Last Wednesday, Trump tweeted urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study the large scale killing of farmers” in South Africa, heightening the current debate over land seizures from South Africa’s white farmers. The tweet followed a late-night program in which Fox News host Tucker Carlson called South African President Cyril Ramaphosa a racist, accusing him of killing white farmers and seizing their land.
Trump’s tweet was met with a deluge of criticisms this week. Lindiwe Sisulu, South African Minister of international relations, said the comment was both “regrettable” and “based on false information,” urging her department to clarify the matter with the US embassy.
In reality, Trump’s tweet has only served to bolster the false narrative promoted by many right-wing groups in South Africa that the government is seizing white-owned land and killing white farmers. While the South African government has claimed that expropriating land is necessary, it has explicitly stated that it will only seize unused land, protecting land currently being farmed. Statistics from AgriSA, an agricultural organization in South Africa, show that in reality, the number of killings of farmers (including farm workers) in South Africa is at its lowest in 20 years, totaling 47 in the fiscal year 2017-2018, compared to 113 the prior year. As Kate Wilson, Senior Researcher at Africa Check explains, “Nobody is disputing that people living and working on farms and small holdings are the victims of violent and often brutal attacks and murders. What is disputed is whether they face an elevated risk versus average South Africans.”
It is true, however, that the South African government is currently working to redistribute land as a kind of reparation. The government has considered returning land to black South Africans in an attempt to bridge the income inequality gap the World Bank estimates is the greatest of any country in the world. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced at the beginning of this month that the African National Congress (A.N.C.) is currently pushing to revise the constitution to permit land expropriation without compensation. Ramaphosa defended his plan for land reform not only on the basis of economic and agricultural improvement, but also as a means of justice. He described his plan in May as “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.”
Despite Carlson’s criticisms in the Wednesday night broadcast that Ramaphosa is “seizing land from his own citizens without compensation because they are the wrong skin color,” the South African President has not yet successfully changed the constitution. His proposal for land reform, in fact, still requires parliamentary motion, and thus, has yet to pass.
The narrative Trump’s comment sends about the South African government deliberately discriminating against white farmers is also highly problematic. Ownership of land is already highly divided in South Africa, with whites owning a disproportionately greater share of private land than the black majority in both rural and urban areas, according to a statement earlier this week from the New York Times.
In a country still struggling with the effects of Apartheid, Trump’s comment has only served to legitimize the claims of South Africa’s right-wing groups. One such group, AfriForum, has protested worldwide attempting to expose the South African farm killings and alleged “racist theft” of the land. While it is true that under President Ramaphosa, the South African government is attempting to change the Constitution to permit land expropriation without compensation, Trump’s tweet fails to recognize the efforts at reparations the government is taking in the realm of land redistribution and the reality that farm killings are at a 20-year low. The tweet bolsters the voice of many of South Africa’s right-wing groups and does nothing to help mitigate the colossal inequality still rampant in South Africa.
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