Cape Town’s National Assembly has voted to reopen South Africa’s land restitution programme and to extend the deadline for land claims until the end 2018 amid political infighting over the timeline, cost and the potential impact of uncertainty over land ownership on the economy.

The programme has faced considerable criticism, particularly over the number of existing claims yet to be addressed and the number of farmers encountering difficulty with the process, and the debate leading up to the passing of the bill has flared tempers and raised several further concerns.

In terms of the budget, the government has spent $2.34bn on existing cases from the initial land claims window running up until 1998, and settled only 59,000 of the 77,000 valid claims.

Meanwhile, the medium-term budget policy for the programme provisions only $270m to deal with an expected influx of 397,000 new claims.

In reality, South Africa could require as much as $16.6bn just to settle just the outstanding claims, informed Kevin Mileham, shadow deputy minister for rural development and land reform, while chiding the government for making promises that it could not deliver on.

The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition also attempted to introduce additional amendments to the bill that would precede the new land claims process with an intensive national communication process and limit the window for lodging claims to just six months, but these measures which were voted down by the ANC majority.

Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti dismissed these attempts, saying: “There’s a fundamental difference between their approach and ours: theirs being that land restitution is a project that must be done as soon as possible, and ours that land restitution is a programme for social justice and that a programme for social justice it is endless.”

Pieter Groenewald, and MP with Freedom Front Plus party, accused both the DA and ANC of politicising the land issue ahead of the coming elections on the 7th May, and opposed any new claims window, saying: “It threatens property security in South Africa. Land is a serious, emotional issue. It’s a pity that the ANC and DA are playing games about it to get votes.”

The University of Cape Town’s Centre for Law and Society has also pointed to clauses in the new land bill that allow traditional leaders to claim land meant for an entire rural community, and make it impossible for communal property groups to own redistributed land.

According to the centre, the government has already refused to transfer land to at least 34 communal property associations where restitution awards have already occurred, and the passing of the law just before the elections is “a bid to win favour” with traditional leaders.

Legal expert Aninka Claasens told South Africa’s eNCA: “It’s a very, very serious reversal of the policy of restitution, and it’s deeply cynical that government is using restitution, which was designed to undo the Bantustans and forced removals, as a means of bolstering chiefs.”

South Africa’s constitution is ambiguous on the issue of land restitution, making provision for both the protection of property rights and the restitution of land to those who were dispossessed during apartheid rule, but failing to provide any guidelines about how such a compromise might be enacted.