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On South Africa land reform, Trump muddies a complex debate

President Cyril Ramaphosa responds during his Question and Answer session in Parliament on March 14, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa responds to questions about land reform in Parliament on March 14, 2018, in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Jaco Marais/Netwerk24/Gallo Images via Getty Images

President Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he has directed Secretary of State Pompeo to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures” and the “large scale killing of farmers,” quoting Fox News host Tucker Carlson's claim that the “South African government is now seizing land from white farmers.”

Reality check: Although the widespread killing of white farmers is a favorite trope of AfriForum — an Afrikaner organization that views land reform as a threat to white South Africans — such violence is in fact at a 19-year low, by some measures.

Background: Carlson had interviewed a senior policy analyst at a conservative Washington think tank, who recently wrote an article calling on Trump to “warn South Africa on land expropriations,” comparing the new South African policy with that of Zimbabwe — a common distortion of the debate.

But South Africa is manifestly not Zimbabwe: The Mugabe regime expropriated, without compensation, private land using vigilante violence and ignoring the rule of law. By contrast, South Africa is a constitutional democracy with a record of following the law and with a strong and independent judiciary. The constitution limits what parliament can do and acknowledges the right to private property, while South African media and civil society play a critical role in keeping the government honest. Land reform will be carried out in a transparent political process and the results will likely be challenged in the courts, which have a history of standing up to the government and whose decisions are not ignored.

The bottom line: With respect to the land issue as well as the murder rate, statistics are generally poor. There is not a consensus definition of farmer or farm worker, or how many of them are white, which doubtlessly clouds what statistics there are. That being said, that white South Africans own a majority of land and account for an outsized proportion of economic activity is clear, and there is a general consensus that land reform needs to happen, just not how.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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