South Africa hit back at Donald Trump on Thursday after the US President criticized the country’s land reform policies in an overnight tweet.
The controversy began when Trump tweeted late Wednesday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”
Trump’s tweet appeared to be in response to a report on Fox News which alleged that the South African government was “seizing land from white farmers.”
On Thursday, the South African government said Trump’s tweet was “based on false information” and said it would call on the US Embassy to explain the President’s remarks.
“South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past,” the government tweeted. “South Africa will speed up the pace of land reform in a careful and inclusive manner that does not divide our nation.”
“Hysterical comments and statements do not assist in the process,” Khusela Diko, spokeswoman for President Cyril Ramaphosa, told CNN. “The majority of South Africans want to see land reform. The majority of our farmers, white and black want to be a part of this initiative.”
A complex and racially-charged issue
Land is a complex issue in South Africa. Racist policies of the past forcefully removed black and non-white South Africans from the land for white use.
There has been a land redistribution and restitution provision in the country’s constitution since South Africa held its first democratic elections in 1994. The government has been criticized for not moving quickly enough to settle land disputes.
The political debate over land reform has stepped up a level ahead of next year’s elections.
Farm seizures, as described in the Fox report, are not ongoing in South Africa. However, President Ramaphosa announced on July 31 that the ruling African National Congress would seek to change the country’s constitution to explicitly allow land that was seized during apartheid to be expropriated without compensation.
On Wednesday, Ramaphosa told parliament that expropriations formed one part of a broader land redistribution and agricultural development program that would only be introduced following public and parliamentary consultation.
“Acceleration of land redistribution is necessary not only to redress a grave historical injustice, but also to bring more producers into the agricultural sector and to make more land available for cultivation,” he said.
In an article published in the UK’s Financial Times early Thursday, Ramaphosa described access to land as one of the areas where “severe inequality between black and white South Africans” is “most devastating.”
Killings of farmers at a 20-year low
Despite Trump’s claims about the “large scale killing of farmers,” research published in June 2018 by AgriSA, one of the country’s largest farmer organizations, showed that killings had reached a 20-year low.
Forty-seven farmers were killed in 2017-18, according to AgriSA, marking a steady decline from the 153 farmers who lost their lives in 1998.
Crime is a serious problem in South Africa more broadly. There were more than 19,016 murders nationwide in 2017, according to police statistics, a slight increase from 2016.
The New York-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said it was “extremely disturbing” to see Trump echoing “a longstanding and false white supremacist claim that South Africa’s white farmers are targets of large-scale, racially-motivated killings by South Africa’s black majority.”
In a statement Thursday, the ADL called on Trump to “understand the facts and realities of the situation in South Africa, rather than repeat disturbing, racially divisive talking points.”
Tweet was ‘ill-informed’ and ‘incendiary’
In a speech to farmers in Bela Bela, Limpopo, which was prepared before Trump’s tweet, South Africa’s deputy president David Mabuza insisted the government would “discourage” those aiming to divide the country over land reform.
“We would like to discourage those who are using this sensitive and emotive issue of land to divide us as South Africans by distorting our land reform measures to the international community, and spreading falsehoods that our ‘white farmers’ are facing the onslaught from their own government,” he said.
“This is far from the truth.”
Trump is not the first foreign politician to take aim at South Africa’s land reform policies.
In March, South Africa reacted sharply after Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton suggested white South African farmers should receive special visas due to the “horrific circumstances” they faced at home.
Ruth Hall, a leading expert on land issues in South Africa and a professor at the University of the Western Cape, described Trump’s tweet as “ill-informed.”
“The kind of statement that Trump made is characteristic of him. It is unfortunate, ill-informed, it is incendiary. What it does demonstrate is that the white right wing in South Africa has been successful in internationalizing their agenda,” Hall told CNN.
“It also puts a spanner in the works of the concerted effort that President Ramaphosa has been making to clarify the land reform issue to the international community and investors. The government has clearly stated that there will be no land grabs.”
Trump’s tweet comes a month after his predecessor, Barack Obama, delivered a speech alongside Ramaphosa in Johannesburg in which he warned against the rise of “the politics of fear.”
Obama’s speech was seen by observers as a veiled criticism of some of Trump’s policies.