South Africa's agriculture minister has courted controversy with commercial land owners after she said the government would terminate its 'willing-seller, willing-buyer' land restitution policy and begin expropriating property from the country's white farmers early next year.
Agriculture Minister Lulama Xingwana, who took up her post in May, threatened to end negotiations with white farmers in six months in order to speed the transfer of land to blacks, a thorny process the African National Congress (ANC) government began in 1994 but has found difficult to implement.
Under former President Nelson Mandela, the ruling ANC party made land reform - the transfer of farms from whites to landless blacks - one of its main policy goals when it assumed power.
Despite years of negotiations with white farmers and the establishment of the Land Claims Commission, the current ANC government under President Thabo Mbeki is still a long way from closing the book on all outstanding land restitution claims by its own target date of 2008.
Xingwana told reporters in South Africa's northern province of Limpopo it was time to kick-start the process of land restitution if the government were to meet its promises. "We have given six months for negotiations. If it fails, we'll start expropriating the land. Our people have waited 12 years - they can't wait any longer." The South African Communist Party, a partner in the ANC government, backed the statement.
Her comments were met with a mixture of surprise and anger from groups representing South Africa's land-holding farmers, about 90 percent of whom are white. "Before you get to expropriation there is a land claims court and a legal process that must be followed," said Lourie Bosman, president of Agri SA, a group representing 70,000 farmers across South Africa.
"There is no reason to resort to expropriation without following legal procedures that are in the constitution ... We are also worried about the effects on the economy in general, and the view taken of South Africa outside the country when a minister makes statements like these," he said. "We are asking for a meeting and an explanation for her comments."
Land redistribution is one of the most divisive issues plaguing South Africa. Race-based dispossession was formalised in 1913 when the colonial government limited indigenous land ownership in the Natives Land Act. Apartheid - the forced separation of whites and non-whites - made it impossible for blacks to own land in almost all areas of the country.
The ANC has used a two-pronged approach to land reform: through restitution it wants to return land to those forced off under white rule by no later than 2008; more ambitiously, it hopes to redistribute 30 percent of commercial farmland from whites to blacks by 2014.
Progress has been made in both areas, but at current rates of land transfer the government will not meet its targets.
From 1995 to mid-2004 the government settled 48,825 restitution claims, with more than 660,000 people in over 120,000 households benefiting from the policy. But the redistribution programme has so far turned over only about 4 percent of commercial land to blacks - well short of the 30 percent target.
The government has so far taken a cautious 'willing-seller, willing-buyer' approach, in which farm land is transferred from a willing white seller to willing black buyer at prices determined by the market.
It has been careful to avoid any comparison with the land grab made by President Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where the ruling ZANU-PF party began seizing white-owned farms in 2000, sparking violent and often bloody confrontations, and triggering a dramatic economic collapse.
According to the South African government, slow progress in restitution could largely be blamed on white farmers who were unwilling to negotiate a fair price for their land, while some had dug their heels in deeper and refused to negotiate at all.
Bosman commented that "it is true there are a minority of farmers holding up the process, and some reject outright any land-reform policy, but the vast majority do and will continue to work with the government", despite the agriculture minister's ultimatum.
"As long as the government sticks to the constitution and legal processes the transfer of land will be peaceful," he said. "Hopefully, we won't see violence because it would be a disaster for the whole country."