A new survey shows that racial patterns of land ownership in South Africa are changing, adding to the already fierce debate over whether the country should adopt Zimbabwe-style forced land grabs from white farmers.
The long period of colonialisation and conquest resulted in indigenous people losing ground to European settlers and their descendants. The gap between landless blacks and property-owning whites widened during aparthied, becoming entrenched during the almost half century that white rule lasted.
Today, as apartheid fades in the rear-view mirror, land ownership is still visibly divided along racial lines, with mostly blacks living in hardscrabble settlements around towns and cities, while whites mostly live in sprawling suburban neighbourhoods or on thriving commercial farms.
In December, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) must elect a replacement for its leader Jacob Zuma, also the president of the country. At the same congress the ANC will discuss land confiscation without compensation, and candidates vying for Mr Zuma's job are using the issue to win support.
Front runner Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Mr Zuma's ex-wife, backs land redistribution. "We still don't have land. Africans are pushed to the mountains, to the rocky hills," she told a party rally last month, Reuters reports.
"It's important to remember that when the ANC talks about land today, it is a struggle our forbears started and we have the obligation to conclude."
Her main rival Cyril Ramaphosa, widely viewed as business friendly, has also raised the idea with his supporters. “We want our land back and we want the land to be in the hands of our people," he told a rally in Mpumalanga Province, according to Eyewitness News. “We’re going to make sure that land is put back in the hands of our people.”
Annelize Crosby, the head of land affairs at the country's main farming representative body AgriSA, says a state sanctioned land grab would ruin agriculture.
"Confiscation of land would no doubt hold disastrous consequences, not only for the agricultural sector, but for the country," she tells The National.
Now, a just-released land audit shows ownership patterns are changing, albeit slowly. Financed by AgriSA, the report shows blacks now own almost 27 per cent of all farmland in South Africa, up from the 14 per cent at apartheid's end in 1994. Whites, meanwhile, own 73 per cent of farmland compared with 85 per cent in 1994.
The agriculture sector in Africa has huge potential, says the pressure group Agra, whose goal is "to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020". The group was formed was formed in 2006 in response to a call from former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who said the time had come for African farmers to wage a “uniquely African Green Revolution”.
The African food market continues to grow with World Bank estimates showing that it will be worth US$1 trillion by 2030 up from the current $300 billion. Demand for food is also projected to at least double by 2050.
"These trends, combined with the continent’s food import bill, estimated at a staggering US$30bn to $50bn, indicate that an opportunity exists for smallholder farmers - Africa’s largest entrepreneurs by numbers - who already produce 80 per cent of the food we eat to finally transition their enterprises into thriving businesses," Agra says in its Africa Agriculture Status Report 2017.
AgriSA had opted to release it land audit data shortly before the ANC's December conference because it feared that policy formulation was influenced by emotion and perception, rather than facts.
The study also shows an "alarming" decrease in available agricultural land - from 79 million hectares to 76 million hectares. "This is worrying, because commercial farmers will have to produce food for an estimated 80 million people by 2035," AgriSA says.
This means less chance to reduce food imports. Far from exploiting its potential of becoming a major breadbasket region, Africa continues to become more dependent on food imports. The aggregate annual food import bill is currently about $35bn, and is estimated to rise to $110bn by 2025, Agra says.
Competition from mining - South Africa's main export industry - as well as urbanisation are mostly to blame for the loss of land, it says.
Mining is affecting agriculture in another way as well - displacing tribal communities that make their living through subsistence farming. The knock-on result is social unrest. Riots and protests take place intermittently in the platinum belt in the country's north-west, and it has reached the stage where some mines are considering closure.
Community unrest is likely to cost the ANC support in the next elections in 2019, and some analysts fear the party hopes to use promises of land distribution to win voters back. The political scientist Steven Friedman has written a widely circulated essay that claims Mr Zuma is aiming to win over chiefs that rule rural communities by offering them land.
"A key motive was the hope that they would use this to deliver rural votes to the ANC," Mr Friedman says. "From [the elections of] 2014, when urban voters began to abandon the ANC, this became more urgent."
Mr Zuma himself is fighting for his political life - and faces the real possibility of jail once his presidential term expires. His presidency has been dogged by allegations of corruption. However, his control of his party, and of the strategic rungs of power such as the police and the prosecutions service, has kept him in place.
Should a rival faction such as the one led by Mr Ramaphosa take over at the ANC's elective conference next month, however, Mr Zuma loses his protection. His best hope is that his ex-wife secures the nomination, and will continue to keep him safe from the law.
Securing a victory for Ms Dhlamini-Zuma will not be easy. She is widely seen as under Mr Zuma's control, and urban blacks – who make up to 60 per cent of the population – are turning away from the ANC in droves.
What Mr Zuma and the ANC needs is a fresh direction to win back support. Land, it appears, is the road they have chosen to travel down. Mr Zuma may figure that it worked for the former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who also came to the brink of being voted out of power in 2002. Soon after, Mr Mugabe began encouraging people to occupy white owned farms, and he was able to consolidate his grip on the country.
Should this happen in South Africa, the results would be disastrous, Ms Crosby says. Access to capital would in all likelihood dry up completely. "There will be no investment in agriculture, production will fall dramatically, food will become very expensive and the country will largely have to rely on food imports to feed its population."
And that would only fan the flames of discontent across the country.