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South Africa

‘You racist bigot’: Trump finally found something to tweet about Africa, but it didn’t end well

The US President’s tweet about land seizures from white farmers and ‘large scale killings’, which followed a Fox News segment on the subject, has stunned many South Africans

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 2:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 8:21pm

By now, many Africans cringe whenever “Trump” and their continent are mentioned together.

It’s happened again. In a tweet containing inaccurate comments, President Donald Trump said he had instructed his secretary of state to “closely study” alleged land seizures from white farmers in South Africa. The issue is racially divisive almost a quarter-century after the end of apartheid, the system of white minority rule.

Trump rarely turns his attention to Africa – the tweet was his first since he became president to mention the continent by name – but when he does it often backfires.

The most shocking example came earlier this year when Trump reportedly called African nations “s***hole” countries. Outraged countries swiftly summoned US ambassadors to explain the comment – much as South Africa on Thursday was reaching out to the US Embassy to clarify the latest remarks.

Many South Africans were stunned. “A racist bigot,” the morning host of one of the country’s most popular talk radio stations, Eusebius McKaiser, told listeners before opening the airwaves to lively debate about Trump’s comments.

“South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past,” said the government on an official Twitter account.

Trump’s tweet appeared just days after first lady Melania Trump took a very different approach to Africa, announcing she would be visiting several countries on the continent in October in her first big solo international trip. She said she looked forward to learning about the issues children face and appreciating Africa’s history and culture.

It was the latest hint that the first lady might be subtly separating herself from her husband and his controversial views.

The last time Trump referred to Africa on Twitter was in early 2015, before his presidential ambitions were taken seriously by much of the public.

Again, it was about South Africa. He made clear he was no fan of the country’s security situation, tweeting: “As I have long been saying, South Africa is a total – and very dangerous – mess.” It echoed a tweet from 2013: “I really like Nelson Mandela but South Africa is a crime ridden mess that is just waiting to explode – not a good situation for the people!”

Since becoming president, Trump has largely left Africa to drift, meeting only a handful of African heads of state and leaving key diplomatic positions – the ambassador to South Africa, for one – unfilled. It took a year and a half to name the top Africa diplomat in the State Department.

Trump also fired his previous secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, hours after Tillerson ended a multi-country Africa visit earlier this year in an effort to mend badly frayed ties.

Now some observers say Trump is using his latest Africa comments to try to deflect attention from his sprawling legal troubles at home.

“The President of the US needs political distractions to turn our gaze away from his criminal cabal, and so he’s attacking South Africa with the disproven racial myth of ‘large scale killings of farmers,’” Patrick Gaspard, a former US ambassador to South Africa, tweeted on Thursday. “This man … has no discernible Africa policy.”

The South African foreign ministry said in a statement it had met US embassy officials and warned them over the “alarmist, false, inaccurate and misinformed, as well as – in some cases – politically-motivated statements,” on the issue.

Foreign Minister Lindiwe Sisulu will also speak directly with her American opposite number, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it said earlier.

Trump had written overnight: “I have asked Secretary of State … Pompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”

His tweet apparently followed a segment on conservative Fox News about Pretoria’s plan to change the constitution to speed up expropriation of land without compensation to redress racial imbalances in land ownership.

“’South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers’,” said Trump’s post, which tagged the show’s host, Tucker Carlson, as well as the channel.

In the clip, Carlson painted an apocalyptic picture of the situation accompanied by on-screen graphics warning of the “threat of violence and economic collapse”.

Murders of farmers in South Africa are at a 20-year low, research by one of the country’s biggest farmers’ organisations claimed this year.

Forty-seven farmers were killed in 2017-18, according to statistics compiled by AgriSA, an association of hundreds of agricultural associations across South Africa. This is consistent with a steady decline since a peak of violence in 1998 when 153 died.

Between 80 and 100 were murdered each year from 2003 to 2011, and around 60 until 2016. Statistics for farm murders also include farmworkers, who are usually not white and who are also often hurt in violent attacks. Dozens of non-white farmers have been killed since 2001.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who faces elections in 2019, has claimed expropriating farms without compensating their owners would “undo a grave historical injustice” against the black majority during colonialism and the apartheid era.

Even though apartheid ended in 1994, the white community that makes up eight per cent of the population “possess 72 per cent of farms” compared to “only four per cent” in the hands of black people who make up four-fifths of the population, Ramaphosa said.

The stark inequality stems from purchases and seizures during the colonial era that were then enshrined in law during apartheid.

But plans to change the constitution have yet to be approved by parliament, and there is a vigorous debate in South Africa about how land redistribution would work – and whether seizures could be economically damaging as they were in post-independence Zimbabwe.

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party which opposes forced expropriation but backs land reform, said “fear mongering by international leaders adds no value”.

“The injustices of land dispossession in South Africa can be addressed by our constitution in its current form. We must ensure ownership of land for all South Africans,” he tweeted.

On Monday, Trump faces another chance to address the continent when he welcomes just the second African head of state to a White House meeting, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Additional reporting by The Guardian and Agence France-Presse