President Donald Trump’s comments on South Africa on Wednesday evening burst the bubble of political correctness that has long shielded that country’s leaders from responsibility for self-destructive policies that have hurt black and white South Africans alike.
Critics cried “racist” when Trump tweeted that he had told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”
The term “large scale” could be misconstrued: there are no mass graves of farmers. But the tweet was otherwise correct — and overdue.
Trump touched on two separate issues. The first is South Africa’s new policy of land reform.
Under colonialism and apartheid, black people were expropriated, while white farmers developed a thriving agricultural economy.
In 1996, South Africa’s new constitution provided for the restitution of lands that had been unjustly taken in the past, as well as for a more equal racial distribution of land in future. It rejected “arbitrary” expropriation, preferring a “willing buyer, willing seller” approach.
Yet critics have charged that land reform is not happening fast enough. They blame recalcitrant white farmers, or timid leaders who are too committed to racial reconciliation to pursue equality.
The real problem, however, is math: there are not enough black South Africans who want to farm. The rural poor prefer to live, work, and seek property in the cities.
Still, land ownership remains a potent symbol of the country’s past. Left-wing populists and African nationalists like the Hugo Chavez-inspired Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) use the issue to attract support.
And for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which is facing growing criticism for corruption and mismanagement, the land issue is a convenient distraction.
That is why President Cyril Ramaphosa backs a constitutional amendment aimed at expropriation without compensation.
The new push has frightened many South Africans, black and white, who worry that any threat to property rights will chase away the foreign investment on which the country depends. (South Africa’s economy contracted by 2.2% in the first quarter of 2018.)
South Africans also remember that Zimbabwe destroyed its once-thriving farming sector through the seizure of white-owned farms, beginning in 2000. Many farms went to ruling party cronies, and a country that once exported food soon fell into hunger. South Africans do not want to repeat that experience.
The other issue Trump mentioned is farm murders.
The fact-checkers at the Associated Press point out, correctly, that farm murders are part of the broader phenomenon of high crime in South Africa, and that the number of murders has been dropping. The AP also contends that there is no evidence farm murders are aimed at whites in particular — though radical politicians like EFF leader Julius Malema have openly called for white farmers to be killed.
Ultimately, even the AP concedes the murder rate on farms is higher. Whatever the reason, many farmers believe the government is not taking the problem seriously — and some suspect that the ruling party is is condoning crime to force them off the land.
Fifteen years ago, the government disarmed the “commando” units, a volunteer force that patrolled rural areas where police are scarce. Little has happened to reassure farmers since. The outbreak of race riots in the rural town of Coligny last year, after a black teenager was killed in disputed circumstances, has sharpened fears.
One does not need to believe far-right hysteria about a “race war” to be concerned.
Dr. James Myburgh, the editor of the nonpartisan South African political website PoliticsWeb, argued in June that farm murders were indeed rooted in racial political rhetoric during the struggle against apartheid:
Though there has been no shortage of intellectuals willing to argue the contrary over the years, the prevalence of this type of murder (especially in rural areas) is clearly abnormal, the age profile of the murder victims (usually elderly) is abnormal, and the level of brutality often involved is abnormal. That these high levels of farm attacks and murders have been sustained for close to three decades is also abnormal. In this period there have been around 2 400 people killed and many others seriously injured and/or left psychologically scarred for life, in over 15 000 farm attacks. …
[T]he farm attack phenomenon in South Africa has a very particular political history behind it. In the mid-1980s the ANC’s top leadership explicitly defined white farmers as the “enemy.”
That rhetoric may have been hard to reverse.
Land reform and farm murders are very important to anyone who cares about South Africa and its future. They are debated in South Africa’s free press, and taken up by the country’s leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (for which I worked for four years as a speechwriter).
Yet while the opposition governs several major cities, the ANC dominates national politics. Corruption has flourished under its hegemonic rule, so much so that South Africans now talk about “state capture,” i.e. kleptocracy.
In the absence of effective domestic opposition, international criticism is necessary to warn South Africa of the risks of its current path. Yet when Tucker Carlson of Fox News approached the State Department, it defended the South African government without expressing concern for property rights, public safety, or non-racialism.
Such boilerplate as “South Africa is a strong democracy with resilient institutions” is inadequate when facing the fact that the ANC is about to drive the country to ruin.
The State Department’s milquetoast response reveals the stifling political correctness that has prevented the U.S. and other Western countries from speaking honestly about South Africa’s misguided policies. The South African government’s official response to Trump’s tweet was also telling: “South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) followed suit, dismissing Trump’s tweet as merely a “base stimulator.”
Dismissing Trump’s criticism as divisive — when it is a response to division — and calling it colonial or racist merely ensures bad policies will continue, hurting black South Africans as well as white.
As Temba A. Nolutshungu of South Africa’s Free Market Foundation wrote just before Trump’s tweet: “Expropriation of land without compensation means everyone who owns property or aspires to do so is equally vulnerable. While white-owned land is being targeted for expropriation, black-owned land would not be exempted.”
The South African Institute of Race Relations also embraced Trump’s position on land reform, issuing a statement Thursday in which it said that Trump’s tweet confirmed its warnings that expropriation without compensation would hurt the country’s image.
The statement concluded by observing: “It is remarkable that South Africa’s government is apparently willing to risk its own economic interests for a policy choice that will do nothing to resolve the issues for which it is nominally being adopted.”
The damage is more than economic. Reports are emerging that the prospect of expropriation without compensation is fueling xenophobic violence by black South Africans against other Africans, who are perceived as occupying property that is not “theirs.”
Writer Gabriel Crouse reported Wednesday that Zimbabwean immigrants in Johannesburg were being threatened because “for weeks a van had been driving around Yeoville with a loudspeaker calling for expropriation of foreigners without compensation.”
Successive U.S. presidents have declined to speak plainly to South Africa’s leaders. When President George W. Bush visited South Africa in 2003, he had a unique opportunity to criticize President Thabo Mbeki’s support for Zimbabwe. Instead, he announced that Mbeki was his “point man” on the issue. The destruction continued.
Trump’s tweet, in contrast, ignored the pieties of the foreign policy establishment and offered criticism South Africa urgently needs to hear — before it is too late.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.