August 28, 2018 / 2:51 PM / 24 days ago

Commentary: The upside of Trump’s controversial South Africa tweet

On Thursday U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.” He then quoted Fox News host Tucker Carlson: “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.”

People listen from the gallery as the Constitutional Review Committee hold public hearings regarding expropriation of land without compensation in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

The tweet reflected a common talking point among white supremacists, as well as by AfriForum, a conservative South African lobbying group that Carlson had interviewed, and that its critics paint as an organization of Afrikaners nostalgic for apartheid.

It injected Trump into one of South Africa’s most divisive national issues: In December, the country’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) adopted a resolution to redistribute land to black South Africans without compensating landholders. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ANC has been paying for farms owned by white landowners to redistribute them to the country’s black, majority population. The new land expropriation policy would help dramatically increase the pace at which the government addresses land ownership disparities – and appeal to rural black voters ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

Even if Trump’s facts are wrong and his motivation for the tweet questionablea possible deflection from last week’s conviction of and guilty plea by two members of his political circle – Trump’s interference could nonetheless help South Africa because it puts the country’s ruling party on notice that its expropriation moves are being watched in Washington.

Trump’s tweet left South Africa's ANC government incandescent with rage. Zizi Kodwa, head of the presidency in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government, told South African media that Trump was the “modern leader of the racist group Ku Klux Klan and president of AfriForum in America.” “He wants to polarize [South Africa] and reverse the gains we have made to build racial harmony,” Kodwa said.

The Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, summoned the U.S. Charge d’Affaires – Trump has yet to appoint an ambassador to South Africa – to convey to Washington that Pretoria is “disappointed” about Washington’s failure to use available diplomatic channels. The Government of South Africa, Sisulu said, wishes to caution against “alarmist, false, inaccurate and misinformed” statements.

A woman speaks as the Constitutional Review Committee hold public hearings regarding expropriation of land without compensation in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa July 20, 2018. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

The responses by both Kodwa and Sisulu reflect an enormous ANC sensitivity regarding the soon-to-be-implemented Expropriation Without Compensation (EWC) policy, and with it, the controversial, emotive issue of the murder of white farmers, who own disproportionately more land than their black South African counterparts, in a country where white citizens make up only eight percent of the population. Kodwa and Sisulu’s responses show their worried awareness that changing the law to enable the seizure of private property would, in the minds of many Western governments, undermine the ANC’s commitment to constitutional democracy. 

On the face of it, Pretoria’s reaction to Trump is spot-on. As the South African government correctly points out, there has not been any seizure of white farming land. Nor has there been “large-scale” killings of farmers. There is no “genocide” directed at white farmers – as some in the white right claim – as fewer than 100 famers a year are murdered and there is no evidence that the murders are politically motivated.

Yet proportionately, the picture appears sobering. While the lack of government statistics makes it hard to definitively evaluate the extent of the problem, according to some studies being a white farmer in South Africa is more dangerous than being a police officer, and one’s risk of being killed is estimated to be between 3.2 and 4.5 times higher than that of the average South African, which is already high, at 34.1 murders per 100,000 people, in one of the most violent societies on earth.

But while the ANC government has not yet seized any land, there is no room to be sanguine.  David Mabuza, South Africa’s deputy president, said earlier this year that white farmers should “voluntarily” give up their land in order to prevent a “violent takeover.” Zweli Mkhize, Minister for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, has stated that no property of any black person or black group will be expropriated, giving, as AfriForum has pointed out, a racial dimension to the government’s expropriation plans.

At this point, I should declare an interest. Aside from being a journalist, I’m also a landowner in a heart-stoppingly beautiful part of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. The land on these 85 hectares is so rocky and precipitous that both the provincial and national agriculture departments have declared it unsuitable for farming. It is a reassurance that the “real” farmers that surround me lack. For a couple of dozen years their lands have been under an unrelenting, sequential siege of land claims. 

Both as a landowner and journalist, I have yet to meet a commercial farmer who doesn’t recognize the validity and importance of land justice. Similarly, I have yet to find one who has confidence in the government’s ability to implement a restitution process that provides finality as well as justice, as opposed to the well-documented chaos of neighboring Zimbabwe. A steady series of claimants have come and gone – either rejected because their family and/or clan claims of historical tenure have been proved spurious – or, as is more often the case, succeeding in their suit but choosing to be paid out instead of taking control of the land.  

Farmers I know generally see Trump’s intervention in two ways. First, as an unwelcome provocation – ham-fisted, ignorant, and likely to further polarize South Africa’s racial divide, making the commercial agriculture sector more vulnerable than it already is. Alternatively, they welcome it as a calling-out of the gulf between Ramaphosa’s stated benign intentions and what they believe to be a sinister agenda.

Given the controversy and complexity around land ownership in South Africa, by shedding an international light on the issue Trump may have – most likely, unwittingly – actually helped improve race relations, rather than making them worse. His tweet, however misguided, was a timely reminder to all involved in the land issue – including the ANC and AfriForum – that the best solution would be an inclusive, home-crafted one that rested on a constitutionally unassailable and equitable legal framework. 

About the Author

William Saunderson-Meyer is a South African journalist and writes the nationally syndicated Jaundiced Eye column. @TheJaundicedEye

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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