JOHANNESBURG - A bid to allow South Africa's government expropriate land without compensation as a way to redress past injustices flopped on Tuesday after lawmakers rejected a bill to change the constitution.
The proposed law failed to garner the required two-thirds majority in the 400-seat parliament, with 204 lawmakers voting in favour and 145 against.
Black South Africans were dispossessed of their land during three centuries of colonialism and apartheid, the system of white-minority rule that officially ended in 1994.
When the African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994, the government pledged to redistribute 30 percent of South Africa's 60,000 commercial farms to black ownership.
But as of today, whites who comprise eight percent of the population "possess 72 percent of (the) farms", according to figures cited by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Around 10 percent only are owned by black people, who make up four-fifths of the population.
A multi-party committee had for the past four years been working on the proposals, which would have allowed the state to take farmland from private owners without paying for it, and redistribute it to landless blacks.
The issue of whether to take land without compensating its current owners is a very divisive and emotive issue in South Africa.
The ruling African National Congress's pointsman on the land reforms, Mathole Motshekga, told fellow lawmakers before the vote that the bill had sought "to address this inhuman crime, crime against the African majority."
But his argument was shot down by the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which contended that the proposal violated property rights and stoked uncertainty.
"This is not what the country needs now in the time of economic devastation during the Covid pandemic," said DA lawmaker Annelie Lotriet.
She lauded the failure of this "disastrous piece of legislation" as a victory for constitutional order.
"In Venezuela and Zimbabwe, tampering with property rights collapsed their economies, led to widespread hunger and resulted in wholesale capital flight," she said.
- 'Not end of the road'
The leftist Economic Freedom Fighters' leader Julius Malema rejected the bill as not going far enough.
"We want the state to be the custodian of the land," he said.
The failure of the constitutional amendment bill is not the end of the road on the land issue, experts said.
Separate from this process is expropriation legislation that is before parliament and is expected to be adopted next year.
"That's actually far more important... and will enable expropriation to happen more easily," said Wilmien Wicomb, a specialist lawyer on land issues with the rights group Legal Resources Centre.
"That legislation will enable the state to expropriate, to know how to expropriate, to be able to do it more effectively and in what instance they can pay no compensation or just little compensation".
"In a sense this constitutional amendment was a bit cosmetic," she added.