Daily Maverick

Trump’s latest Twittattack on South Africa provokes stormy reactions

US President Donald J. Trump prays before handing the Medal of Honor to Valerie Nessel, widow of Air Force Tech Sgt. John Chapman, who was awarded the nation's highest military decoration for his actions in Afghanistan in 2002 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 22 August 2018. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

It was “unfortunate” that the United States first citizen should tweet that South Africa’s Constitution had been changed – it hasn’t! – Communication Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said on Thursday. But the matter would be taken up through diplomatic channels, with South Africa’s ambassadors always at hand to provide the correct information. As the latest Twitter storm emanating from US President Donald Trump’s social media comment hit South Africa, the only ones pleased seemed to be AfriForum, and perhaps the Freedom Front Plus.

It dropped at 4.28am South African time. US President Donald Trump,  @realDonaldTrump, tweeted:

The tweet followed a factually incorrect and misleading 6.54 minute insert by Fox News Network presenter Tucker Carlson – “The president of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa has begun… seizing land from his own citizens without compensation because they are the wrong skin colour…” are his opening comments – that has more to do with US alt-right right-wing politics steeped in the “alternative facts” often touted by the Trump administration – and getting a dig in at former US president Barack Obama, than anything else.

The response at the start of the South African news day was swift – and without hesitation. International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu would “get clarity” on the US presidential tweet through the diplomatic channels, confirmed Khusela Diko, spokesperson for President Cyril Ramaphosa:

We do not intend to respond to President Trump via social media, but will go through the appropriate diplomatic channels,” Diko told Daily Maverick, adding there was a lot of misinformation around.

We reject any insinuation of lawlessness.”

Less than 20 hours earlier Ramaphosa had stood in the National Assembly emphasising land reform, including expropriation without compensation, would be done in line with the rule of law and the Constitution. “We’d like to move away from this fear psychosis,” said the president in reference to AfriForum’s campaigning, also overseas.

The ANC wants to make sure there is land reform that will lead to growth of our economy, that will increase agricultural production and food security.”

On Thursday morning, as the response to Trump’s tweet reverberated across South Africa’ body politic, Deputy President David “DD” Mabuza had the same message at the land summit hosted by organised agriculture AgriSA and Landbou Weekblad in Bela-Bela, Limpopo.

Everything we do will be done within the confines of our constitutional framework. As the ANC, we will not support land grab processes intended to undermine the economy and the work of the agriculture sector,” said Mabuza in his prepared speech on Thursday morning. And like Ramaphosa on Wednesday afternoon, he cautioned against scare mongering:

We would like to discourage those who are using this sensitive and emotive issue of land to divide us as South Africans by distorting our land reform measures to the international community, and spreading falsehoods that our ‘white farmers’ are facing the onslaught from their own government. This is far from the truth.”

Zizi Kodwa, ANC presidential spokesperson at Luthuli House, did not mince his words:

(Trump) is a modern leader of the Ku Klux Klan, very divisive, using fear factor and swart gevaar to polarise South Africa’s diverse racial groups”.

The tweet failed to understand the progress South Africa has made since 1994, including addressing inequality. “The issue of the land for us is important… We are talking about creating certainty for the future.”

Trump’s tweet, and the Fox broadcast, have come as Parliament’s constitutional review committee is engaging with the public submissions and hearings on a constitutional amendment for expropriation. The deadline is end of September to finalise a report to be adopted by the House. And then another process unfolds for a constitutional amendment, with further public hearings, public comments and inputs. So the process by any means is not yet over.

At Parliament, Communications Minister Nomvula Mokonyane took a much more diplomatic line. “It’s unfortunate that the first citizen of the US can say we have amended the Constitution,” she said adding that one would have thought the first step would be to verify and check things that were broadcast.

We have a responsibility to communicate with the world… We are sending information to our different missions,” said Mokonyane, adding later that tweet would not determine future relations between South Africa and the US. And much work is being done on communicating the land and other issues by Brand South Africa, particularly in Australia and the UK.

It was in those two countries that the first ructions of a right-wing campaign around South Africa’s so-called white genocide emerged earlier in 2018. Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was reprimanded for speaking out of turn when he offered special visas in March 2018 for white South African farmers. And a visit by the controversial British columnist and TV presenter Katie Hopkins to South Africa to uncover white genocide turned odd as she appeared to have digested Ketamine.

But AfriForum is sticking to its story, be it land or white farmer’s murders – and welcomed Trump’s tweet. AfriForum CEO Kallie Kriel told Daily Maverick on Thursday that while it had participated in most of the public hearings on land conducted by Parliament’s constitutional review committee, that changed for the grouping when Ramaphosa announced on 31 July that there would be a constitutional amendment. That announcement had prejudged the whole process.

There had been “no choice”, but to lobby internationally, not only on land, but also on the killings of white farmers. When asked whether this was not tantamount of taking South Africa’s political issues, particularly the land issue, to the alt-right overseas agenda, Kriel dismissed alt-right, and insisted it was the patriotic thing to do:

We are acting in the interest of the country,” he said. “We can stop the South African government to destroy the economy as happened in Zimbabwe and Venezuela.”

Co-incidentally AfriForum’s international lobbying on land comes as domestically there’s been a toenadering between the government, the governing ANC and organised agriculture. AgriSA over the past few days met not only Ramaphosa in his capacity as head of state, but also ANC Treasurer Paul Mashatile and Mabuza in his capacity as ANC deputy president. AgriSA welcomed both meetings as “constructive”, and as a foundation towards building partnerships for growth.

If there may be a disjunct with AgriSA, AfriForum finds partners in the Freedom Front Plus, which has also toured overseas. On Wednesday Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald told Ramaphosa in the House:

I have a message for the President from other farmers. The message is that they will not voluntarily give up their land.”

There is a timeline and a backstory here. In May AfriForum toured internationally, meeting US lawmakers and also those working for the Cato Institute. Key to Carlson’s touted “exclusive” on South Africa’s land issue, that led to Trump’s tweet, was one Marian Tupy from that Cato Institute. Co-incidentally, most of his commentary was on Zimbabwe.

AfriForum’s international lobby is on land expropriation, given the ANC December 2017 national conference resolution, but also regarding farm murders, which AfriForum and other conservative groupings, and also the Freedom Front Plus, insist is disproportionately higher.

It’s a line that’s maintained even though the official crime statistics do not bear this out. AfriCheck dismissed as unproven claims about white genocide in November 2016, and again earlier this year examined farm attacks and killings which on the current official methodology did not indicate any disproportional targeting of white farmers.

EFF leader Julius Malema said Trump’s tweet made the party more determined to expropriate land without compensation.

There is no white genocide here. That’s absolute rubbish. There is black genocide in the US…” he said in a media briefing broadcast on eNCA. “AfriForum is the embassy of the US.”

The EFF is clear: land must be nationalised and be under control of the state. In contrast the messaging around expropriation without compensation by the governing ANC and government has been scattered, perhaps not surprisingly as the issue is at the heart of pre-2019 election electioneering across the political landscape. But there has always been one consistency – it would all be done legally and in line with the Constitution.

If Mokonyane as government’s leading spin doctor was concerned about the whole land reform and compensationless expropriation, she didn’t show it. With regards to the Trump tweet, that had been widely criticised across the South African political landscape, she said: “I think it’s a matter we can handle. There’ll will be another tweet at the end of the day…We are fine”. DM

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