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South Africa isn't happy with Trump's tweet about their country's white farmers

Some say it's a naked attempt to animate his base with a racially loaded issue at a time when his administration is in trouble.

Donald Trump’s presidency is engulfed in scandal, but he’s tweeting about white South African farmers, boosting a far-right talking point and drawing the ire of that country’s government.

Trump’s tweet Wednesday that he's instructed his secretary of state to investigate land seizures and violence targeting white South African farmers — a key campaign issue for far-right networks across North America, Europe and Australia — came after he apparently watched a Fox News segment lambasting the South African government’s push to allow the expropriation of land without compensation. The move is part of an effort to redress stark racial inequalities in the country nearly a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid.


Trump’s comment drew immediate praise from right-wing agitators who have been campaigning on the issue, and scathing criticism from others, who saw it as a naked attempt to animate his base with a racially-loaded issue at a time when his administration is in unprecedented trouble. The Toronto Star’s Washington correspondent Daniel Dale observed that the tweet was the first time Trump had mentioned Africa on Twitter since becoming president, noting that he was doing so to defend whites, and to champion a popular rallying cry for the far right.

“I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers,” Trump tweeted, quoting a line from the report, “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers,” and tagging in Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

The South African government rejected Trump’s comments Thursday, with Khusela Diko, a spokeswoman for President Cyril Ramaphosa saying the government would raise the issue with the U.S. ambassador.

"The presidency has noted Trump's tweet, which is misinformed in our view," Diko said.

"South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception, which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past," read a tweet from the president's office.

“South Africa will speed up the pace of land reform in a careful and inclusive manner that does not divide our nation.”


Lingering inequalities

With Wednesday’s tweet, Trump waded into a thorny issue that is divisive in South Africa, and is gaining increasing attention internationally as it has been amplified as a campaign issue by conservative and far-right networks this year.

Nearly 25 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, with land ownership an enduring focal point for grievances.

When the racist apartheid regime ended in 1994, nearly 90 percent of all of South African’s land was owned by whites, who made up just 10 percent of the population.

Since then, the government has followed a “willing seller, willing buyer” process to redistribute white-owned farmland to blacks. But the pace of reform has been slow; a government audit in 2017 found whites owned 72 percent of privately owned farmland, despite comprising less than 9 percent of the population.

Political parties have agreed there is a need to speed up the pace of reform, striking a balance between the growing demands of the left for redistribution, and the need to avoid destabilizing the economy and deterring foreign investment. When neighboring Zimbabwe implemented similar reforms in 2000, it panicked investors and caused economic shocks that helped crash the economy.

Ramaphosa announced earlier this month that his ruling African National Congress will press ahead with plans to change the Constitution to allow the expropriation of land without compensation. It has also reportedly targeted a number of white-owned farms under existing legislation which allows the expropriation of property in exchange for “just and equitable compensation”, or without compensation when “in the public interest.”


On Sunday, South African media reported two white-owned farms appeared to have been the first targeted for unilateral seizure, after the owners of one turned down an offer that was about one-tenth the market value.

Selling the “white genocide” narrative

Trump’s tweet also referred to the “large-scale killing” of South African farmers, an issue that’s hotly contested.

Activist groups such as AfriForum, a vocal lobbyist group for the country’s white Afrikaans-speaking minority, have been pushing a narrative that a spate of violent and often deadly robberies of white farmers, sometimes involving rape and torture, are racially motivated. They argue the killings are encouraged by a political climate in which radical opposition groups such as the Economic Freedom Fighters are calling for land seizures, which the group’s firebrand leader Julius Malema has said are necessary to “teach whites a lesson.”

The narrative, pushed by AfriForum and the right-wing survivalist group the Suidlanders, has been embraced by far-right networks around the world, with activists arguing that white farmers are being subjected to a “genocide” that is being ignored by the liberal mainstream media. One online petition on the “Genocide of whites in South Africa” calls on Trump to give white South Africans refuge in the United States, and has attracted nearly 23,000 signatures.

British right-wing agitator Katie Hopkins, who has also been a vocal campaigner on the issue, tweeted her thanks to Trump for speaking out, adding: “The slaughter of the whites is THE tragedy of our generation.”


But while the brutality has led some to believe there’s an element of racial motivation to the killings, claims of a “white genocide” aren’t supported by the statistics.

South Africa's largest commercial farmers union, Agri SA, said recently that farm murders had dropped to their lowest level in 19 years, with 47 killings recorded in the past 12 months.

That’s a drop from a peak of 153 such killings in 1998, and about 60 a year in recent years until 2016.

AfriForum disputes those figures, saying its data showed more than 80 farm murders last year.

But the totals are dwarfed by the total number of murders in South Africa, where police recorded more than 19,000 killings last year. South Africa’s government says the killings are reflective of wider law and order issues in the country, rather than a racial issue.

Regardless, the issue – signal boosted by international far-right networks – has been receiving increasing attention this year.

Trump is not the first politician outside South Africa to speak out on the issue. In March, Australia’s then Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, who has been spearheading the current leadership challenge against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, asked his department to consider granting special humanitarian visas to white South African farmers who wanted to come to Australia.

Describing the farmers’ situation as “persecution,” Dutton – who has taken a hard line when it comes to rejecting asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat – said they faced “horrific circumstances” and needed help from a “civilized country.” His comments, which were made after the issue was raised by conservative commentators in the Australian media, drew criticism at home and an angry reaction from the South African government, which demanded a full retraction.