Reuters International

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma answers questions at Parliament in Cape Town, March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma said on Friday his government would push through a new law to compensate the black majority for stolen land, stepping up populist rhetoric before August local polls where his ruling ANC faces a tough challenge.

The embattled president threw his weight behind a bill making its way through South Africa's parliament to let the state make compulsory purchases of land to redress racial disparities in land ownership.

Zuma made the televised remarks while addressing the African National Congress (ANC) branch of Gauteng province, which includes the capital Pretoria and financial centre Johannesburg. Local media have reported the province's ANC branch is divided about his leadership.

Zuma's political standing has been hard bit by two recent court rulings: one saying he violated the constitution when he ignored a watchdog's recommendation he repay a portion of state-financed upgrades to his private home, the other that could see him face almost 800 graft charges previously dropped.

"In 1913 ... the land that had been stolen from us was legalised. And that is when we believe it was taken from us," Zuma said, referring to legislation that year which left just 13 percent of South Africa's land, farming and otherwise, in the hands of the black majority.

Experts have estimated about 8 million hectares (20 million acres) of farmland have been transferred to black owners since the end of apartheid, equal to 8 to 10 percent of the land in white hands in 1994 - only a third of the ANC's 30 percent target.

Zuma said to rectify this, his government would work "within the law ... If it means amending the law, yes yes, we are doing it now."

Land is an emotive issue in South Africa, where many commercial and small-scale farmers are facing tough times because of the worst drought in at least a century.

Under the proposed legislation, the state can acquire land without the owners' consent by paying an amount determined by the office of the Valuer-General, effectively scrapping a "willing-buyer, willing seller" formula. Owners can challenge the compensation offered in court.

The ANC's challengers in the August local elections, widely seen as a run-up to the 2019 general poll, include the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters, which has vowed to seize white-owned land for redistribution to landless blacks.

Zuma said South Africa was "the only country in the world where the majority do not control the economy."

(Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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