redistribution under the free-market principle of “willing buyer, willing seller” has frustrated many, who have called for the government to abandon the ineffective policy. The current policy has been criticised for perpetuating the unequal land ownership patterns.

According to research, “current estimates indicate that around 80 per cent of South African agricultural land remains in the hands of approximately 35,000 white farmers and large agribusinesses”.

Between 1994 and 2011, about 7 million hectares of land had been transferred to black owners, representing just 27 percent of the government’s target of transferring 24.5-million hectares by 2014.

Read: South Africa: Expropriation Bill sails through National Assembly

While some political groups and critics of the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle have called for the expropriation of land without compensation, the ANC led government has touted the proposed bill, which has been described as a progressive instrument to address the “historical realities and our nation’s developmental needs”.

Undoubtedly, the new law marks a watershed moment in the country’s history, and it is likely to accelerate the redistribution of land to the landless and transform the livelihoods of the beneficiaries.

The bill, which was passed by the national assembly in February now awaits the signature of President Jacob Zuma before it becomes law.