By NEIL COSGROVE
In late August, President Trump displayed his characteristic disregard for truth, both current and historical, when he tweeted that his Secretary of State “closely study … farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers” in South Africa.
Trump using ignorance and racial fear to distract from his own incompetence and inequality perpetuating policies is hardly “news.” But this instance also presents an opportunity to examine just how white supremacist and neo-colonialist propaganda gets disseminated and develops a kind of perverse legitimacy.
For Trump was also characteristically late in calling attention to a scurrilous narrative pushed for years by those bent on holding on to their privilege and power by any means necessary. As The Guardian has reported, “the … idea of ‘white genocide’ in South Africa” gradually moved “from far-right websites and forums, into the rightward edge of mainstream media, and then into policy proposals.”
The process involved a leading member of the “white nationalist and survivalist group the Suidlanders” spending part of 2017 claiming to far-right and then to more cross-over American audiences that South African whites were in danger of ethnic cleansing. Eventually a white living in South Africa, Eve Fairbanks, received an e-mail from a concerned American friend restating reports that 400,000 whites in SA were “living in tent camps,” that white farms were being invaded by black “hit squads,” and that “independent news organizations” were so protective of the sanctity of South African independence that they refused to report such news. Recalling the email in Politico, Ms. Fairbanks wryly commented that “it was all so far from the truth that it beggared belief.”
Aiding the promulgation of such outlandish claims was, of course, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp and Fox News. Reports of suffering South African white farmers by Murdoch tabloids in Australia prompted that country’s Home Affairs minister to propose fast-tracking immigration for those farmers. Around the same time, in early spring of this year, Tucker Carlson of Fox News claimed onair that land reform was leading to the disintegration of South Africa. It was Carlson’s revisiting the issue in August that apparently prompted Trump’s tweet.
Anybody who has traveled the highways of South Africa knows how ludicrous the claims of white deprivation are, no matter how neatly they fit into the racially blasted landscapes of white supremacist minds. Yes, you can find acres upon acres of shanty towns on the outskirts of the large cities, but their occupants are seldom white, nor are the desperate young men and women peddling household goods of various kinds on the street corners. Fairbanks mentions a 2016 study that found only 0.3% of white South Africans “live in ‘informal dwellings’ or home-built shacks, … while nearly 15 percent of the black population does.”
Unemployment in the country stubbornly exceeds 25% and, as Fairbanks further points out, “the average household income for white-person-headed households … is five times the average income of a black-headed-one.”
Nor is there evidence of a wave of “black hit squads” invading farms. In fact, The Guardian recently reported, murders of South African farmers “are at a 20-year low.” Moreover, some of those deaths were of black farmers and farmworkers. The killings could be more logically attributed to the generally high crime rate throughout the country, owing in great part to the aforementioned unemployment and widespread poverty, to the isolation of the farms, and to property such as livestock found within them.
As for land reform, it has been going on for years; some 85% of agricultural land was owned by white farmers when apartheid ended around a quartercentury ago, according to The Guardian, and that figure is now down to 72%. Whites make up slightly more than eight percent of the South African population. The Guardian reports “all major political parties now agree on the need for extensive land reform.” But the current process of buying out white farmers, then providing black ones with either land or financial restitution, has been painfully slow. Some white farmers seek exorbitant compensation, some impoverished blacks prefer receiving money rather than land. Other black farmers, the BBC has written, lack the capital or expertise needed to sustain their farms.
Given land reform’s snail-like progress, the South African parliament began in February the process of amending the constitution to allow expropriating land without compensation. But President Cyril Ramaphosa has been conciliatory to white farmers, and it’s more likely the government will pursue a cooperative model of white and black farmers sharing equipment and knowledge, a model which has had some success among the sugar cane farms of KwaZulu-Nepal province, as the BBC has reported. The country definitely wants to avoid the kind of massive economic disruption that occurred with Zimbabwe’s land reforms. (See accompanying box.)
What neither the Suidlanders, nor Tucker Carlson, nor the legions of neocolonialists will consider is historical context. How did the white South African farmers get all that land in the first place? The Natives Land Act of 1913 gave only seven percent of the arable land to Africans, while whites got over 80% of the territory. The sale of land in white territory to blacks was prohibited. This was “land reform” that was truly violent and discriminatory.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
(TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No.8 October 2018. All rights reserved)