Tyler McBrien is a research associate for education at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The land reform debate in South Africa has recently reached a fever pitch following parliament’s passage of a motion that opens the door for land expropriation without compensation through a constitutional amendment. Much of the country’s right wing, notably Afrikaans-speaking white descendants of early Dutch settlers known as Afrikaners, have mobilized against the February motion.
Parliament's actions come on the heels of growing discontent over the extreme disparity in wealth between white and black South Africans, which remains virtually unchanged two decades after apartheid. Land ownership, though only part of the poverty story, has emerged as a potent symbol of this racial inequality. Called South Africa’s “original sin” by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the dispossession of black-owned land and continued disproportionate white ownership features prominently in policy agendas and newspapers alike.
AfriForum, a self-described Afrikaner rights group, has positioned itself as an especially vocal critic of land expropriation, which the group views as an existential threat to white South Africans. In their campaign against expropriation without compensation, AfriForum has launched appeals abroad, raising the specter of the murder of white farmers and stoking fears of “white genocide” among American, European, and Australian leaders and media outlets.
AfriForum can be convincing. On their trip to Washington, DC, in May, AfriForum heads Kallie Kriel and Ernst Roets visited, among other people and places, the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank. Following their visit, one senior policy analyst concluded that the “explicitly racist” policies of the current South African government echoed those under apartheid. Thousands have petitioned President Donald Trump to accept white South Africans as refugees to the United States. Australia’s home affairs minister urged his government to issue emergency visas to white farmers who needed protection from a “civilized country.” AfriForum’s activism has led to headlines like Newsweek’s “A White Farmer is Killed Every Five Days in South Africa and Authorities Do Nothing About It, Activists Say” and a Fox News segment that was accompanied by “White farmers are being brutally murdered in South Africa for their land. And no one is brave enough to talk about it.”
Due to unreliable or unavailable data, calculating the farm murder rate is a tricky business, and ascribing a racial motivation even trickier. Nevertheless, AfriForum regularly presents a misleading narrative and ignores data that undermines their claims. Numerous fact-checkers have explained in detail why their numbers do not tell the whole story. Caveats to the data notwithstanding, and though horrific farm murders do happen, a recent report based on police statistics, original research, and media reports from AgriSA, a South African agricultural industry association, found that farm murders are at a twenty-year low.
Even beyond their spread of questionable statistics, AfriForum members routinely engage in apparent apartheid revisionism. Its leaders have argued apartheid was not a crime against humanity and have defended apartheid symbols. Despite AfriForum’s almost three-hundred-thousand-strong membership and self-portrayal as a civil rights organization, U.S. policymakers and foreign governments in general would do well to be cautious of AfriForum’s characterization of the “plight” of white South Africans.