The phone rings and rings at six thirty in the morning. I am still asleep, but it is a news chief of a major television network, asking for analysis and comment about Donald Trump’s latest tweet storm. Oh no, what is it this time?
There has already been a tsunami of material on the way the US president responded (or had failed to respond) to the guilty convictions of his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, by one federal court, and the guilty pleas by his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, in yet another federal court. And how all of that is going to affect the legitimacy and future of his presidency.
Undoubtedly making Donald Trump’s temper even more unhinged has been breaking news on Thursday in Washington that long-time Trump defender and friend, David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, had begun co-operating with the special prosecutor, Robert Mueller. Pecker apparently has now begun to offer corroboration of Michael Cohen’s story that he, Cohen, had arranged hush money payments – just before the 2016 election – to two women with whom Donald Trump had had affairs earlier. Such payments are being seen as sub rosa, unreported campaign contributions designed to alter the campaign landscape favourably towards Trump.
But, no, this time it is something much closer to home. Overnight, our time in Johannesburg, Donald Trump has lashed out at South Africa, tweeting about the ongoing genocide of white farmers, as the South African government is expropriating farms and encouraging lawless, mass farm occupations by landless poor people. And that he was instructing his Secretary of State to find out what the heck was going on in a part of the world that, up until a minute before that tweet, he, Trump, had heretofore evinced little or no interest in, except to excoriate it.
(The normal practice, if something piqued presidential interest late in the evening, would be to ask for a thorough briefing from the State Department – and State would have queried the respective embassy, and other agencies, for any needed updates. But not this man.) Hunh? What?
It is now 06:45, and struggling onward to a computer, and with a double portion of very strong coffee in hand, the various television news channels on full blast, we track down what has happened, in preparation for the first of many interviews and commentaries. (Here is a video clip of that first interview.)
On Wednesday evening, on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, there was an extended commentary by Carlson that relies on an article – and additional comments – from Marian Tupy, a senior researcher with the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. Carlson is one of Fox News’ hot properties, and he has a reliably, even determinedly right-wing, nearly alt.right, position on all things political (in addition to a snarky disposition and a near-permanent smirk on his face). Tupy is a former South African with – apparently – something of a grudge against the current government. And Cato, one of dozens of think tank/policy advocacy groups in the capital, in its stance, is the avatar of libertarian and right-wing political agitprop in America.
The gist of their collective tale seems, in turn, to have been based on recent presentations of groups like AfriForum, to the point that there is an insidious, ongoing campaign to kill off South Africa’s white farmers, and to have rural black people ruthlessly seize and occupy their land. With government encouragement. And that further, if some kind of dramatic intervention isn’t done from the outside, immediately, to protect these rural folk, South Africa will be extremely lucky if it doesn’t metastasise into a larger rural holocaust in the Zimbabwean mould.
Representatives of AfriForum had, in fact, been in the US a while back, peddling this story, and Cato researchers were apparently on their itinerary. According to Tupy, as these land seizures proceed, that could put South Africa’s eligibility for AGOA under threat.
Throughout the day, not surprisingly, holding its metaphorical tongue just a bit, the South African government announced it had called the US Embassy to show up at the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) to explain what the US president had said – or meant.
According to a public note that generally conformed to the usual diplomatic niceties:
“Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Ms Lindiwe Sisulu, has noted the unfortunate comments on Twitter by the President of the United States of America, H.E. Donald J. Trump, on land redistribution and crime. It is regrettable that the tweet is based on false information. The Minister has thus instructed the Department to meet with the US Embassy in Pretoria to seek clarification on the matter today, 23 August 2018. Minister Sisulu will also communicate with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on the matter through diplomatic channels. Minister Sisulu said South Africa has good political, economic and trade relations with the United States of America and that diplomatic channels remain open to provide clarity on issues of mutual interest.”
By contrast, EFF leader Julius Malema – seizing the chance to skewer Donald Trump, the Democratic Alliance, Cyril Ramaphosa, and anybody else he has wanted to pick a fight with publicly in recent days – was more melodramatic, coming across as something like an alternative version of Donald Trump. Taking the centre stage, Malema said his party was ready to go war over the issue of land. Here we go again with the war talk.
Pouring high-grade aviation fuel on this new fire, Malema told his Thursday media conference:
“We must be prepared for Donald Trump and all of them. We are not scared of them. We remain unshaken; actually, we are more determined after the Donald Trump tweet to appropriate our land without compensation. There is not white genocide here, there is black genocide in the US… they are killing black people… are not scared of such things. We are not going to be distracted by anyone, only death will stop us. Not Trump, not poverty, not sanctions… we know all consequences of what we are asking for.”
So far at least, neither the US Embassy nor the South African government has announced the results of the called-for meeting to explain Donald Trump’s tweet. To some observers back in Washington, like so many other inventions of the current White House, the real intention of this latest rant is really about shoring up support with Trump’s base supporters who largely believe the narrative that in the US, and indeed around the world, white people are under existential threat, and such things must be called out and repelled whenever and wherever possible.
At least one US-based, veteran student of South African developments told me:
“I suspect that this issue will blow over in a few days. It’s not inconceivable, though, that the story could become a regular feature in right-wing media – it’s tailor-made for audiences who feel that white people are being victimised by non-whites all over the world. If that happens, more US politicians will take it up.”
And then we will have a real, ongoing tempest between the two countries.
He then added some advice for South Africans to consider, advice I fully agree with:
“To the extent that the South African government wants to speak to American audiences at all, it should stress the lawfulness of the process, the consultative nature of the process, the buy-in from groups like AgriSA, and the long-term goal of bringing blacks into the private market economy – of making capitalism work for everyone.”
In fact, something of the same approach was already suggested by Communications Minister Nomvula Mokonyane in her post-Cabinet meeting readout. She said that South Africa has needed to explain more thoroughly how the current debate on land is boisterous and widespread, but it is precisely the kind if thing one expects in a democratic state. In a snit fight like this is becoming, someone has to be the adult in the room, especially when the US president is not. DM
In other news...
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.
In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."
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Bladerunner (1980s version) is a visual feast due in large part to the Hollywood Actors Strike. This allowed the designers an extra three months to refine the sets and props.