Land reform is a deeply emotional issue in SA, but it is not as intractable a problem as many others — such as crime, unemployment and poor education. But in recent days, it seems the issue is spinning out of control, as the country has witnessed a number of disturbing land invasions.

In the southern Cape town of Hermanus, an attempted land grab was quashed with 25 people arrested over the weekend. There were similar thwarted invasions in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng. Political opportunists, like Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, say this trend shows the need for government to fast-track expropriation without compensation.

So let’s look at land ownership. Of the 122mha of land in SA, 94mha is private land, and 28mha is state-owned land. These land grabs, however, have been taking place in urban areas, where the majority of citizens are jostling for a small slice of the 3.2mha in these regions — which amounts to just 2.6% of SA’s land mass.

Research by the Institute of Race Relations shows that of the entire 722,667ha of urban areas for which there is individual title, white South Africans own 49%, black South Africans own 30%, coloured South Africans own 7.8% and Indians own 7.9%.

By far, the vast majority of land is in rural areas, and is used for agriculture. Here, when it comes to individual land ownership of farms, 71% is owned by whites, and 3.5% by blacks.

Clearly, there is an issue here, even though 8.1mha of land has been claimed by government for "land restoration" since 1994. The problem is, government hasn’t granted individual title to the beneficiaries of land redistribution.

Given these dynamics, farmland would be an obvious place to start for redress, but government would have to tread carefully. At a first level, it’s evident that if farmers have no security, the country’s food security itself is at risk.

In a world where land invasions go unchecked, there will be no security of tenure. Property values will plummet, and banks will not lend to owners. Investment would disappear.

We assume that President Cyril Ramaphosa knows this. Ramaphosa supports the ANC’s resolution on the matter, but he seems to think he can create a sensible resolution that doesn’t create economic havoc. He may have miscalculated.

The good news is Ramaphosa does have levers he can pull to ensure land is transferred without compromising the economy. He could start with the 8.1mha government has already claimed, but not given to individual beneficiaries. He could start by transferring the 4,000 farms that government has bought, but not transferred.

However, the fact that the land grabs are happening in urban areas flags a problem more intractable for Ramaphosa: the deeper issue isn’t land, but poverty — the face of which is still overwhelmingly black. People want access to land near jobs. Eroding property rights will counteract that at a fundamental level.

What’s clear is that the constitution isn’t the problem. The constitution would allow for expropriation without compensation — the problem is government has never tried to pull that lever.

So can you ensure private property rights while enabling expropriation without compensation? It is possible, provided clear and transparent guidelines for how expropriation could work, and in what circumstances, are established.

But the way it cannot work is if land can be arbitrarily subject to seizure. This is why government must defy land grabs. This is also why Ramaphosa must draw up a blueprint for how he expects an expropriation regime to work. Or the work he has done until now risks being undone.