Politics

What’s Going On In South Africa And Why Is Trump Tweeting About It?

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
  • President Donald Trump says he wants the Department of State to look into plans by South Africa to seize land from white farmers.
  • Land expropriation has long been one of South Africa’s most divisive political issues, but the ruling African National Congress appears ready to move forward with plans to redistribute white-owned land.
  • Many left-leaning commentators say Trump is parroting alt-right and white nationalist talking points by referring to the “large scale” killing of white farmers.

President Donald Trump dove into South Africa’s thorny racial politics Wednesday night, announcing on Twitter that he ordered his top diplomat to look into attacks on white farmers and Pretoria’s plans for land redistribution.

“I have asked Secretary of State [Pompeo] to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers,” Trump wrote.

“South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers,” he added, tagging Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Trump sent his surprise tweet following an airing of Carlson’s show, which featured a segment on South Africa’s impending plan to seize land from white landowners and redistribute it to poor black farmers. (RELATED: South Africa Shocked After Trump Dings Country For Seizing White-Owned Land)

Land redistribution is one of the most contentious issues in contemporary South African politics. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), led by newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa, says land seizures are needed to correct economic and social inequities that are a legacy of the country’s colonial past.

The ANC announced earlier in August it would move forward with a plan to amend the constitution to allow the government to expropriate white-owned farmland without compensation. Although the government has not yet changed the constitution, local media reports indicate that some land seizures have already taken place.

‘Land reform’ or government theft?

Supporters of the ANC plan often use the anodyne term “land reform” to describe their efforts to change South Africa’s land compensation rules.

Under the current system, which has been in place since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, the government uses a “willing-seller, willing-buyer” model. It lets authorities buy white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks, often at sub-market rates.

When the system was introduced, South African leaders hoped it would put 30 percent of the country’s private land under black ownership by 2014. But the government has fallen well short of that goal — today, black South Africans make up 79 percent of the population but own just 9 percent of the land, according to official government figures.

Following the tenure of scandal-plagued former President Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa came to office in February pledging to root out corruption in the ANC and address South Africa’s wide racial-economic disparity. Later, he endorsed land expropriation without compensation, a plan first introduced by the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, as a means to speed up the process.

The plan is a “call to action to decisively break with the historical injustice of colonial, apartheid and patriarchal patterns of land ownership, and to build a South Africa that belongs to all,” the ANC said in a statement in May.

Ironically, the ANC’s land reform plan is at odds with the policy preference of its most famous leader, former president and human rights icon Nelson Mandela. In the interests of racial reconciliation in the post-apartheid era, Mandela’s ANC allowed whites to keep their property and assured them they would be fairly compensated when the government purchased their land.

Today’s opponents of land seizures worry South Africa will suffer the same fate as its neighbor, Zimbabwe, which initiated its own mass expropriation program in the early 2000s. Under the direction of former dictator Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe seized and redistributed land from about 4,000 white farmers to landless blacks in an effort to compensate them for years of colonial rule.

Far from improving the economic well-being of the black majority, the land confiscation destroyed Zimbabwe’s once thriving agricultural sector and forced the government to rely on international aid to feed 25 percent of the population. Agricultural revenue declined by $12 billion in the space of a decade, according to Zimbabwe’s commercial farmers’ union.

Ramaphosa has said the land expropriation in South Africa will be undertaken in a way that doesn’t hurt the country’s food security or economic growth. The seizures will focus on “unused” land, according to David Masondo, a member of the ANC’s Economic Transformation Committee.

What about ‘large scale’ killing of white farmers?

Closely tied to the debate over land expropriation is the racially explosive issue of white farmers being attacked and killed by black marauders.

Trump is not the first international leader to highlight the problem and describe it as large-scale — former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed in February that more than 400 white farmers were murdered over the preceding 12 months.

It is true that dozens of white farmers and their family members are killed each year in South Africa, often in horrific ways. What is less clear is the extent of the problem.

Most murders in South Africa are not categorized by race, and the official tally of farm killings includes both owners and people who live on the land. As a result, research by private organizations and farm groups offers the most authoritative accounting of violence against white farmers.

AgriSA, a farmers’ organization in South Africa, published a report in June that said 47 farmers were killed in a 12-month period from 2017 to 2018. That was a 20-year low and down from 66 in the same period between 2016 and 2017.

Police statistics compiled by Africa Check, a nonprofit fact-checking website that works with the Poynter Institute, point to higher murder totals. There were 638 attacks on smallholdings and farms in the 2016-2017 period, with 74 people murdered, according to an Africa Check report published in May.

By either measure, both attacks and murders appear to be well below the totals seen in the early 2000s, when violence against farmers was rampant. There were more than 1,000 attacks against farms and smallholdings between 2001 and 2002, 140 of which were murders, according to Africa Check.

Few observers dispute that farm murders are a problem in South Africa, which has an overall murder rate of about 34 per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world. But some farmers’ organizations and right-wing groups contend that the black majority government is not doing enough to protect white farmers, who they say are particularly vulnerable to attack.

“Farm attacks are unique and farm attacks should not be considered as normal crimes,” Ernst Roets, the deputy CEO of AfriForum, a minority rights group, said in June. “Farm attacks should be treated as priority crimes.”

In any case, the issue is politically radioactive in part because it has become a cause celebre in alt-right and white nationalist circles. Many of the groups characterize attacks on white farmers in South Africa as part of a larger “white genocide” against people of European ancestry across the world.

Following his Wednesday night tweet, Trump was accused by left-leaning activists and journalists of parroting white nationalist talking points. More charitable critics asserted he waded into the controversial debate in order to distract the media from the ongoing fallout over the special counsel investigation.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa and the ANC appear to be moderating their position on land expropriation. In a meeting with agriculture representatives Tuesday, ANC leadership committed to preventing unregulated “land grabs” and concentrating land redistribution on “fallow land in deep rural areas,” according to AgriSA CEO Omri van Zyl.

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