* Most land in South Africa remains in white hands
* President has said issue needs to be dealt with now
* ANC is saying to landowners: “use it or lose it”
* White rights groups concerned over property rights
By Ed Stoddard
PRETORIA, March 6 (Reuters) - South Africa’s plan to expropriate land without compensation in order to redress racial disparities in land ownership would target mainly unused land, a senior official with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) said on Tuesday.
As part of long-promised reforms, the ANC in December adopted a resolution to expropriate land without compensation for redistribution to landless black South Africans, provided this was done in a manner that does not threaten food security or undermine economic growth.
Land ownership remains a highly emotive subject more than two decades after the end of apartheid. Whites still own most of South Africa’s land. Moves towards land expropriation have also worried markets and economists and farming groups have warned of a potentially devastating impact on the agricultural sector.
David Masondo, a member of the ANC’s Economic Transformation Committee, said the aim of the resolution was not to target “all land that is productively utilised ... but use it or lose it, even if you are black.”
“It includes vacant land, unused land, and land used for speculative purposes,” he told a breakfast seminar with reporters.
The ANC has been fleshing out the resolution, using its majority in South Africa’s parliament to back a motion last week seeking to change the constitution to allow land expropriation without compensation. It then instructed a committee to review the constitution and report back to it by Aug. 30.
Masondo also said the ANC was mulling reforms that would provide title deeds for the estimated 17 million people who reside in the former “homelands”, to which most black South Africans were confined under apartheid.
“We are thinking about title deeds for these rural areas,” Masondo said in response to a question.
Speaking to Reuters afterwards, he said the ANC as a party would be discussing this issue in workshops.
“It would be empowering for rural people,” he said.
Land use in these poor, rural areas remains communal and controlled by traditional leaders, who are likely to resist such changes. They also comprise a key ANC political base that was cultivated by former president Jacob Zuma, a traditional Zulu.
New South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week that he was aiming to resolve the land issue “once and for all” but stressed that the process will be orderly and that food production and security must be preserved.
AfriForum, an organisation that mostly represents white South Africans on issues like affirmative action, said foreign investments in South Africa will also not be safe should for land expropriation without compensation go ahead.
Agricultural economists and farming groups have warned that any undermining of property rights could have a devastating impact on South Africa’s agricultural sector, which accounts for less than 3 percent of national output but is a major employer and feeds Africa’s most industrialised economy.
The farm loan book is estimated at around 160 billion rand ($13.5 billion) and there are concerns that farmers could default or may stop investing in their land out of fear that it could be compensated.
“Farmers are uncertain and asking if they should invest. Why would you invest if someone is just going to take it?,” Omri van Zyl, the chief executive of AgriSA, a farm industry umbrella group, told Reuters.
The government says that 72 percent of private land is in white hands and only 4 percent is owned by blacks, with other racial groups accounting for the rest.
The ANC also says it has missed a 2014 target of transferring 30 percent of farmland to black hands under a “willing-seller, willing buyer model,” with only 8 percent transferred.
AgriSA disputes these figures and says about 27 percent of agricultural land is in black hands. Its figure includes farmland owned by the state and plots tilled by black subsistence farmers in the homelands.
Van Zyl said much of the land in the former homelands was “prime for agriculture” but was being underutilised and its commercial potential was not being unlocked. ($1 = 11.8225 rand) (Editing by James Macharia and Raissa Kasolowsky)