Analysis

Trump spread a racially divisive theory on South African land violence this week. Here's what he got wrong

U.S. President Donald Trump's tweet on Wednesday expressing outrage over alleged seizures of white farm owners' land in South Africa is fuelling a racist conspiracy theory, Africa scholars say. It could also be an attempt to change the subject from his deep legal woes.

'South African media are pretty hot over the complete misunderstanding of what the issue is'

In a tweet Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump, left, criticized non-existent land seizures from white farmers in South Africa. The South African government of President Cyril Ramaphosa later tweeted that Trump's misinformed criticisms are divisive. (Reuters, Associated Press)

Donald Trump, who once slagged off African nations as "shithole" countries, has shown little foreign policy concern for much of the continent during his time in office.

So one might understand why the U.S. president's sudden interest in a racially charged debate on agrarian reform in South Africa floored Andries du Toit this week. The professor at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town was bewildered when he scrolled his Twitter feed and saw Trump pushing what some consider white-nationalist propaganda about widespread killings of white farmers in the post-apartheid era.

"I thought, 'Oh my God,'" said du Toit, who researches poverty and inequality in South Africa. "When you get that feeling when you're going to have to start explaining things to Americans again."

'Fear-mongering'

Trump, du Toit said, might do well to brush up on his history of structural poverty in South Africa. The president posted his tweet on Wednesday morning amid an exceptionally bad week for him, with two of his former top advisers landing convictions in federal courts on Tuesday, with one of them implicating Trump in a campaign finance violation. The next morning, he appeared to be trying to deflect attention from his troubles to South Africa:

The tweet inspired mockery and outrage from South Africans while boosting a false narrative promoted by white nationalists in South Africa and beyond, du Toit said.

"First of all, there has not been any kind of large-scale expropriation of land," he said. Secondly, he said, "the issue of so-called farm murder" of white landowners is a "fear-mongering" myth that exploits South Africa's generalized high murder rate to portray whites "using the language of ethnic victimhood."

The term "white genocide," for example, has been used by the alt-right groups in South Africa and the U.S. Just days before this month's Unite the Right 2, white-supremacist rally in Washington, organizer Jason Kessler repeated the South African conspiracy theory to CBC's Ellen Mauro using that rhetoric.

Many South Africans were stunned by the Trump's late-night tweet. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

"There's a very serious situation going on there with the land of the white farmer being seized," Kessler claimed. "And there is essentially a genocide happening of the Boers and the other white South Africans."

Except that no such thing is happening, nor are alleged widespread land seizures, said Ruth Hall, a leading scholar on land reform in South Africa.

"It's statistically incorrect to say that white farmers are being targeted relative to the rest of the population."

Tucker Carlson's 'investigation'

How the falsehood ended up in Trump's Twitter feed might be credited to the Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum, known for championing white rights and spreading narratives about mass land seizures around Capitol Hill. The group boasted that "it certainly had an impact" in planting the idea into Trump's consciousness, after the story was picked up by Fox News, known to be Trump's preferred news source.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson propagated the narrative, airing an erroneous "investigation" of the issue the night before Trump's tweet. It asserted South Africa's majority-black leadership is "seizing land" from its own citizens, "without compensation, because they are the wrong skin colour."

(On Thursday, Carlson walked back his reporting, tweaking his words to indicate no such land seizures are underway.)

The South African government responded to Trump, tweeting that his "narrow perception" was divisive:

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has stuck to a moderate line, saying it wants to deal with inequality of the country's past.

"But it wants to do so in a responsible manner, and paying compensation [to previous landowners] when it is just and equitable to do so," Hall said.

"The president seems to be listening to Fox News and messages from white rights group, rather than key messages that our president … has been putting out very clearly explaining that there will be no land grabs or mass seizures in South Africa."

'The numbers don't say so'

South Africa is a violent country, due in part to its history of racial inequality, she said. Although there were 47 murders on farms last year, according to AgriSA, a non-partisan farmers' organization, Hall said young black residents in urban townships continue to have a much greater risk of being murdered than white farm owners.

A national commission of inquiry in 2015 looked into violence in farming areas, but it showed no targeting based on race. Recent AgriSA statistics also showed murders on farms are at a 20-year low.

"This idea that there is a targeted genocide underway — firstly, the numbers don't say so," Hall said. "Secondly, to the degree to which there's violence on farms, it's targeting both white and black people as generalized violence."

South African media are pretty hot over the complete misunderstanding of what the issue is and this lecturing by an American president.- John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria

The land expropriation debate arose from the ashes of apartheid, she explained, as South Africa was founded on the dispossession of black people from their own land.

"That's what colonial conquest did — kicked black people off their own land, pushed them into what were called native reserve and urban townships, and made them into a pool of cheap labour for white industry."

Post-1994, when white-majority rule ended and South Africa's first democratic elections began, the constitution pledged to try to redistribute access to land. Shaking off the cobwebs of apartheid has proven difficult, however. In nearly 25 years, only about nine per cent of commercial farmland has been redistributed into black farmers' hands. 

This has mostly been achieved through a process known as "willing seller, willing buyer," whereby the state wishes to acquire the land from white farm owners to redistribute to black individuals, and an offer and agreement on a price is made, followed by the title deed transfer.

'No U.S. ambassador in South Africa'

Progress has been slow, however, and land reform has been criticized so far as a failure. Hence the calls for the adversarial approach of expropriation of land without compensation — a plan backed by the radical leftist party the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The ANC adopted a resolution this year to amend the constitution to allow for expropriation of land without compensation. However, African scholars believe the move by the ANC was merely a populist bid to appease leftists. The motion to amend the constitution has not yet passed.

"So yes, you will hear those arguments in the South African debate," said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and an expert on Africa policy with the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

But by and large, Campbell said, the ANC has set fixed principles that land reform must be accomplished without harming agricultural production and food security, must be lawful, and must not exacerbate race relations.

Trump's tweet likely won't help with an already thorny issue, he said.

"South African media are pretty hot over the complete misunderstanding of what the issue is and this lecturing by an American president."

That Trump is wading into the debate now is particularly rich, Campbell said, given that the president "has shown absolutely no interest in Africa whatsoever."

He noted that an assistant U.S. secretary of state for Africa has only been in place for about a month. Trump's tweet ordering Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to "study" the issue also strikes Campbell as disingenuous.

After all, Campbell pointed out, "there is still no American ambassador in South Africa."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong