South Africa took a step Tuesday to hasten the transfer of land from white to black owners when parliament backed a motion seeking to change the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation.
The ruling African National Congress has long promised reforms to redress racial disparities in land ownership, and the subject remains highly emotive more than two decades after the end of apartheid. Whites still own most of South Africa's land following centuries of brutal colonial dispossession.
Tuesday's motion was brought by the radical left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party but was supported by the ANC, which controls almost two-thirds of the parliament compared with EFF's 6 percent.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said after his inauguration two weeks ago that he would speed up the transfer of land to black people, although he stressed that food production and security must be preserved.
Launching a debate on the motion in parliament, EFF leader Julius Malema said "it was time for justice" on the land issue.
"We must ensure that we restore the dignity of our people without compensating the criminals who stole our land," he said.
The motion was passed 241-83. Parliament then instructed a committee to review the constitution and report back to it by August 30.
It was not clear when any change to Section 25 of the constitution to allow expropriation of land without compensation would take place. Together, the ANC, EFF and other small opposition parties could muster the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional change.
The ANC supported the motion with some amendments. Its deputy chief whip, Dorries Dlakude, said the party "recognizes that the current policy instruments ... may be hindering effective land reform."
The official opposition Democratic Alliance party (DA) opposed the motion, arguing that changes to Section 25 would undermine property rights and scare off potential investors.
The DA's Thandeka Mbabama told parliament that expropriation without compensation was a way to divert attention from the failure by successive ANC-led governments to come to grips with the issue. Corruption and lack of farmer training and capacity remain obstacles to land redistribution.
"It is shocking that at the current rate it will take 35 years to finalize [land] restitution claims lodged before 1998," said Mbabama, who is deputy shadow minister for rural development and land reform.
In his first state of the nation address two weeks ago, Ramaphosa appealed directly to poorer black voters — the core of the ANC's electoral support base — saying he would aim to speed up the transfer of land to black people as a general election looms in 2019.
Ramaphosa said earlier Tuesday he would pursue expropriation of land without compensation, but reiterated that this should be done in a way that increases agricultural production and improves food security.
Among the main criticisms leveled at government's land reform policy over the years has been that many farms transferred to emerging black farmers lay fallow and unproductive.
Land expropriations would trigger legal challenges, said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst.
"This thing is going to court, make no mistake. The motion today means land has been elevated even higher as a political issue to code red from code amber," he said.