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S.Africa has released about a fifth of earmarked state-owned land to farmers

JOHANNESBURG, Oct 1 (Reuters) - South Africa has released about a fifth of earmarked state-owned land to around 275 farmers so far, officials said on Thursday, as the government seeks to accelerate land redistribution in an effort to redress historic racial inequalities.

The ruling African National Congress has pledged to accelerate land reform, a divisive issue 26 years after the end of apartheid - a period when land was taken from millions among the Black majority. Housing and land ownership patterns remain vastly unequal.

Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Thoko Didiza said 135,117 hectares (333,900 acres), out of the 700,000 hectares, had been released to date, or around 19% of it. The government said it would begin the process to release the remainder of the land, equating to 896 farms, in the next two weeks in the form of 30-year leaseholds, with an option to buy.

Giving away state-owned land is the first and probably easiest step in the government’s land redistribution strategy, which to fulfill government pledges needs to be followed by expropriating private holdings of mostly white farmers.

The government published a draft bill in December proposing changes to the constitution to allow land to be expropriated without payment.

Despite wide public support, the plan has drawn criticism from commercial farmers and opposition politicians who say it will scare off investors and potentially harm food production. (Reporting by Tanisha Heiberg Editing by Tim Cocks and Frances Kerry)

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