Roiling our own Ethnic Debate, Trump and Carlson Miss the Mark on South Africa

Symbolic restitution of tribal lands is a minor inconvenience to white farmers, while for Africans and Coloureds, freedom is still bitter-sweet

by Caleb Stewart Rossiter (9/17/2018)

Donald Trump’s first tweet about Africa as president came August 22 after he watched a Fox News program hosted by Tucker Carlson:

I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.” @TuckerCarlson @FoxNews

As someone who taught college statistics in South Africa and taught college in America about South Africa, I can confidently say that it won’t take long for Secretary Pompeo to carry out his study for the president.  There are, in fact, no “land and farm seizures and expropriations,” and there has been no “large scale killing of farmers,” white or otherwise. 

The president and Carlson have effectively become partners in a campaign run by AfriForum, an offshoot of the Freedom Front Plus party, a fringe heir to the old apartheid party that received less than one percent of the vote in the last South African election.  This campaign pointedly plays on the fears of whites in Australia, Europe, and the United States about their status in their own country.     

Indeed, Carlson’s theme on his three programs on South Africa this year is AfriForum’s claim that white South Africans are victims of immoral, racist oppression, and are being “punished,” “persecuted,” and “targeted” for having white ancestors, for “having the wrong skin color.”  There is no place in this theme for the moral complexity of restoring property seized through war or discrimination, an issue faced by countries as diverse as Germany, Israel, Switzerland, the United States, and Poland.  After all, the tribal nations inside South Africa lost the lands in question a century ago because they too had the “wrong skin color.”

(Transparency Alert: My mother-in-law in Poland recently won a 20-year court case giving her back the family house that was seized by the Nazis 75 years ago because she and her siblings had fought in the Warsaw uprising.  The house was then taken over by the communist government after the war.  And much as I wish she would, since keeping up an extra house could bankrupt her, she ain’t givin’ it back!) 

If you listen to just a couple of minutes of Fox News, at any time, day or night, you’ll know it’s the “persecution” of American rather than South African whites that motivated Carlson: affirmative action, the Black Lives Matter movement, and whites being ostracized or fired for speaking out against them.  Although restitution of land and reparations for slavery and then segregation unfortunately do not appear to be on our horizon in America, Carlson and Trump have shoehorned the South African land issue into our own debate over race and nationalism, clarifying neither. 

Consider  these claims by Carlson, riffing off the refusal of America’s “elites” (variously defined as Democrats, the media, and the State Department) to endorse AfriForum’s narrative that the non-existent land seizures and the farm murders, which occur during robberies and at no greater rate than in other sectors of society, constitute a racist government conspiracy:          

Now our elites endorse the idea of a racial spoils system, and that’s the scariest part.  It’s far more ominous than whatever the corrupt and incompetent government of South Africa is doing.  Our ruling class now believes in collective punishment.  That should worry you, a lot. 

In the West we punish only the guilty.  We do not punish their descendants or everyone with the same hair or eye color.  For more than 200 years pretty much everyone in America agreed on those terms.  Now the people who run our country aren’t so sure.  Increasingly they think that generational guilt seems like a fine standard.  But where does that end up?  For a preview, let’s go back to South Africa. 

At this point Carlson puts up on the screen fringe politician Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ruling party for his race-baiting.  For two minutes we watch him rant about killing whites, some of whom were “trained as snipers by Jews.”  Carlson adds: “That right there is what our ruling class is now defending.  It does make you wonder about their motives.”  Of course, he can offer up not one “ruling class” American who defends Malema’s racism and anti-Semitism.  Similarly, without citing a single story as proof, Carlson slanderously states that, “in the American media there’s a sense that the people being murdered deserve it because of what their ancestors did.” 

A former Trump communications appointee at the State Department then joins Carlson to make the link with Fox’s domestic agenda even clearer.  He chimes in with his own whopper about how American leftists don’t care about crimes against “unauthorized victim groups” as opposed to “authorized ones that we’re allowed to be concerned about, you know, the various minority groups.”  White South Africans and America’s “forgotten people,” code in this context for white, Rust Belt voters, are among these unauthorized victims: 

When it comes to the president and other people, the vice president, defending Christians in the Middle East, even defending Muslims in Burma, defending Christians in Burma who are also believers, 60 churches burned there, defending Muslims in China, these are not the ordinary victim groups that the left cares about, and that flows over to our State Department bureaucracy at times…The president has been very good about some of the forgotten people, not only here in the United States, but people around the world who are beleaguered.  I mentioned Christians in the Middle East.  Really no one aside from Trump speaking up for them, not even the Pope…

As if the poor Pope doesn’t have enough problems!  Now he’s thrown in with the American left and State Department for not caring about “unauthorized victim groups.”  Of course, you could fill truckloads of paper with a list of all the statements and actions that give the lie to these allegations.  I’d start with former Congressman Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, whom I personally witnessed energetically using his Foreign Affairs subcommittee chairmanship to protect China’s Uighur Muslims when I was on his staff in the 2000’s.  But enough with the use of foreign controversy to fight out an American one – let’s get to the facts.    

The land seizure claim:

Since the advent of democracy in 1994 with the electoral victory of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), all transfers in South Africa of land stolen in 1913 by the white government through a Land Act dispossessing African tribal nations and individuals have been done by the constitutional and legal book.  Transfers occur at mutually-agreed commercial prices or, in the rarest of rarest of cases, after professional valuation and under due process supervised by South Africa’s independent courts and protective constitution. 

In a follow-up program Carlson corrected himself, dropping the scrolling news banner reading, “is now seizing white farms,” and airbrushing Trump’s use of it from the presidential tweet he proudly displayed.  He admitted that amending the Constitution to permit expropriation without compensation is still only a parliamentary proposal.  It has been referred to a committee for review. 

If it could gain the required, and unlikely, approval of two-thirds of Parliament as well as of the nine provincial councils, the amendment -- focused on rare situations like abandoned land and carrying its own protections of due process -- would still have little impact.  In a modernizing economy, fewer and fewer of South Africa’s 55 million people live, or want to live, on farms.  In this increasingly urbanized country, land reform is politically symbolic but of little practical importance.

Even as he retracted his claim that land was already being expropriated under a change in the Constitution, Carlson lobbed in a new allegation, that negotiations over a game farm in Limpopo province on land taken from a tribe in 1913 constitute a seizure without compensation.  But this is false: under the Constitution there must be fair compensation, and South Africa has developed a clear process for the few cases where the buyer and seller could not agree on price. 

The owners of the game farm had announced construction plans that they estimated would raise the value of the property to $5 million.  The construction did not take place, yet when the government offered $2 million on behalf of the tribe, matching an offer by a coal company, the owners raised their price to $20 million.  The government referred the valuation dispute to an independent firm that then assessed the property at $2 million.  The matter is still being fought out in South Africa’s courts -- real courts, independent courts, comparable in power to American courts.    

The 35,000 commercial farms in South Africa, many of them corporate operations, are a crucial part of the most successful economy in Africa, and will continue to be white-owned.  The 1994 deal between African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela and South African president F. W. de Klerk that brought democracy is still in force: the European ten percent of the population gets to keep the economy and the African 80 percent gets to control the government. 

This has been a good deal for both, as the government has used the growing revenues from the strongest economy in Africa to improve health and increase life expectancy by providing nearly universal electricity.  The revenues fund the consistent fossil and nuclear-fueled power needed to run the pumps at water purification plants that have delivered democratic South Africa’s greatest health and antipoverty achievement, universal clean water.

The killings claim:

After reviewing all the available studies and their methodologies, the generally neutral and well-respected Africa Check has decided that calculating a farm murder rate, let alone a white farmer murder rate, “is nearly impossible.”  The difficulty of defining a farm and tallying its residents means that data that are collected by different sources cannot be easily combined.  But we can see at a glance that Trump’s “large-scale” claim is way off base. 

Carlson addressed farm murders on his program not in August but rather during a May 16 interview with Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of AfriForum.  Using South African government data, Roets reported an average of two farmers murdered per week in the past two decades, for a total of 2,000 people.  Carlson’s discussion with Roets made it clear he thinks that these 2,000 people were white, although the South African police do not summarize crime victims and assailants by ethnicity.  A 2002 government survey estimated that 62 percent of people attacked on farms were white.    

The terror of robbery and home invasion is indeed a serious problem throughout all parts of South African society.  The invaders range from local thugs to well-organized foreign forces who outgun the police, and even the army.  Russian mafiosi have landed helicopters in game parks to kill rhinoceros and saw off their horns for sale abroad.  Namibian gangs run by former  SWAPO liberation fighters have sailed south to attack mansions in the Cape Town suburbs.       

The current average of one farmer murdered each week, down from three each week 15 years ago, is not exceptional in a country whose 19,000 annual murders create a rate of 34 killings per 100,000 people.  Even if all the 47 victims that the mainstream farm lobby Agri SA tallied last year were white, a lot more than 100,000 of the nearly five million Europeans in South Africa live on farms.

Emerging from 300 years of violently-enforced, family-shattering racial rule, South Africa is a violent society.  While its murder rate is half what it was during the transition to democracy 25 years ago, it’s still the eighth-highest in the world, seven times higher than the American rate, which itself is five times higher than Europe’s.  When one talks about “large-scale” one must use the scale of the place in question.  

White South African farm families are safer than most groups in the country. Crime and murder are disproportionately suffered by poor people, and that means Africans and Coloured people.  Wealthier South Africans, still largely European, do not rely on the overmatched police.  They hire one of the ubiquitous security firms offering “armed response.”  They also wall off their houses and as a last resort have a barred-off safe room for their families.  Their live-in “staff” (as servants are now politely called) often sleep in out-buildings, too far away to join them in their stronghold during an invasion. 

Still, if the number of farm murders is not out of the ordinary, are they part of a campaign to drive whites off their land, as claimed by Carlson and Roets as well as by a loosely-coordinated “White Genocide” social media campaign?  Almost certainly, the answer is no.  A government survey looked at a set of farm attacks in detail and found that 90 percent were robberies, as opposed to acts that were politically-motivated or aimed at intimidation. 

There is simply no evidence for Roets’ claim, both on Carlson’s program and in his book Kill the Boer, that the government is “complicit” in the farm murders.  The same goes for his book’s even more dramatic claim that the ANC and the police have had “direct involvement” in some of the murders.  Carlson’s version of these claims is that the murders are “a disorganized but in some sense intentional campaign” to crush a racial minority, the Afrikaners.  He opened his program with this: “South Africa is a diverse country, but the South African government would like to make it much less diverse.”  The ANC’s record in office refutes that claim.

The title of the Roets’ book is part of the “White Genocide” narrative.  It refers to an angry song written in 1993 after the assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani.  The song, sung in Zulu, has the refrain Aw dubul’ibhunu, meaning “shoot the Afrikaner farmer,” which has been commonly translated as “kill the Boer.”  Ironically, Hani was killed not by Boers (Dutch for farmers, which came to be used for all Afrikaners) but by a recent Polish immigrant and an English-speaking politician, both of whom received life sentences. 

The song played as prominent a role in South African politics in the early 2010’s as the provocative Fuck tha Police, by the provocatively-named NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitude), played in American politics in the late 1980’s.  That was another angry song about a violent incident that everybody had an opinion about, and that every politician had to take a stand on.  The South African song had been sung at various times at ANC gatherings, resulting in court cases, since hate speech is illegal in South Africa.  In 2012 the ANC settled the cases by agreeing not to sing the song, and expelled the most persistent singer, Malema. 

Land reform and the politics of grievance in the new South Africa:

Carlson and hence Trump are silent about the underlying issue.  That issue is the complex role of land in South Africa today, and indeed throughout its history over the past 300 years, from the time of tribal nations to colonialism to apartheid to democracy.  Although the number of people actually affected by it is small and dwindling, land reform has become a symbolic flashpoint for the ethnic divisions that remain after 25 years of what Mandela pointedly warned in his inaugural address was not freedom, but “the freedom to be free.” 

The 80 percent of the country that is ethnically African -- including most of the three million undocumented immigrants drawn by its powerful economy and political freedoms -- identifies with one of the country’s nine Bantu tribal nations.  About half of them identify with the two largest, Zulu (the nation of recent president Jacob Zuma) or Xhosa (the nation of former presidents Mandela and Thabo Mbeki).  The tribal nations are quite distinct.  There is much truth to the joke that a Zulu man would marry his daughter to a white guy before he’d hire a Xhosa at his business.

Violently-imposed white privileges reinforced the social differences that were already inevitable in the collision of the African tribal and European imperial worlds.  As a result Africans started off in 1994 with far lower levels than Europeans of education, experience in supervisory jobs, income, and especially wealth.  The country’s prime farm land remained under white ownership.  Segregated living and education and tepid land reform since then have perpetuated all of these disparities, so most African youth still lack the skills, mindset, wealth, and connections needed to rise in society. 

White per-capita income in South Africa is six times that of blacks: $36,000 to $6,000.  These figures are calculated in “purchasing power parity.”  Try living in America on $500 a month and you too will find yourself in a jerry-rigged shack on abandoned land 10 miles from town, and have to walk or hitch a ride in to your $3 per hour service job.    

Despite these challenges, black South Africans overwhelmingly continue to support the ANC.  The party was founded on and has governed by the principle that European heritage is no bar to South African citizenship.  It has consistently received over 60 percent of the vote since 1994.  Another 20 percent of voters support the even more pro-business Democratic Alliance, the favorite of the 10 percent of the country whose heritage is European (five percent Afrikaans-speakers with heritage in 17th and 18th century Dutch and then French Protestant immigration and three percent English-speakers from 19th and 20th century immigration) or Indian (about two percent, descendants of 19th century indentured workers and immigrants, who for a while included lawyer and independence leader Mohandas Gandhi), and the 10 percent that refers to itself as “Coloured.”  

The Cape Coloured people, descendants of Indonesian slaves who intermingled with Dutch settlers and the San people who were present long before the Bantu, were placed a bit above Africans -- but still well below Europeans -- in the apartheid hierarchy, and speak Afrikaans.  As a political grouping they have never been fully comfortable with the Bantu-led ANC, and even voted for the apartheid National party in the first free election on the “devil you know” theory.  

Julius Malema’s new party, Economic Freedom Fighters, received only six percent of the vote in the last national election.  As Carlson showed Malema’s odious speeches threatening violence and expropriation for whites he called him the leader of the country’s third largest political party, neglecting to mention that his party finished a pathetically distant third.  Its racist vision, the one Carlson presents as a reality, has been firmly and repeatedly rejected at the polls.  

Current President Cyril Ramaphosa was Mandela’s lead negotiator in the 1994 deal.  As Mandela did, he has spent his career encouraging all South Africans, of all ethnic groups, to keep their loyalty, money, and experience in the country.  This is the man Carlson impugned as a “racist.”  The number of white citizens has remained stable at almost five million; there has not been the predicted Algerian-style white flight.  Lots of white South Africans obtained foreign passports, but only half a million used them for a permanent move.  They’ve been replaced by new births among those who stayed.  The ANC decided early on not to kill the goose that keep slaying golden eggs, and the goose got the message.   

South African politics specializes in grievances.  Land reform serves as a proxy for the disappointment many Africans feel for their lack of opportunity relative to the other ethnic groups.  This is because tribal land is historically central to their identity, even if they have moved away.  For the Bantu nations, who before the European invasions migrated back and forth each year across large areas to graze their cattle, tribal land is a sacred font of family and clan, and a tribute to the memory of ancestors who are considered to be very much alive and watching. 

Xhosa from villages in the rural Eastern Cape who have moved hundreds of miles west to the informal townships outside of Cape Town for work may only go home every few years for a visit, but the village remains their emotional home.  When the government first provided piping for in-house water to the half million people in the Cape Flats settlement of Khayelitsha, recipients shipped them out on the next bus to their homes in the Eastern Cape. 

In the 1990’s, when the new government held a forum to discuss a plan to transfer title of restituted Zulu land to individuals who farmed it, Zulu King Zwelithini marched in and disrupted the proceedings.  As the Zulu farmers chanted Wena We Ndlovu (here comes the Elephant, as the king is called) and threw themselves down to the ground as a mark of respect, the King warned the government speakers that it was his land to assign, not theirs.  Title would be understood to remain with the tribe, not the individual, no matter what a bunch of government documents said.  

For the European, Coloured, and Indian 20 percent of the country, the tribal and personal connection to the land is a mystery.  They adopt a more modern approach to land as a commodity than can be bought and sold by individuals.  On land, as on many culturally-sensitive issues, the government’s strategy has been to balance Third World and First World approaches rather than brazenly offend tribal norms. 

For example, a law permits tribal men to have multiple wives in a country where bigamy is illegal.  “Virginity testing,” the symbolic inspection of a prospective bride’s hymen, is illegal and unconstitutional, but the police don’t expend much energy trying to catch Zulu women who voluntarily continue the tradition.  The government has use licensing and inspection to reduce the number of teenaged Xhosa boys who die in traditional initiation “schools,” but in practice continues to turn a blind eye to informal practitioners.

In some cases, though, the government has forcefully attacked tribal norms that violate constitutional rights, such as men having precedence over women in inheritances, and female genital mutilation in the one tribal nation that has traditionally practiced it.  South Africa remains a complex work in progress.      

It’s not just Africans who have ethnic grievances in South Africa.  Coloureds complain of not having been white enough under apartheid and not being black enough afterwards, so they didn’t receive the benefits of affirmative action in education and hiring under either dispensation.  Indians point to the residual tensions with the Zulu with whom they share the port city of Durban.  But even white South Africans, who must be among the luckiest people in the world, get into the act.  The narrative of white oppression that was sold to Carlson by AfriForum is actually, laughably, standard fare for South Africans of European descent.

“There’s no place for the white man any more in South Africa.”  I actually heard that one myself from a patriarch while sitting at family lunch on a veranda in a sprawling manor house in a wealthy white suburb outside of Cape Town.  Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the sun, said the residents of one of Dante’s circles in the Inferno, who were punished for complaining by being immersed in dung for eternity.  South Africa is heaven for whites, especially since Mandela saved them from themselves and removed the global stain of apartheid, yet many think they are living in hell already.

I wondered what the African and Coloured house staff who were serving us thought of that statement.  I had visited the shabby houses and shacks where they lived, where an entire family slept on a single bed covering the whole room, a dangerous kerosene lamp provided the heat, and the community toilet was a dangerous walk away at night. 

Their children had to walk to segregated schools where the college-going rate, let alone the completion rate, was about zero; the white family’s children, who were listening to their father’s whining, attended the finest prep schools in South Africa, driving there in their own cars.  They were alive and healthy because the family could afford the best in health care, while the children of the staff had to take their chances in the long lines at highly-stressed government facilities. 

The patriarch’s anger had been sparked by the failure of one of the children to gain admission to a prestigious university, which was reserving half of its spots for Africans and Coloureds.  There were many fine universities the teen-ager could have attended, but the family wanted him at their alma mater.  I offered up the university at which I was teaching, which had superb facilities and professors, but the rest of the table looked at me in disbelief. 

Virtually no white families will send their children to this historically Coloured and increasingly African university.  The few white faces I saw on campus were European exchange students and a smattering of working-class Afrikaners taking night classes.  While waiting to apply for admission again the next year, the family could send the applicant to college in Britain.  If this level of oppression was advertised as a commodity, about 40 million South Africans would line up all night for the opening of the store.

Underlying white complaint is probably white fear of the type marketed by AfriForum.  Thomas Jefferson said of slavery, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever, that considering numbers…a revolution of the wheel of fortune…is among possible events…”  Jefferson hoped that emancipation would be “with the consent of their masters, rather than by their extirpation.”   If they look honestly over their country’s history, white South Africans must tremble a bit about extirpation every time they retreat to their gated houses for the night. 

South African novelist J. M. Coetzee captured the deep-seated fear of violent retribution for apartheid’s degradations in his 1999 Disgrace, which prominently features the black rape of a white woman during a farm invasion.  In a metaphor for submission, she becomes pregnant and has the baby while her father simmers in impotent rage.  It is intimated that she will actually end up living with the rapist and giving him her farm. 

Coetzee is what South Africans call a “wet dick,” a man with multiple passports whose life straddles the ocean.  Formerly a professor in the United States, he has lived in Australia since 2002.  Still, South Africa’s government proudly claimed Coetzee when he won the Nobel Prize in 2003.  It was at pains, however, to point out that the plot in Disgrace was fanciful, and not based on any known farm invasion.  The ANC had earlier noted, rather than complained, that Coetzee was accurately expressing “white people’s perception of the post-apartheid black man,” which continued a long tradition of seeing the African as a “faithless, immoral, uneducated, incapacitated, and primitive child.”  

While the politics of land reform in South Africa are as complicated as the country itself,  the facts are simple.  Carlson and Trump are simply wrong.  Terry Crawford-Browne, the courageous South Africa banker who played a key role in the anti-apartheid movement and then exposed the ANC’s corruption in its post-democracy arms deal with European governments, has said he’s thankful that South Africa is so far from the seat of the U.S. empire.  Being “off the radar,” he says, diminishes the likelihood of U.S. interference.  Alan Paton’s “beloved country” will march on, blissfully unaware of its bizarre insertion into American politics.

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