A land-reform program in South Africa will benefit a small number of citizens if successfully implemented but could be disastrous for most people if it goes awry, one of the country’s leading research institutions warned. The ruling African National Congress plans to change the constitution to make it easier to expropriate land without paying for it, which has added to emerging-market jitters in knocking the country’s assets. While the party sees expropriation without payment as a way to speed up redressing racially skewed ownership patterns dating back to the colonial and apartheid era, critics say it could erode property rights and lead to Zimbabwe-style land grabs.

“If we get land reform right, we make a couple of thousand people rich and we can have some impact on the livelihoods of others,” Terence Corrigan, a researcher at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said in a Sept. 14 interview at Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office. “If we get it wrong, we lose agricultu...

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