A worker sprays a newly planted field of corn with Methomyl 90 SP insecticide to protect against an infestation of fall armyworms, also known as Spodoptera frugiperda, on a farm north of Pretoria, South Africa, on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. The fall armyworms that have ravaged corn fields from Ghana to South Africa since arriving on the continent last year could spread to Asia and the Mediterranean, a research body said. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg
JOHANNESBURG -  South African farmers’ lobby group Agri SA slammed the ruling party’s plans to change the constitution to make it easier to expropriate land without compensation and accused the government of failing to implement existing policies to address racially skewed ownership patterns.

Government data shows more than two-thirds of farmland is owned by whites, who constitute 7.8 percent of the country’s 57.7 million people -- a status quo rooted in colonial and white-minority rule. The ruling African National Congress decided in December that the situation is untenable and tasked a parliamentary committee to review the constitution to address it. The panel is holding public hearings in parliament in Cape Town this week.

Christo van der Rheede, Agri SA’s deputy executive director, told the panel on Wednesday there was very little cooperation between the national and provincial government on land reform, and that bureaucracy and an ineffective legislative framework were frustrating the process.

Changing the constitution “will not be about the outcomes we all seek,” Van der Rheede said. “No change is necessary. What needs to be changed is the entire bureaucratic system.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa has given assurances that the government isn’t embarking on a land grab and any policy changes won’t be allowed to damage agricultural production. Even so, data released on Tuesday showed farm output dropped an annualized 29.2 percent in the second quarter and was a major contributor to the country falling into its first recession since 2009. Agri SA has observed sharp slowdown in farm sales.

A farm worker cuts sugar cane during harvesting on a farm near Malelane, Mpumalanga province, South Africa. Photographer: NAASHON ZALK/Bloomberg
“We are seeing how agriculture is suffering due to the uncertainty,” Van der Rheede said.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s biggest labor group, also said it opposed changing the constitution, which already enables the state to tackle land reform, restitution and redistribution.

The clause that deals with land rights and expropriation “is important because it protects the poor from a possible abuse by a future government,” the federation said in an emailed statement on Wednesday. ‘In our quest to expropriate land from white people, we need not be shortsighted and throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The South African Institute of Black Property Practitioners, the In Transformation Initiative, the Afrikanerbond and the National Association of Democratic Lawyers were among other organizations that appealed for the constitution to be left unchanged, while the National African Farmers Union called an amendment to provide for the nationalization of all land.

The parliamentary committee has received about 450,000 written submissions, and an analysis of a third of them showed 59 percent of respondents favored leaving the constitution as is, while 40 percent wanted it changed. The panel is expected to report back to the National Assembly by the end of the month.

The ANC will need some opposition support to secure the two-thirds majority it needs to alter a clause requiring just and equitable compensation to be paid for expropriated property. It’s likely to win the backing of the radical Economic Freedom Fighters, which wants all land nationalized. A protracted court battle is likely to be waged to test the validity of any amendments passed by parliament.

“Addressing the land issue is as simple as they make it out to be,” Zwelethu Jolobe, a politics lecturer at the University of Cape Town, said by phone. “No draft law has been tabled and no draft policy documents have emerged. It is highly unlikely this issue will be resolved in the next year or two, or if ever.”