A South African civic organisation Afriforum member speaks at a public land hearings on wether section 25 of the Constitution regarding expropriation of land without compensation, should be amended at the Sedibeng Town Hall in Vereeniging, Gauteng Proince on July 27, 2018. (Photo by GULSHAN KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
GULSHAN KHAN AFP/Getty Images
By David Meyer
August 23, 2018

President Donald Trump has waded into South Africa’s most divisive and racially-charged debate: the potential seizure of white-owned farms.

In a tweet, Trump said he had asked the State Department to look into the issue, as well as that of the “large scale killing of farmers.” He made it clear that he was picking up on the topic after watching a Tucker Carlson segment on Fox News.

Trump’s intervention could have a serious effect on trade relations between the U.S. and Africa’s second-largest economy. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s going on with farmers in South Africa?

There are two issues here that need to be evaluated separately, although they are clearly interlinked.

The first is that of land expropriation. According to government statistics, although just 8% of South Africans are white, white farmers own 72% of the country’s farms and agricultural holdings. Around 15% is owned by so-called “colored” people—an pre-democracy term that persists today, referring to those of mixed heritage or those descended from Malay slaves—while 5% is owned by people of Indian heritage. Black farmers own just 4% of the relevant land.

This situation is an Apartheid hangover that hasn’t gone away since white-supremacist rule ended in the early 1990s, despite efforts by the government to buy land from white farmers. So, facing pressure from rivals in the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) recently decided to move towards claiming some white-owned farmland without payment.

Doing so would require a change to South Africa’s still-young constitution, and the government’s plans—still light on detail—have kicked up immense controversy in the country. The biggest fear stems from the experience of Zimbabwe, one of South Africa’s northern neighbors, where expropriation of white-owned farms without compensation was used as a tool of political patronage and destroyed the largely agriculture-based national economy.

However, although the constitution still hasn’t been amended, it was recently reported that the South African government wrote to the owners of two game farms in the northern Limpopo province, telling them their farms would be seized as the owners wanted too much for a sale.

What about the ‘large-scale killing’?

South Africa does have a real problem with attacks on farms. However, the scale and nature of the problem is up for debate.

In recent years, a right-wing fringe movement of Afrikaners—the white group that used to hold power—has pushed the idea that the farm attacks constitute a “white genocide,” or at least some sort of retribution for the Apartheid era.

However, there is insufficient data to back this up. Official data calculates crimes committed on farms and smallholdings, but this includes a variety of offenses, and the ethnicity of the victims is not always recorded. Many victims of farm attacks are indeed non-white farm workers, as opposed to white farm owners or workers. An official inquiry in 2003 found that the main motivation for farm attacks, by far, was robbery—though that was 15 years ago.

AgriSA, one of the country’s biggest farmers’ associations, said a couple months ago that murders of farmers were actually at a 20-year low, with 47 deaths in the last year, as opposed to 153 in 1998.

So how did Trump pick up on this?

Despite the lack of solid data, the racially-charged issue of South African farm murders has recently become a cause célèbre among “alt-right” activists across the world, with figures such as Mike Cernovich, Lauren Southern and Katie Hopkins enthusiastically pushing the “white genocide” line.

AfriForum, a largely Afrikaner organization, has also been trying to drum up international support. A few months ago, AfriForum sent a delegation to the U.S., meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, the libertarian Cato Institute—and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who has since taken up their cause.

Trump isn’t the first outside politician to pick up on the issue. Australia’s anti-immigration home affairs minister, Peter Dutton—who may soon become prime minister—said earlier this year that Australia should fast-track visas for white South Africans, to help them escape “persecution” by the black majority.

However, Trump’s intervention is a far bigger deal. The U.S. president has already shown a willingness to use economic sanctions as a tool to punish countries for various issues—witness his sanctions on Turkey over its jailing of an American pastor. South Africa currently gets to export many products to the U.S. without duties, under the African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA), and some now fear that this access may be curtailed.

How has South Africa responded?

Trump’s tweet knocked the South African rand by as much as 1.9%—though it has since recovered somewhat—and earned a swift response from the ANC government.

The government’s official Twitter account declared Thursday: “South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.”

Another government tweet, citing Communications Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, said it’d been transparent about the “land reform process.”

South Africa International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said she would seek clarification with the U.S. embassy, and would talk to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo through diplomatic channels.

One of AfriForum’s main complaints is that, despite holding a national consultation into the idea of amending the constitution to allow expropriation without compensation, the South African government seems set on pursuing the plan either way.

As it happens, the consultation just closed, and the South African government said Thursday that Parliament would consider the results. It also said that President Cyril Ramaphosa has appointed a committee to “coordinate and implement measures to accelerate the redistribution of land, the extension of security of tenure, the provision of agricultural support and the redress of spatial inequality, within a broad and comprehensive land redistribution and agricultural development program.”

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