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The government of South Africa is ramping up efforts to get more land into black ownership. A controversial plan under consideration would seize property from owners without paying them and redistribute it. Land reform has been a key issue since the end of white minority rule 24 years ago, but blacks still largely don't hold land. Peter Granitz reports from Pretoria.
PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: Twenty-five-year-old John Ratema is a college graduate armed with an education in finance, but he's unemployed. Joblessness in South Africa is high, and he's had no luck finding anything in his field. So now he says he's contemplating a future in farming.
JOHN RATEMA: Because I grew up in a place where we used to do gardens and so for - to - for living. The spinach, tomatoes - and tried just to sell them.
GRANITZ: The catch - he doesn't own any land. The garden plot of his youth was in far northern South Africa. He moved here to central Pretoria for school and stayed hoping to find work. On this Sunday morning, Ratema is registering to vote. He supports the left-wing political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, because of its calls to expropriate land without compensation.
RATEMA: We just want the land that is owned by the white people to give it back to the government.
GRANITZ: A government audit shows whites own 72 percent of South Africa's land and black South Africans, who make up 80 percent of the population, own just 4 percent. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the government has tried various land reform policies, including a willing seller, willing buyer program. Critics of that system say the government has been too willing to buy land at inflated prices, and that the government is hoarding the land instead of transferring it to would-be farmers. President Cyril Ramaphosa says a quarter century into democracy, it's time to address the country's original sin.
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PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: We should not be too angry, too scared, too anxious to get into this debate.
GRANITZ: Ramaphosa has promised the expropriation of land without compensation will not be what he calls a smash and grab. Political analyst Sithembile Mbete says Ramaphosa and his African National Congress are pursuing expropriation now because of political necessity.
SITHEMBILE MBETE: They finally are facing an electoral challenger that has put it on the agenda.
GRANITZ: The Economic Freedom Fighters. The ANC's popularity is sinking after more than 20 years in power, and the party risks losing its outright majority in next year's elections. Mbete says it's adopting a populist bent to maintain power. It's a risky bet and one that could pay out at the polls.
MBETE: Part of what the disposition of land was by successive colonial regimes and then by the apartheid regime was about destroying the humanity and the personhood of black South Africans so that when people say they want land, part of it is also about wanting ancestral belonging and dignity.
GRANITZ: Here at Louis Meintjes' farm north of Pretoria, women transplant seedlings into four and six-packs of vegetables that will eventually be sold at local stores for people to plant at home. The women, eight full-time employees, work in shade huts on Meintjes' 103 acres. He says if the government takes his land, they'll be out of work.
LOUIS MEINTJES: If they come with us, they can say, I'm going to take your land and you're off. And I lose this. I'm 65 years old. My wife is 60 now. So we'd - I lose everything
GRANITZ: Meintjes bought the farm 37 years ago at the height of the apartheid era. And he says he's never been this nervous about losing his property even as the country transitioned to democracy. If the government wants to reallocate land, he says, it should start with the land it owns and give the new landowners title deeds.
MEINTJES: We need to give everybody a chance. But I did not steal my land. I've got a legal title deed. And that's the issue.
GRANITZ: Economist Wandile Sihlobo says agriculture is key to South Africa's economy and stability. The country is the most food secure on the continent.
WANDILE SIHLOBO: They say they want to expropriate land without compensation given that that doesn't destabilize the food production as well as the economy. But it's almost impossible to do that.
GRANITZ: South Africa has a cautionary tale in its northern neighbor. Nearly two decades ago, Zimbabwe seized land without compensation. What followed was economic disaster and food shortages. In South Africa, no land has been taken yet. Parliament has agreed the issue must be addressed. It will report back in August how to proceed. Until then, farmers continue to work amid the uncertainty. For NPR News, I'm Peter Granitz in Pretoria.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUGH MASEKELA AND THE UNION OF SOUTH AFRICA SONG, "MAMANI")
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