17/03/2018 12:02 PM AEDT | Updated 17/03/2018 12:02 PM AEDT

A Guide To South Africa's Farming Land Repossession Debate

It does not mean all white farmers will be stripped of their land and assets.

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SAINT PAUL'S, SAINT HELENA - OCTOBER 23: Stephen Biggs of Farm Lodge hotel displays some of the coffee beans in his garden on October 23, 2017 in Saint Paul's, Saint Helena. Following the introduction of weekly flights to the island, resident St Helenians, known locally as 'Saints', are preparing for a potential influx of tourists and investment as well as enjoying the possibilities brought by much faster transport links with South Africa. Previously, travel to the island involved travelling for a week by the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) 'Saint Helena' from Cape Town. Saint Helena is a 46 square mile island in the South Atlantic which has been under British control since 1834. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

South Africa's decision to begin a process looking at land expropriation without compensation comes with many caveats, and does not mean all white farmers will arbitrarily be stripped of their land and assets.

The issue has once again come to the fore after Australia's minister for immigration and border protection, Peter Dutton, reportedly said that his department is considering fast-tracking the visas of white South African farmers looking to emigrate to Australia, because the group deserves "special attention" owing to the "horrific circumstances" they face in South Africa.

He was referring to the Parliament of South Africa's decision to review the country's Constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation, as well as concerns over a perceived spike in racial attacks on and murders of white farmers.

But the decision to review the Constitution comes with various clauses. This is what you need to know.

In December last year, when the African National Congress (ANC) - South Africa's governing party - met for its national conference, it passed a resolution to begin a process of reviewing the constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation.

The party, however, wants to expedite this process without it taking a toll on the economy, food security and agricultural production.

Last month, the Economic Freedom Fighters - South Africa's ultra-left minority opposition party – brought a draft resolution to Parliament to argue for an ad-hoc committee to be set up by the National Assembly to expedite the process. Their debate centred on the current land-reform programme, which they argue has been "fraught with difficulties" since its inception in 1994.

The motion was passed, after amendments by the ANC that tasked the constitutional review committee with the task.

Land expropriation is a contested issue in the public discourse; on one hand serving as a machine to address the injustices of the past and on the other, an arguably populist move called prematurely to rally voters.

Many don't believe land expropriation without compensation is the right move for South Africa and its economy. Some say the ANC's resolution is premature and not guided by fact or proper preparation.The agricultural sector is also in two minds, with some organisations calling for more clarity before taking sides.

The lay of the land

A highly anticipated land-audit report from the department of rural development and land reform found that black South Africans, who make up 79 percent of the population, only own 1.2 percent of the total rural land and 7 percent of formal property in cities.

But the report, which was released last year, did not make findings on agricultural land and its distribution.

However, AgriSA – the country's largest agricultural union – in its own land audit, found black citizens own 26.7 percent of agricultural ground and control more than 46 percent of South Africa's agricultural potential. The report found that white farmers' ownership of agricultural ground declined from 85.1 percent in 1994 to 73.3 percent in December 2016.

Constitution already provides for expropriation without compensation, many say

South Africa's parliamentary constitutional review committee has been charged with reviewing section 25 of the Constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation, and is expected to report back to the National Assembly by the end of August.

Section 25 states that property may be expropriated only for "a public purpose or in the public interest" and "subject to just and equitable compensation" – the amount of which, and the time and manner of payment, must either have been agreed to by those affected, or decided by a court.

What the amendment seeks to do, is remove the "subject to compensation" bit. But what the ANC has never done, is develop a land-reform policy that considers "just and equitable compensation" from any standpoint other than the "willing buyer, willing seller" principle.

Several legal experts have already pointed out that the two concepts are not the same thing. Under the current Constitution, the governing party could still craft legislation with its own definition of "just and equitable compensation" that does not comply with "willing buyer, willing seller" – something the ANC has failed even to attempt in 24 years.

If Section 25 is amended, there still is no guarantee that the state will make use of its expropriatory powers.

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