Washington - President Donald Trump on Wednesday night said he was directing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to "closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures," as well as the "killing of farmers."
He then quoted Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, who earlier Wednesday had railed against plans by South Africa's ruling party to pursue constitutional changes allowing the government to redistribute land without compensation. The measure is designed to redress racial inequalities that have persisted nearly a quarter-century after the end of apartheid in 1994.
The episode represented a case study in how the president runs his administration. The apparent basis of Trump's directions to the nation's top diplomat were accusations levelled by Fox - accusations that echo talking points used by white-nationalist groups, including an organization that has referred to "the so-called apartheid" and the "so-called 'historical injustices of the past.'"
Trump tweeted "I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeoto closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large-scale killing of farmers. 'South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.' @[email protected]"
The South African government responded to the president on Twitter, saying the country "totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past." The government pledged to "speed up the pace of land reform in a careful and inclusive manner that does not divide our nation."
Any attempt by the State Department to influence land policy in South Africa would likely be undermined by the absence of an ambassador to South Africa, one of Africa's top economies. Trump has yet to name a replacement for Patrick Gaspard, who left the post in December 2016.
The alleged plight of white South Africans is a major rallying cry of far-right movements across North America, Europe and Australia. An online petition titled "Genocide of whites in South Africa," which calls on Trump to allow "white Boers to come to the United States" has garnered nearly 23 000 signatures.
Daniel Dale, a correspondent for the Toronto Star, observed that Trump's tweet Wednesday marked the first time he had used the word "Africa" on the social media platform since becoming president - "to express support for white people," Dale said, "on the recommendation" of white nationalists, whose claims had been amplified by the Fox host. An archive of Trump's tweets shows that Wednesday's post was his first as president that included the word "Africa."
On his show, Carlson attacked Pompeo by name for not addressing "the seizures, which should be getting worldwide attention."
"In other words, 'nothing to see here,' says Mike Pompeo's State Department," Carlson said.
The Fox host said he had "called over to the State Department" for comment and received what he described as a deficient response. He displayed the statement and read it aloud in full. According to Carlson, it read:
"We are aware of these reports and have been following this issue very closely for some time. South Africa is a strong democracy with resilient institutions, including a free press and an independent judiciary. South Africans are grappling with the difficult issue of land reform through an open process including public hearings, broad-based consultations, and active civil society engagement. President [Cyril] Ramaphosa has pledged that the land reform process will follow the rule of law and its implementation will not adversely affect econ growth, agricultural production, or food security."
Carlson labelled the statement "unbelievable."
A spokesman for the State Department told The Washington Post a comment was unavailable late Wednesday and wouldn't confirm the authenticity of the statement presented by Carlson.
Carlson, who enjoys the coveted 8 p.m. time slot on Fox, said the South African president was "seizing land from his own citizens without compensation because they are the wrong skin colour."
He warned that South Africa would travel a similar path as Zimbabwe, where the expropriation of white-owned land 18 years ago caused economic shocks that destabilized the country. But the right-wing host said the problem was not just economic but also "moral," observing a double standard when it comes to allegations of racism.
"Racism is what our elites say they dislike most - 'Donald Trump is a racist,' they say," Carlson said. "But they've paid no attention to this at all. In fact, Ramaphosa is one of Barack Obama's favourite leaders in the world." Delivering the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg last month, Obama praised Ramaphosa - an anti-apartheid activist, trade-union leader and businessman worth $550 million - for "inspiring new hope."
Carlson called the segment an "exclusive investigation" into Ramaphosa's wrongs, even though the issue has received considerable press coverage and sustained scholarly attention.
The dispute stretches back to the early 20th century when South Africa's Natives Land Act of 1913 stripped black people of the right to own land outside specific plots set aside for them. The restriction tightened during the apartheid era, as the governing National Party created desolate "homelands" for black people.
A legal basis for land restitution emerged as a new South African democracy was proclaimed in 1994. But the process was slow and riddled with bureaucratic uncertainty.
A 2017 land audit released by the consultancy Agri Development Solutions and AGRI SA, a farm lobby organization, found that nonwhites owned 27 percent of farmland in South Africa, compared with 14 percent in 1994.
A range of measures was then considered, including a proposal for the government to take land in exchange for "just and equitable" compensation, less than the market would likely demand. Another measure would have barred foreigners from buying farmland.
When Ramaphosa assumed the presidency at the end of last year, he urged consideration of expropriation without compensation, so long, he said, as the government's actions didn't threaten the economy or food security.
"This conference has resolved that the expropriation of land without compensation should be among the mechanisms available to government to give effect to land reform and redistribution," he said in a closing address at his party's conference. "It has also resolved that in determining the mechanisms of implementation, we must ensure that we do not undermine the economy, agricultural production and food security."
Investors have raised concerns about land expropriation, particularly during a period of sluggish economic growth.
Meanwhile, some have sounded alarm bells about the racial politics of forced changes to land possession. One group that has been particularly vocal is AfriForum, a white Afrikaner rights collective, whose leaders have met with congressional staff and members of the US Agency for International Development, as HuffPost documented in May.
This month, the group published a list of farms it said were being targeted for expropriation. It called the government's plan "destructive" and "ahistoric."
In March, AfriForum claimed that the first several months of the year had already seen "15 farm murders" and "109 farm attacks" in South Africa - the potential basis for Trump's reference to the "killing of farmers."
"Our rural areas are trapped in a crime war," said Ian Cameron, identified as AfriForum's "head of safety."
But a fact-checking website called Africa Check says it is "near impossible" to obtain an exact calculation of farm murders because of gaps in records, though it maintains that claims of a "white genocide" lack support.
According to South African court records, AfriForum has resisted efforts meant to address racial inequities and their visual markers. Praising historical figures whose names once appeared on street signs, the white-rights group said these individuals "made their contributions long before the so-called apartheid."
The group has about 200,000 paid members, according to Al Jazeera.
Media Matters for America, the left-leaning watchdog group, accuses the AfriForum's leaders of "exaggerating the plight of South Africa's white farmers." Their claims have been endorsed by figures such as Katie Hopkins, a British commentator who has compared immigrants to "cockroaches."
Shortly after joining Rebel Media, the Canadian equivalent of Breitbart, Hopkins announced that she was going to South Africa to document the "racial war waged by black extremists who are systematically murdering white farmers." Numerous right-wing activists and Internet personalities have undertaken similar projects.
"The Trump administration has not weighed in on this," Carlson said on his show.
The Washington Post