President Trump tweeted on August 22 that he has directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures” and the “large scale killing of farmers.” In his tweet, the president quoted Fox News host Tucker Carlson that “South African government is now seizing land from white farmers.” Carlson had interviewed Marian Tupy, a senior policy analyst at a conservative Washington think tank, who recently penned an article calling on Trump to “warn South Africa on land expropriations,” comparing the new South African policy with that of Zimbabwe. Among a number of rebukes from South African media, civil society, and government, Deputy President Mabuza stated that, “as the leadership of the ANC and government, we are clear that the implementation of land reform measures must not result in social fractures and racial polarization.”
The widespread killing of white farmers is a trope of AfriForum, a predominately Afrikaner organization opposed to land reform on the basis that it is a threat to South Africa’s white population. In June, an AfriForum delegation visited Washington, D.C., and met with, among others, think tanks, the office of Senator Ted Cruz, USAID, and appeared on Carlson’s show. However, the far more credible AgriSA, an industry group, indicates that farm murders are at a nineteen-year low. With respect to the land issue as well as the murder rate, statistics are generally poor. Nobody really knows how many white farmers there are, nor is there a consensus definition of "farmer" or "farm worker," which clouds the data. Furthermore, statistics as to the racial distribution of land ownership in South Africa are also in dispute. That being said, that white South Africans own a majority of land and account for an outsized proportion of economic activity is clear.
There is a general consensus in South Africa on the need for land reform, but less over what it should look like. The governing African National Congress has called for constitutional amendments that could broaden or clarify the government’s current ability to expropriate land without compensation, which already exists in the constitution as it is. President Cyril Ramaphosa has stated that land reform will follow the rule of law, and that its implementation must not adversely affect economic growth or food security. The issue of land reform is being dealt with in a transparent political process now underway. Reform will likely incorporate both the “release” of public or tribal trust land for redistribution, as well as “expropriation” without compensation from private individuals.
For outsiders, the South African debate over land reform is distorted by the experience of Zimbabwe. The Mugabe regime expropriated without compensation private land using vigilante violence and ignoring the rule of law and the rulings of the judiciary. By contrast, South Africa is a constitutional democracy with a record of following the law. The constitution limits what parliament can do and acknowledges the right to private property. Whatever the outcome of the current political process, the results will likely be challenged in the courts, which have a history of standing up to the government. Its decisions cannot be ignored by the government. A recent example clearly illustrates the fundamental difference between South Africa and Zimbabwe. The political transition in South Africa from former President Jacob Zuma, accused of hundreds of counts of corruption, to current President Ramaphosa occurred within legal and constitutional bounds and even followed ANC party procedure. In Zimbabwe, by contrast, President Robert Mugabe was deposed by his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, with the help of the military in a thinly-veiled coup. For the umpteenth time, South Africa is not Zimbabwe.