The president’s tweet followed a misleading segment on Fox News.
Vincent Smith, the chair of South Africa’s parliamentary committee on proposed constitutional amendments regulating land expropriation, speaks at a hearing in Cape Town on Aug. 4. (Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump barreled into one of South Africa’s most racially charged political debates with a tweet late Wednesday, drawing a rebuke from the government there and leaving the U.S. State Department to deal with the consequences.
After watching a segment on Fox News on land reform issues in South Africa, Trump announced on Twitter that he asked his chief diplomat to look into “large scale killings” of white South African farmers.
“I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to 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.” @TuckerCarlson @FoxNews,” Trump tweeted.
Trump was referring to an announcement by South Africa’s ruling African National Congress that it sought to change the constitution in order to redistribute land and bridge deep inequalities stemming from decades of white minority rule.
It was one of Trump’s first tweets on Africa since he took office. It quickly posed a challenge for the State Department’s new top diplomat on Africa, Tibor Nagy, who took up the position of assistant secretary of state for African affairs several weeks ago after it had sat empty since Trump entered the White House. Trump also has yet to nominate an ambassador to South Africa.
On Thursday, the South African government criticized Trump’s tweet, saying in a statement that it “totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had discussed the issue with the president, but she offered no additional details on what action Pompeo would take next.
“We continue to encourage a peaceful and transparent public debate about what we could consider to be a very important issue in South Africa,” Nauert added.
One of the legacies of the Apartheid system is a profound inequality in land ownership. White South Africans comprise less than 10 percent of the country’s population but own some 72 percent of its agricultural land, according to data from the farm research group Agri SA.
The prospect of land redistribution and the specter of violence against white farmers have become rallying cries for far-right political groups and white nationalists in South Africa and the United States. Multiple studies have ruled out the suggestion that white farmers in South Africa would face mass violence in the process.
The State Department’s 2017 annual human rights report makes no mention of land seizures but does highlight racially motivated violence as an issue in the country.
Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said expropriation without compensation “would risk sending South Africa down the wrong path.”
The South African government insists that its land redistribution measures are not about invading and seizing land but about expanding opportunities for black South Africans to take over agricultural land that is currently lying fallow.
But critics of the policy look warily toward the example of neighboring Zimbabwe. In 2000, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe sent the national economy into a tailspin when he forcibly expropriated land from white Zimbabwean farmers and handed it to his political allies, sparking food shortages, long-term economic strife, and historic levels of hyperinflation.
“This is a super complex and evocative and difficult issue … for South Africa,” said Joshua Meservey, an Africa expert at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “There clearly needs to be land reform in South Africa, but it needs to be done in a responsible and fair manner.”
Jennifer Cooke, the director of George Washington University’s Institute for African Studies, said Trump’s tweet will only exacerbate racial and political tensions in South Africa. “It will fuel the populist elements that are looking for much faster redistribution of land, and it will fuel the white extremists” energized by attention from the U.S. president, she said.
This is the second Africa-related controversy Trump has stirred up. In January, he reportedly referred to African nations as “shithole countries” in an Oval Office outburst. African leaders widely condemned Trump for the remark.
The tweet added to a growing perception in Washington that Trump gives little thought or attention to the continent.
But Meservey said that would be nothing new.
“Africa is never really a priority for any administration. That’s just a reality of American foreign policy,” he said.
Meservey pointed out that top Trump administration officials had made visits to the continent, including Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; top Treasury department officials; and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, just before he was fired this year.
First lady Melania Trump announced this week that she would travel to Africa in October.