South Africa blasts Trump over racially divisive tweet

South Africa's government lashed out at U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday after he tweeted that his administration would be looking into alleged seizures of white-owned farms and the "large scale killing of farmers" in the country, an assertion it said was false.

Country's government summons American chargé d'affaires over remarks

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

South Africa's government lashed out at U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday after he tweeted that his administration would be looking into alleged seizures of white-owned farms and the "large scale killing of farmers" in the country — an assertion it said was false and "only seeks to divide our nation and remind us of our colonial past."

South Africa is in the throes of a racially charged national debate over land reform, a process that seeks to correct the legacy of decades of apartheid. Today, nearly a quarter-century after the first democratic elections, black South Africans comprise 80 per cent of the population but own just four per cent of the country's land, according to the government.

Though the ruling African National Congress has pledged to close that gap, progress has been slow. In July, the country's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said his party would amend the constitution so the state could expropriate land without compensation to speed up the land reform process, but that has not yet happened and no land has been seized.

Tweet follows Fox News segment

Trump's tweet followed a segment on Fox News on Wednesday in which host Tucker Carlson claimed Ramaphosa had already started "seizing land from his own citizens without compensation because they are the wrong skin colour," calling the alleged seizures "immoral."

The government said Trump's tweet was based on "false information." It summoned the American chargé d'affaires and called a meeting with officials at the U.S. embassy as it sought to clarify Trump's remarks.

Though no land seizures have occurred, the prospect has sent panic through some white farming communities who worry the policy will strip them of their land, cause land prices to plummet or make them the target of potentially violent land seizures.

For years, a small but vocal group of white South Africans have claimed white farmers are the target of violent, racially motivated farm attacks.

Experts say the attacks reflect the country's generally high crime rate and that there is no evidence connecting them to the victims' race.

Farm murders have been declining since their peak in 2001, according to research by Agri SA, an umbrella group of South African agricultural associations. According to independent fact-checking organization Africa Check, there were 74 murders during farm attacks in 2016-17, compared to 19,000 murders across the country in the same period.

"People are not being targeted because of their race, but because they are vulnerable and isolated on the farms," said Gareth Newham, head of the crime and justice program at the Institute for Security Studies in the capital, Pretoria.

Trump's tweet did find some supporters.

AfriForum, a group that represents some white South African interests, welcomed his comments. In May, its leaders went to the U.S. to lobby officials and institutions about Ramaphosa's proposal to expropriate land and the alleged targeting of white farmers.

AfriForum and other critics say the government's proposal to expropriate land without compensation could lead to economic disaster, pointing to the collapse of the agricultural sector in neighbouring Zimbabwe after the government of former president Robert Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms, sometimes violently, in 2000.

"We are going to take back the land and we'll do it by any means necessary," said Lindsay Maasdorp, the national spokesperson for Black First Land First, a group that condones land seizures in South Africa.

'Absolutely unbelievable'

Proponents of South Africa's policy, including Ramaphosa, say it is necessary to address historic injustices and can be done in a way that is lawful and will not compromise the beleaguered economy or food security.

"It is absolutely unbelievable that a head of state at that level can be so disrespectful to issues of dispossession that South Africa is painfully trying to address in a democratic way," said Vuyo Mahlati, president of the African Farmers' Association of South Africa.

Later on Thursday, the State Department toned down Trump's language suggesting that massive land seizures were underway. Spokesperson Heather Nauert said expropriating land without compensation "would risk sending South Africa down the wrong path," but she did not repeat the president's suggestion that large numbers of white South African farmers had been killed.

In parliament on Wednesday, Ramaphosa said expropriation could make more land available for cultivation, and that the process would begin by seizing state-owned land, not privately held land.

"This is our South Africa, this is our land, this is where we live," Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told South Africa's public broadcaster SABC. "Only solutions of land reform that are South African will work in South Africa."

Trump has never experienced apartheid and doesn't know its legacy of inequality in which the majority of South Africans own nothing, Zizi Kodwa, a member of the ruling party's national executive committee, told The Associated Press.

Kodwa said Trump is "using the fear factor in order for us to maintain the status quo."

With files from Reuters