Why South Africa's Land Expropriation Fight Is Just Beginning

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A messy and protracted fight over property rights is looming in South Africa after a panel of lawmakers said the constitution must be changed to make it easier to seize land without paying for it.

For starters, the South African Institute of Race Relations, a Johannesburg-based research institution, and Agri SA, a farmers’ lobby group, are gearing up to fight the decision in court. They say the panel reached its decision without taking into account more than 400,000 written submissions, effectively negating the required public-participation process.

That legal wrangling is likely to go all the way to the Constitutional Court and could drag on for months, if not years.

A battle over how exactly the wording of the constitution should be amended is also likely to unfold in parliament. Changes must be drafted by another yet-to-be-established panel and approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in the National Assembly. That means the ruling African National Congress will need backing from the populist Economic Freedom Fighters to push them through.

While the two parties see eye-to-eye on the need to accelerate land reform to address racially skewed ownership patterns, their proposed solutions are poles apart: The ANC favors seizing land in very specific circumstances, such as when it has been abandoned, while the EFF wants all land to be nationalized.

 Even if the two parties do reach consensus, another round of lawsuits is likely to challenge the validity of any amendments they adopt.