The president’s advisory panel on land reform and agriculture was never going to have an easy job. It was tasked, from the outset, with delving into the complexities of land in a country where the issue is directly linked to the oppression and economic injustice that resulted from colonialism and, later, from "colonialism of a special kind" — apartheid.

In 1955 the Freedom Charter underscored the importance of land, noting that "the land shall be shared among those who work it". Almost 65 years later, and 25 years into constitutional democracy, land is still a burning issue in SA.

The legitimate unhappiness of landless South Africans has been a rallying cry for the EFF since its formation six years ago. That popular theme pushed the ANC, with its dwindling support, in a political direction it had previously steered clear of.

It resolved at its December 2017 national conference that land should be expropriated without compensation, and the party’s national executive committee last year decided the property clause in the constitution would need to be amended to explicitly allow for this. With uncertainty surrounding what this would mean for property rights, the rand went into a tailspin.

As a result of the political and economic noise, a measure of clarity was needed. Hence the advisory panel.

And the panel has, to an extent, tried to offer that. Its report strikes a fine balance between recognising that the constitution should be amended to explicitly allow for expropriation without compensation, while also affirming property rights as a key constitutional value that would be violated if wholesale expropriation without compensation were to take place.

If the recommendations contained in this report are implemented to the letter, food security for all South Africans will be compromised

The report spells out exactly the circumstances under which land should be expropriated without compensation, while emphasising that expropriation without compensation is but one of several tools available to the government to ensure redress.

"The message of the land reform process is not to undermine the property rights of individuals," the panel concludes, "but to realise the constitution’s mandate to deliver land reform as a corrective and restorative measure to historical issues."

In its report, the panel emphasises that a social compact is needed to address land reform — which is still largely a failure. Land reform, it says, is "everyone’s responsibility, public and private sector, including civil society, NGOs and communities".

But if its efforts are to succeed, all parties will have to buy into the panel’s recommendations — starting with the government itself (it is under no obligation to act on the panel’s suggestions).

The recommendation that most obviously elicits pushback is the proposed amendment to section 25 of the constitution. But it’s by no means the only one. Take, for example, the recommendation that the Ingonyama Trust Act be repealed or reviewed.

Established in 1994, the Ingonyama Trust is the custodian of land previously administered by the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) government. It covers 29.67% of the land in the province, and names King Goodwill Zwelithini the sole trustee. The king has previously warned that anyone who touches the trust is declaring war on the Zulu people.

So with the release of the report, the royal family, as if on cue, declared the panel a kangaroo court with an axe to grind, according to a report in FM sister publication Business Day.

Upsetting the king is no small matter. He commands significant support in KZN, where ANC support was down 10 percentage points in the May election. If implemented, the recommendation could have serious longer-term political consequences for the ruling party.

But it’s not just Zwelithini who has taken issue with the report; a host of other organisations — among them the DA, minority lobby group AfriForum and organised agriculture groups TLU SA and AgriSA — have also publicly expressed concern.

EWC: Promised land

According to the advisory panel’s report, expropriation without compensation is one of several targeted land-acquisition strategies. It recommends land identified for nil compensation should include but not necessarily be limited to:

• Abandoned land;

• Hopelessly indebted land;

• Land held for speculation;

• Unutilised state land;

• Land obtained through criminal activity;

• Land occupied and used by current and former labour tenants;

• Informal settlement areas;

• Inner-city buildings with absentee landlords;

• Land donations; and

• Farm equity schemes.

AgriSA, a moderate organisation in the sector — and one whose representatives were included on the advisory panel — warns in an alternative report: "If the recommendations contained in this report are implemented to the letter, food security for all South Africans will be compromised."

Among other recommendations, the panel suggests that an in-depth assessment be conducted on the application of land ceilings — something that is not expected to go down well with commercial farmers.

Land ceilings — which would vary across agro-ecological zones — would limit the total area of land that any one individual or company could own, limiting and reversing the concentration of land ownership, "which is antithetical to land reform".

The panel also recommends a land tax inquiry to consider a national policy, or regulations attached to the Municipal Property Rates Act, to impose rates on agricultural land and so discourage the retention of large and unproductive landholdings.

AgriSA executive director Omri van Zyl tells the FM such "socialist" approaches in the report do not accord with the free-market economy in which the sector is embedded. He says instead of taxing farmers more, for example, tax incentives should be used to encourage land reform.

In his view, the broader discussion needs to be about food sovereignty — not just for SA, but also taking account of the food SA exports to its neighbours.

While Van Zyl describes the recommendations in the report as a "pipe dream", devoid of practical agriculture-focused solutions, Institute of Race Relations CEO Frans Cronje takes matters a step further. He calls the proposals "economically suicidal", and the report a "130-page formula to destroy the economy".

He says: "[To] release a report that proposes the steps set out by the land panel is simply reckless. The report will do nothing to secure investor sentiment and I am afraid it has put a bullet through the brain of the ‘new dawn’. The government will have to move very quickly to contain the fallout."

Given such backlash, all eyes now will be on the government to see whether it has the political will to implement the panel’s recommendations, or if they will remain just that — recommendations — while the land question remains unanswered.