Any aspiring farmer would envy Nick Serfontein.

The Bonsmara cattle he rears on 15,000 acres of pasture in the high plains of South Africa's Free State province are fat and sleek, prize-winning specimens of arguably Africa's finest beef-producing breed.

With state-of-the-art feedlots, a modern abattoir and lucrative retail outlets, the Sernick Group he heads is one of Free State's most successful agricultural ventures.

But Serfontein is also a member of South Africa's privileged white minority, who could — if certain politicians get their way — lose everything he has built up for years and receive nothing in return.

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In South Africa, and much of the world, sympathy for white farmers like Serfontein is in short supply. He is, after all, the beneficiary of a system of government that perhaps epitomised white privilege more pointedly than anywhere on earth.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, the country remains one of the world's most unequal places. Business, mining and its most affluent residential areas are still often white-dominated.

Yet perhaps nowhere is the difference starker than in South Africa's agricultural sector. Just four per cent of privately-held farmland is owned by black South Africans, according to government figures, while whites account for 72 per cent, with the remainder under the control of the country's other minorities. The overall population of the country is just 9 per cent white, and 76 per cent black.

Amid growing public anger over the slow pace of land reform, Cyril Ramaphosa, who became South Africa's president in December, has been forced to contemplate drastic measures. On July 31, he confirmed that his ruling African National Congress would seek a constitutional amendment to allow for the expropriation of white-owned land without compensation.

The announcement has caused anguish among foreign investors and pro-business moderates, in whose number Ramaphosa would normally include himself.

It also prompted an intervention earlier this month from Donald Trump, who used Twitter to claim, mostly incorrectly, that the South African government was already seizing land and instructing his secretary of state to look into the matter.

Theresa May took a more diplomatic approach on her trip to the country this week, reiterating the UK's support for land reform that is "legal and transparent and generated through a democratic process."

Few white South African farmers would disagree with the need for land reform.

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But they argue that, if mismanaged, expropriation could devastate not just South Africa — the only country on the continent, apart from Gabon, able to feed itself — but neighbouring countries that depend on it for much of their food.

Enforced land expropriations have rarely worked elsewhere, contributing significantly to the total collapse of the economy in Venezuela and neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Farming feeds up to 120m people in Southern Africa, is the biggest employer in a country where joblessness runs at 27 per cent and, when secondary industries are taken into account, makes up a fifth of gross domestic product.

With foreign investors already alarmed, and uncertainty over land reform contributing to a 15 per cent fall in the value of the rand, the consequences are clear, says Omri van Zyl, who heads Agri SA, an agricultural federation representing 28,000 farmers.

The value of land is already falling fast, particularly after Afriforum, an Afrikaner minority advocacy group, published a list of 193 farms it claimed had been earmarked for expropriation.

Falling land values threaten a banking crisis. Banks hold £8 billion in commercial farm debt, with repayment being thrown into doubt by the expropriation policy.

"If they go ahead with expropriation, the value of land will decrease, the cost of capital will go up and borrowing will become tougher," van Zyl said. "Profitable farms may no longer be viable, meaning that agricultural output will go down dramatically, food inflation will go through the roof and there will be a risk of political instability."

Farming in South Africa is a tough proposition. Some 30 miles northwest of Nick Serfontein's farm, Tommie Esterhuyse is a more typical white South African farmer.

At nearly 8am, the ice on his sheep troughs is still an inch thick — temperatures in this part of Free State can fall to -9c in winter — just one of the challenges facing smaller commercial farmers.

Like all South African farmers, Estherhuyse and his wife Miemie survive without subsidies, something that has made farming in the country resilient and innovative, but often hardly profitable.

Profit margins are barely four percent for most Free State farmers, who also have to account for cattle rustling and protection against often violent crime that requires additional expenditure on protection. Two years ago, Esterhuyse lost a tenth of his sheep in a single raid.

He is gloomy about the future. If a black farmer, most of whom are unskilled, were to take over his farm, the chances of success are low, he maintains.

"Black farmers don't have the experience and knowledge to make it work," he said. "If this goes ahead, we are looking at economic suicide. We are going to end up like Zimbabwe."

White farmers insist there are better ways of dealing with the inequality, by improving existing policies to speed up the transfer of farmland to black South Africans.

According to farm unions, far more land would be under black control if more than three-quarters of black-owned farms had not failed.

At any one time, seven per cent of South Africa's 34,000 farms are on the market, available to black and white farmers alike.

South Africa's government says many farms do not end up under black ownership because white farmers charge too much. However, the state has also bought 4,000 farms but has had little success in handing them over to black South Africans.

That, in part, is due to corruption, says Patrick Sekwatlakwatla, who has applied for a farm from the state every year for two decades.

The problem, he says, is that farms are usually handed over to the politically connected who have no idea to farm, rather than to people like him with years of experience working on white-owned farms.

"They give land to Gucci farmers who turn up on their land with crocodile-skin loafers, driving Porsches," he said. "How do you expect them to make a success of it? They don't even live on their farms. This is not what a farmer is."

Solomon Mosoeu and his wife Jacobeth have been a little more fortunate. Former petrol pump attendants, they were allowed to lease Tot Her Toe farm near the town of Heilbron nine years ago.

But, like many black South Africans, they are not allowed to hold the title deeds of their land — which means they cannot access the bank loans that all farmers need to develop and make a success of their farms.

They also cannot hand over the farm to their children, another reason why so many of black farmers in their area have given up, they say.

In fact, the main reason they have been able to succeed is that they have enrolled in several training programmes that Nick Serfontein launched on his farm to teach them the basics of husbandry.

Serfontein, a devout Afrikaner who like so many of his tribe still says grace before meals, has launched a programme — independently of the government — to train 660 black "emerging" farmers.

He did so, he says, partly out of "moral obligation", but also from pragmatism. If neighbouring black farmers produce healthy cattle, he buys them and they both profit.

"Emerging farmers have been through Hell," he said. "They've been forsaken by the government, mainly due to corruption and a lack of political will and leadership.

"We can fix the problem ourselves, if the government stays out of it. We realise the situation has got to change. There are thousands of farms on the market and there are so many possibilities to form partnerships with emerging farmers. We can all succeed."

President Ramaphosa is a pragmatist. He has already promised that there will be no Zimbabwe-style land grab, and some of his ministers say expropriation will be restricted to under-utilised land, a pledge Serfontein says he believes.

Yet it unclear if a compromise will satisfy his opponents within the ANC as well as in the increasingly powerful opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters led by firebrand Julius Malema — which demands wholesale land appropriation.

Ramaphosa may be president, but his control over the ANC is vulnerable, with many in the party suspicious of his pro-business credentials.

Many black South Africans already have a huge sense of expectation that things are finally about to change. Already, in Free State alone, Malema's supporters have invaded three white-owned farms in the past three weeks.

Although the invasions have easily been beaten off, many black South Africans who yearn for a more decent lot in life, warn of big trouble ahead if their grievances are not addressed.

"If Ramaphosa backslides now, there will be civil war," said Lungani Ngubani, an EFF supporter in Diepsloot, one of Johannesburg's poorest townships. "All South Africa will be on fire."

This article originally appeared on the Daily Telegraph.