There’s an old rule in crisis PR: If you don’t like what people are saying, change the conversation — to one about “white genocide” in South Africa.
Or, so the president of the United States appears to believe. Amid an avalanche of damaging headlines (and serious legal challenges), Donald Trump announced Wednesday night that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”
By all accounts, the president’s statement was not prompted by any intelligence briefing, or appeal from international human rights organizations, but rather, by a segment on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. Which makes sense: Although empirical evidence shows there is no “large-scale killing” of white farmers in South Africa, white nationalists have been promoting that idea for years — and Tucker Carlson has been promoting white nationalist ideas for most of the Trump presidency.
Here’s a quick explanation of what is actually happening in South Africa, and how our president came to echo neo-Nazi lies about what is happening there.
It is true that the South African government is trying to expropriate some white farmers’ land.
In the 19th century, a minority of white colonists (known as Afrikaners) dominated South Africa’s black majority through terror and violence. In the second half of the 20th, it did so through a formal system of legal discrimination known as apartheid (and through terror and violence).
Under apartheid, black South Africans were barred from owning virtually all of their country’s agricultural land. Thus, by the time South Africa became a democracy in 1994, whites accounted for 10 percent of its population, but owned roughly 90 percent of its land. The question of how to redress this immense inequality in the distribution of South Africa’s natural wealth has loomed over the country ever since. Only marginal progress has been made on this front in the past 24 years: Today, the 8 percent of South Africans who have light skin own 73 percent of all agricultural land, according to the farmers association Agri SA.
In 2016, the South African parliament passed a law empowering the government to force white land owners to forfeit their real estate — in exchange for market-price compensation — and to then redistribute said land to black South Africans. But the law did more to raise the expectations of the nation’s racial majority than it did to meet them. With redistribution proceeding at snail’s pace, a growing number of black South Africans began warming to the far-left, Economic Freedom Fighters party, and its proposal for nationalizing all of the country’s land. In response, the incumbent party, the African National Congress (ANC), amended the Constitution to allow the government to expropriate white landowners’ property without compensation.
Although the moral case for reparations in South Africa is bulletproof, one hardly needs to be a white nationalist to question the wisdom of executing such reparations through forced land redistribution (rather than through taxes and cash payments, more generous social welfare programs, etc.). After all, South Africa’s economy is heavily reliant on foreign capital. And if mass, uncompensated expropriation scares investors, South Africans of all skin tones could end up worse off. As Vox’s Jennifer Williams explains:
That move is being welcomed by many in the country, but not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea. Some, including investors, worry that it could trigger a catastrophic economic crisis like the one that occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe when it enacted similar reforms in 2000. There, rapid land seizures panicked investors, causing them to flee the market in droves. That led to massive hyperinflation and food shortages that effectively collapsed the country’s economy: Experts put the cost to Zimbabwe’s economy at around $20 billion.
It is not true that there has been “large-scale killing” of white farmers.
There is a lot of violent crime in South Africa. And sometimes, the victims of such crime are light-skinned farmers. In some cases, white farmers have been killed in such brutal fashion by dark-skinned assailants that it is reasonable to suspect that resentments rooted in the nation’s historic caste system played some part in the attacks.
But there is no “large -scale killing” farmers in South Africa, let alone of white farmers. The number of attacks and murders on South African farms has actually been sharply declining since the turn of this century. In the late 1990s, about 150 South African farmers were murdered each year; now, that number is below 50. Meanwhile, murder rates in white rural areas remain far lower than those in predominantly black townships — a pattern that is not perfectly consistent with the narrative that black South Africans have begun expropriating white land through mass murder.
These facts haven’t stopped white nationalists the world over from raising awareness about “white genocide” in South Africa.
White nationalists in the West love the idea that their “people” are facing imminent threat of oppression and/or genocide. This fantasy serves to justify white supremacy, by positing white dominance as the only alternative to white subjugation. Unfortunately for such Nazi lovers, white people remain both the majority population —- and the economically, socially, and politically dominant racial caste — in both the European Union and the United States. This unfortunate state of affairs leaves alt-right snowflakes struggling to pretend that satirical tweets, racially inclusive Cheerios commercials, and the musings of radical academics are literally white America’s Kristallnacht.
Given all this, it isn’t hard to understand why white nationalists the world-over would latch onto the cause of revanchist Afrikaners: Here’s a place where the white population is genuinely vulnerable to discrimination by a government dominated by nonwhites; where masses of black citizens are mobilizing to reclaim white families’ land; and where those families are sometimes murdered. It’s Richard Spencer’s nightmare come true! And the Jew media doesn’t want you to know about it!
AfriForum, a far-right Afrikaner lobbying group, has exploited the white nationalist community’s hunger for vicarious victimization. For years, the organization has been trying to alert the world to the (nonexistent) campaign of race-based killings that threatens their people’s survival. And neo-Nazis’s enthusiasm for their narrative has helped AfriForum gain a massive digital following.
It’s worth stipulating that Afrikaners — like any ethnic minority population in a democracy — have some real basis for fearing their collective vulnerability to the whims of the majority. And the fact that said majority recently won a right to expropriate white land — and is losing patience with their government’s attempt to honor that right while balancing the interests of white landowners — is a reasonable cause for some Afrikaners to worry about the prospect of mass, race-based violence.
But at present, no such violence — or indications of the imminent onset of such violence — exists. And white South Africans continue to command a wildly disproportionate share of their nation’s wealth, a privilege they owe to several generations of race-based brutality.
This reality will not stop Fox News from portraying a few dozen murders of white farmers in South Africa as an incipient genocide — just as the actual crime rate among American immigrants will not stop it from portraying an isolated murder of a college student in Iowa as a crisis of U.S. immigration policy.
And, of course, no concern for diplomacy or accuracy will stop our president from echoing any watered-down, white supremacist narrative he hears on Fox News; if it did, he probably wouldn’t be president in the first place.