Even if it was intended as a distraction from the legal madness of the week, President Donald Trump’s latest race-baiting message shouldn’t be ignored. The president tweeted a bizarre non sequitur on Wednesday, warning of the supposed perils facing white farmers in South Africa.
Trump said he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study” the “large scale killing” of white farmers in South Africa and the expropriation of their land. Trump’s concern was apparently prompted — like so much of his commentary on social media — by something he saw on Fox News, in this case a segment on Tucker Carlson’s evening show. Carlson, who has used his prime-time spot to broadcast fringe talking points from white nationalists, anti-feminists and far-right xenophobes, alleged that the State Department was standing aside as South African authorities carried out a campaign to dispossess whites.
In fact, the data shows that slayings of South African farmers are at a two-decade low. Moreover, Carlson ignored the context in which these expropriations — which have yet to take place — are being discussed. The redistribution of land is a fundamental part of dismantling South Africa’s apartheid state, which was built on the legal dispossession of blacks. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, efforts toward redistribution have been piecemeal and inadequate, with a minority of whites still owning a huge majority of the country’s agricultural land.
“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,” my colleagues reported.
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Land reform is now the subject of heated political debate in South Africa and may overshadow elections next year. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa wants to accelerate redistribution as a way to cope with the entrenched inequities within South African society. One measure under consideration is a constitutional amendment that would permit expropriation of land without compensation, a move its proponents believe is just in light of South Africa’s history of colonial plunder and racist domination.
“This is no land grab. Nor is it an assault on the private ownership of property,” Ramaphosa wrote in the Financial Times last week. He argued that he and his governing party, the African National Congress, did not want to “erode property rights” but “instead ensure that the rights of all South Africans, and not just those who currently own land, are strengthened.”
We don’t know whether Trump knew or cared about any of this context, but his message set off alarm bells. “It is extremely disturbing that the president of the United States echoed a long-standing and false white supremacist claim that South Africa’s white farmers are targets of large-scale, racially-motivated killings by South Africa’s black majority,” noted a statement from the Anti-Defamation League. “We would hope that the president would try to understand the facts and realities of the situation in South Africa, rather than repeat disturbing, racially divisive talking points used most frequently by white supremacists.”
Patrick Gaspard, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, saw Trump’s tweet as a cynical gambit by a president who has shown no actual interest in Africa, tweeting “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’
“This man has never visited the continent and has no discernible Africa policy”
And, in a tweet, the South African government rejected Trump’s comments: “South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past. #landexpropriation @realDonaldTrump @PresidencyZA”
But the Western far right, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, hailed Trump’s message. For many, South Africa is ground zero for the mythic “white genocide,” in which liberals and nonwhites are building a world where miscegenation and immigration threaten the future of the white race. Activism by an Afrikaner nationalist organization representing white farmers encouraged far-right voices elsewhere to give that fever dream a glimmer of plausibility.
American and European far-right figures have embarked on “journalistic” missions to South Africa to discover more, producing videos of terrified white farmers that proliferate through social media. Their aim is to cast South Africa’s multicultural, multiracial democracy as a warning for the majority-white West.
“Ultimately, the alt-right’s white nationalist field trip to South Africa is not really about Africa, but shoring up a domestic policy agenda which is anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim,” Michael Bueckert wrote for the blog Africa Is a Country. “Whether explicitly or implicitly, the defense of white supremacy at home is the ideological thread that underlines the entire alt-right attention to South African whites. Nobody wants the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to fail more than these people do.”
Meanwhile, the far right has a conspicuous nostalgia for the racist colonial regimes that once ruled southern Africa. Dylann Roof, the white-nationalist gunman who murdered nine black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015, maintained a blog called the Last Rhodesian, a reference to the white settler state that once ran what is now Zimbabwe.
Analysts tracking hate groups in the United States have seen a surge in pro-Rhodesian messaging that extends well beyond Roof. Online stores have emerged to hawk memorabilia echoing the slogans of the brutal Rhodesian paramilitaries of the 1970s and 1980s.
“All the talk right now among people in the alt-right and the broader white supremacist movement is about the need for a white ethno-state. And when you praise Rhodesia, in this context, what you’re praising is violence to that end,” Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center told the New York Times. “There were no defenses for apartheid regimes and colonialism 20 years ago. And now all of a sudden we’re seeing this stuff pop up.”
Such arguments may still be on the margins of the American political conversation, but figures such as Carlson are increasingly bringing them into living rooms each night. And, as my colleagues report, Trump’s parroting of Carlson’s agenda is part of the White House’s own strategy to play on white grievance and fear of immigration ahead of this year’s midterm elections.
“The pipeline that Trump and his allies have built between hate groups and the mainstream isn’t accidental, unwitting, or merely the product of being repeatedly taken in by grifters,” Vann Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic. “This is what was always promised with the refrain of ‘Make America Great Again,’ a dog whistle that many minorities were once ridiculed for properly hearing.”
That dog whistle is now as loud as a siren.