President Donald Trump. File picture: Alex Brandon/AP Photo.

JOHANNESBURG – U.S. President Donald Trump may have hoped he could rattle Pretoria with his baseless accusation – and hint at retribution - that white South African farmers are being murdered en masse and their land illegally confiscated.

If so, he miscalculated.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government has pushed back strongly against what it sees as a characteristic attempt by a Western power to interfere in an African country’s internal affairs. 

Pretoria has vowed to press on with plans to redress historical land ownership imbalances skewed in favour of whites.

In a recent tweet, Trump said he had asked his secretary of state to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers” - apparently drawing on an inaccurate Fox News report that accused Ramaphosa’s government of seizing land from whites.

The inference, while unstated, was that Big Brother would come calling to mete out justice on behalf of the farmers who have found ready allies in Trump’s white nationalist base.

Granted, Ramaphosa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) party intends to amend the Constitution to allow for land expropriation without paying compensation, on the basis that land was stolen from blacks to start with. It has, however, pledged to follow legal procedure, through parliament.

And while it is true that hundreds of white farmers have been killed over the years, so too have their black workers, and there is nothing to suggest they haven’t fallen victim, like thousands of other South Africans of all races, to violent robberies in what has long been dubbed one of the deadliest countries in the world outside a war zone.

Although South Africa has grappled with many challenges over the past decade, including state graft, unemployment of more than 27 percent and economic stagnation, it still prides itself as Africa’s powerhouse, scoffing at suggestions it could go the way of its neighbour Zimbabwe, where erratic land reforms left the economy in ruins.

But in a departure from his usual business-friendly demeanour when wooing international investors in pursuit of a R100 billion target, a visibly annoyed Ramaphosa last week took a page out of combative former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s playbook by bluntly telling Trump to butt out of South Africa’s affairs.

Keep your America 

“I don’t know what Donald Trump has to do with South African land because he’s never been here. And he must keep his America, we will keep our South Africa,” Ramaphosa said to cheers at a conference.

He was echoing Mugabe, who frequently clashed with former colonial ruler Britain over his own land redistribution policy and famously told then-prime minister Tony Blair during a summit in 2002 to “keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe.”

Current British Prime Minister Theresa May was certainly more circumspect during a visit to South Africa this week, telling journalists her government fully supported the country’s land reform programme provided it was carried out legally.

Trump’s wading in on the side of white farmers has not helped race relations in South Africa, which on the surface seem cordial enough despite underlying resentment among blacks that white people still enjoy the economic advantages bestowed on them by apartheid.

Whites, in turn, feel they have become perpetual scapegoats for the African National Congress government’s failure to properly implement its black economic empowerment policies during the last 24 years in power.

Lobby group Afriforum, which pushes for the interests of South Africa’s minority white Afrikaner population in the face of what it calls reverse racism in government policies, has claimed credit for Trump’s Twitter bomb, calling it the result of a meeting it held with right-wing groups in the United States to garner support.

Afriforum has warned of catastrophic results similar to economic crises that have rocked Zimbabwe and Venezuela if South Africa presses on with its land expropriation plans, saying investors will not be willing to pour money into a country with no respect for property rights.

Pushback could be costly

Certainly, Pretoria ’s pushback against Washington, while arguably justified from a historical and moral standpoint, could prove economically costly given that South Africa is a beneficiary of a preferential trade agreement with the United States under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. 

The current arrangement is valid until 2025, but Trump has already shown in dealings with Mexico, China and Canada that he is not averse to ripping up existing trade agreements he sees as undercutting America, or simply to settle political scores.

It is worth noting that South Africa’s trade with the Americas as a whole is nowhere near that with Asia, Europe and Africa, with exports at just 10 percent of the total, compared with 17 percent to the rest of Africa, around 31 percent headed to Europe and just over 33 percent to Asia.

South Africa has also been cosying up to China, a fellow member of the BRICS grouping that includes Brazil, Russia and India, and could feel confident, rightly or wrongly, that it has sufficient friends to help it withstand any blows Big Brother might throw its way.

* Stella Mapenzauswa is a Johannesburg-based journalist, media consultant and trainer who has covered economics and politics in southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi, for more than two decades. 

African News Agency (ANA)/News-Decoder