Tread very carefully on the emotive issue of land reform, President Jacob Zuma warned Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder on Thursday.
"[It] must be handled with utmost care, and not in the careless and callous manner in which Honourable Mulder handled it yesterday," he said, responding in the National Assembly to debate on his state of the nation address.
Zuma told MPs that Mulder had stunned the nation with his "bold denial of historical facts about land dispossession".
A day earlier, Mulder -- who serves as deputy agriculture minister in Zuma's Cabinet -- told the House that black "Bantu-speaking" people had no historical claim to 40 percent of the country.
"Africans in particular never in the past lived in the whole of South Africa... There is sufficient proof that there were no Bantu-speaking people in the Western Cape and north western Cape," he said.
These areas formed 40 percent of South Africa's land surface, he said.
Mulder also took issue with the land ownership figures cited by Zuma in his address last week.
"The president quotes in his address the department of rural development's figures on land reform.
"According to [these], white people possessed 87 percent of the land, and the government had reached only eight percent of its 30 percent [land reform] target. I seriously differ from these figures," Mulder said.
On Thursday, Zuma said his government had resolved to address the land reform problem through restitution, redistribution and tenure reform within the confines of the Constitution, and informed by a policy of reconciliation and nation building.
"We felt it was not going to help the country to be emotional about the land question. We therefore urge Honourable Mulder to tread very carefully on this matter," he said.
It was an extremely sensitive issue, and for the majority of people in the country it was "a matter of life and death".
"That is why we have been very careful on this matter, and I don't think we should provoke emotions in this country. We shouldn't. It's wrong, it's not good leadership, no matter what your constituents may think," he said.
Zuma then repeated: "It's not good leadership."
He said the government had introduced a green paper on land reform because it wanted to handle the matter responsibly.
A lesson it had learned over the years was that the process of acquiring and redistributing a particular piece of land was often lengthy.
"And this escalates the cost of redistribution because the former owner stops [investing] in the land. Many of the farms are therefore in a poor state at the time of acquisition, with very low productivity."
Zuma noted the centenary of the 1913 Land Act was only a matter of months away.
"It is in the interests of all South Africans, black and white, and in the interests of national reconciliation that we proceed... guided by the Constitution.
He was interrupted at this point in his address by a question from Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald.
"Mr President, do you think it is responsible leadership if some leaders in the ANC [are] constantly telling white people that they've stolen the land and thereby are thieves? Is that responsible leadership?" Groenewald wanted to know.
Responding through the Speaker, Zuma replied: "Honourable Speaker, I am sure the Honourable Member does not want me to get to the land question; how the land happened to be in the hands of the minority in this country.
"I have said we are dealing with this matter responsibly. That does not change the facts of history, but it says we are a responsible leadership today."
His response was greeted with applause from ruling-party benches.