South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) appear to have walked back ambitious proposals for “expropriation without compensation” — for the moment — as a result of a controversial tweet by President Donald Trump.

The issue is poorly understood — and has to do with the failures of the ANC as it does with the apartheid past.

Before the end of apartheid in 1994, a rallying slogan for black protesters was the much reviled “Kill the Boer, kill the Farmers.. The word “Boer” referred to farmers and, derogatorily, to the Afrikaner nationalists responsible for apartheid. Today, some black protestors continue to conflate the two.

After South Africa’s first democratic elections, in the absence of a visible class of apartheid apparatchiks upon whom black South Africans could exact revenge, farmers have come to represent the only visible symbol that disgruntled blacks can  target to assuage their anger at the failures of the ANC, the party they supported en masse, to undo the evils of the past.

The 1913 Land Act, which dispossessed the majority of black South Africans from the land, is the single most egregious act of the pre-apartheid era. It led not only to the disempowerment of an entire population, but it also created inter-generational poverty. The Land Act, accompanied by forced removals, influx control, the pass laws, and the despised homeland policy, compounded the problems of structural poverty and landlessness.

So farming’s association with vast tracts of land has become the lightning rod for black anger. With borders difficult to police, protesters and criminals alike can invade farms quite easily to terrorize farmers and their employees.

Before 1994, the ANC promised to initiate a rural development program with land restitution as a high priority. Once in power, the ruling party promised that 30% (62 million acres) of land would be transferred to black people by 2014 through land restitution, land redistribution, and land tenure reform. But by its own admission, the ANC has achieved only a little bit over 5% restitution in 14 years, far behind its target. Apparently 90% of land reform projects have failed, as the “willing buyer, willing seller” principle, a constitutional obligation, was not properly implemented.

At the same time, commercial farms decreased dramatically in number, from approximatel. 70 000 farms in 1994 to around 37 000 currently. To survive, many farmers have migrated to other parts of Africa — including Mozambique, Zambia, Angola, Namibia, and Nigeria, among other places — from which South Africa now ironically imports produce. Add to that the daily attacks on farms, and it becomes abundantly clear why white South Africans are leaving the country in droves – more than half a million since 1994. Since 1990, there have been about two thousand farm murders, and 64% of the victims were farmers themselves. Tragically, farm attacks occur daily, and there is no political will to stem the tide. The ruling party is in denial about the problem and claims that the murders are not politically motivated. Instead, it claims they are part of the widespread criminality and murder rate in South Africa, as though that justifies inaction.

Property ownership for black people was always a vexed issue under apartheid. Under the traditional chieftainships, the rural poor only have usufruct rights. Add to that the 99-year leasehold restrictive provision for black home ownership in urban areas, and the reason for black anger becomes clearer. This anger is exacerbated by the failure of the new government to provide adequate reparations, restitution, or equitable redress based on South Africa’s new constitution.

The country’s myriad of rural development and land reform policy documents has not improved conditions. The Land Bank, which was created to help the poor buy farmland, was riddled with massive corruption under former President Thabo Mbeki — so much so that then-Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel felt compelled to put it under administration.

Maladministration, corruption, a poor understanding of policy options, and the centralization of power in the state’s bureaucracy continue to plague the land restitution process. It is alleged that 75 000 out of 79 700 valid land claims have been settled according to the Land Restitution Act of 1995. The outstanding 4300 claims require R5.3bn ($362 million) from the national treasury, but a moratorium has been placed on acquiring more land to settle these claims.

The failure of the land claims process can be attributed to a lack of political will and a number of policy shifts over a short period of time. Most land reform projects have failed because of financial constraints, lack of post-settlement support, inadequate infrastructure; lack of competence and adequate skills; poor access to markets; inability to produce for the market; and settlement delays.

The outcry against newly-elected President Cyril Ramaphosa’s proposal to amend Section 25 of the Constitution, to speed up the land claims process through “expropriation without compensation,” reminds farmers of what happened over the past two decades with land invasions and land grabs in Zimbabwe. For a country with highly capable farmers and highly productive farmland, the spectre of South Africa following Zimbabwe’s bread-basket-to-basket-case decline is a prospect too ghastly to contemplate.

Thanks to the internal consternation of interested farming agencies in South Africa, compounded by President Trump’s tweet, South Africa’s president has quickly walked back some of his proposals. He learnt soon enough that electoral competition with the lawless ultra-left opposition, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which state seizure of white-owned land, is not the route to economic growth and wealth creation, nor to the consolidation of democracy.

Rhoda Kadalie was appointed by Nelson Mandela to the South African Human Rights Commission and served for nearly two decades as executive director of the Impumelelo Social Innovations Award Centre.