The Dangerous Myths of South African Land Seizures

Reactionaries on either side of the Atlantic are empowering one another.

A farmer inspects his crop in Limpopo, South Africa.
A farmer inspects his crop in Limpopo, South Africa. (Siphewe Sibeko / Reuters)

Last week, President Donald Trump watched Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News and got mad. That’s not exactly news, but what happened next was news. The president tweeted a message of support for South Africa’s hard-pressed white farmers.

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.”

Trump’s tweet had the usual effect: It has swung liberal-minded Americans to exactly the equal and opposite point of view from the president’s. Trump thinks it’s bad for South Africa to seize land from white farmers without compensation? Then it must actually be good!

But the tweet also had a second effect, this one much less usual: It seems to have actually changed real-world policy for the better. On Tuesday, South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) party withdrew “for further consideration” a bill that would have authorized uncompensated land confiscations.

The issue is not yet dead: The bill—not yet enacted into law—was withdrawn for reasons of procedure, not principle. The new South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, maintains he will soon introduce new land laws of his own. Yet there’s no mistaking Ramaphosa’s extreme discomfort with uncompensated land seizures. The day after Trump’s tweet, Ramaphosa published an op-ed in the Financial Times that handled the issue with sugar tongs:

“South Africans are currently engaged in an intense debate over the prospect of expropriation of land without compensation as one among several measures to achieve [land] reform,” he wrote. Ramaphosa proceeded to scold “commentators [who] have confined their engagement on this matter to soundbites and not to the substance.”

If that was a reference to Fox News, Ramaphosa has a point. It’s generally a bad idea to get your information from Carlson’s Fox News program about any subject other than, What are white nationalists talking about today?

Throughout the Carlson program, the screen blazed with chyrons asserting that South African land seizures had already happened: “South Africa farm seizures begin,” “Chaos in South Africa as land expropriations begin,” “South African government is now seizing land from white farmers,” “South African Land Grab: Threat of Violence and Economic Collapse."

But there have been no seizures to date. Not one farm has been taken from one white farmer without compensation. The law allowing such seizures has not passed. The constitutional amendment that would enable the law has not been enacted.

Nor is it true that South African white farmers are being massacred by angry blacks. South African crime statistics do not make it easy to ascertain how many victims of violence are rural as opposed to urban, or to identify rural victims by race. South Africa suffers appalling levels of crime and violence, and rural areas are even less well protected than cities. While still shockingly prevalent, violent crime has sharply decreased since the end of apartheid. U.S.-funded scholarship has shown that rural violence is overwhelmingly concentrated among the very poorest and among those with only a primary education—who are very unlikely to be white.

There’s no mystery why Trump would be susceptible to believing a fable of murderous blacks and victimized whites. View the same segment that Trump viewed, and you will not miss its obvious racial incitement, including the insinuation that President Barack Obama endorses the plunder of whites: “Why would former President Barack Obama, just several weeks ago, publicly praise a racist like Cyril Ramaphosa? Why would he do that?”

The correct answer to that question is that Obama praised Ramaphosa for the same reason that Western leaders generally have done so, not least British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. May headed a delegation of 29 U.K. corporate and financial leaders who visited South Africa this week to welcome Ramaphosa’s approach to investment and land questions. Ramaphosa is regarded by Western governments generally as the least worst alternative for South Africa, certainly in preference to his brazenly corrupt and flagrantly incompetent predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

That’s not the answer Carlson shared with his audience, though. When his guest declined to produce a sufficiently inflammatory answer to Carlson’s question about Obama, instead suggesting that Obama should call Ramaphosa to remonstrate with him, Carlson answered it himself: “I wish he’d said that in public when he’d had the chance, but of course he didn’t, being a coward.”

Carlson’s deceptive reporting—his sly incitement of racial resentment—was intended to mislead poorly informed, credulous, and racially prejudiced viewers. And unfortunately, one of those poorly informed, credulous, and racially prejudiced Carlson viewers happens to be the president of the United States.

But Trump’s prejudices should not excuse anybody else’s. Since Trump’s August 23 South Africa tweet, liberal-leaning commentators have delved far into South African history purporting to justify—or at least condone—the threatened land seizures. Yet the most urgently relevant history here is much more recent, not the Native Land Act of 1913, but the transition of political power in 1994. That comparatively bloodless and harmonious transition was achieved because, and really only because, it guaranteed existing property rights.

This guarantee was codified in the South African Constitution of 1996:

No one may be deprived of property except in terms of law of general application, and no law may permit arbitrary deprivation of property.

Property may be expropriated only in terms of law of general application—(a) for a public purpose or in the public interest; and (b) subject to compensation, the amount of which and the time and manner of payment of which have either been agreed to by those affected or decided or approved by a court.

The 1996 constitution specifically addressed the grievances left behind by the 1913 land settlement. It authorized restitution of property to those deprived of it in 1913, not only to individuals, but also to communities—especially important since much of the land assigned to white owners in 1913 had never had an individual African owner. But the new constitution also affirmed that any person, trust, or corporation that lost land for the purposes of historic redress was entitled to fair compensation.

South Africa committed itself to respect existing property rights in 1996 not only as a matter of justice, but also to secure its own future. South Africa is not a wealthy country. At the time of the transition from apartheid, South Africa’s total GDP per capita was only about three-fourths that of Mexico. The new regime desperately needed to attract international investment to South Africa, after years of sanctions that had isolated the country’s economy. Countries that want investment must respect property rights.

Unfortunately, that concession to economic and political reality did not suffice to propel South Africa forward. The new regime made other mistakes. It operated the state as a jobs program for ANC loyalists. It indulged corruption—corruption that reached to the very top of the ANC. It politicized courts and bureaucracies. It imposed a vast system of race preferences on private industry. It accepted—even welcomed—the emigration of hundreds of thousands of South Africa’s most skilled citizens, especially Jews who felt threatened by the increasingly outspoken anti-Semitism of South African society, including its crumbling university system.

As a result, the end of international sanctions failed to trigger adequate economic growth. South African GDP, which had grown at an anemic average of 1.4 percent from 1980 to 1993, did expand at a faster clip, averaging 3.3 percent from 1994 to 2012. And because South Africa’s population was surging —from 39 million in 1994 to 58 million today—that annual growth in the first decade following apartheid averaged out to 1.2 percent a person. More recently, growth per person ceased altogether.

As the economy stagnated, the ANC elite enriched itself ever more brazenly. The New York Times in August published a withering profile of David Mabuza, South Africa’s new deputy president, who is alleged to have pillaged millions from the education system in his poor province of Mpumalanga:

Nearly a quarter of the primary schools in Mr. Mabuza’s province still have only dilapidated pit toilets, despite ample government funds to fix them. And during his tenure, his province was caught fabricating the passing rates on the annual national exam, enabling him to claim big leaps forward that never happened.

Ramaphosa, meanwhile, is estimated to have gained a fortune of at least $400 million from being cut in on other people’s deals that were required by law to include an ethnic African partner. At the time Ramaphosa took office, I wrote here:

One-third of South Africans report having paid a bribe a police officer in 2013, according to a Transparency International survey that year. About a third bribed a judge or magistrate. Even more than that have paid for a permit or license. South Africans are extorted for bribes at schools and hospitals, to obtain electricity and water. In 2017, South Africa ranked 71st on the Transparency International “perceptions of corruption” index, sliding from the 38th position it held as recently as 2001.

Of the world’s 45 most advanced societies, South Africa ranks 39th in the proportion of people completing high school. Under ANC rule, even the provision of such basic services as electricity and water has worsened.

These disappointments have pinched the African National Congress’s once overwhelming political dominance. It is losing urban professionals and South Africans of Asian origin to the Democratic Alliance, which won almost 23 percent of the vote in the national elections of 2014 and now governs the country’s most economically successful province, the Western Cape.

A left-wing splinter from the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), took 6.3 percent of the vote in the 2014 national parliamentary elections. Uncompensated seizure of white-owned land is the EFF’s signature issue—but its anger is directed as much against South Africa’s South Asian minority and the new black business elite. The EFF’s rhetorical violence—its leader, Julius Malema, speaks of “cutting the throat of whiteness”—excites nationalist Africans who feel betrayed by the ANC.

In the municipal elections of 2016, the EFF won more than 11 percent of the vote in Gauteng province, the province that includes the slums surrounding Johannesburg and Pretoria, and more than 16 percent in Limpopo, the northernmost province that contains a higher proportion of poor people than any other in South Africa.

The ANC’s conversion on the land-seizure issue reflects not the ANC’s militancy, but its fear. Ramaphosa—whatever his other failings, a person keenly aware of realities—understands very well what uncompensated land seizures will mean for South Africa’s economic future. Even now, he’s inserting caveats into his endorsement of the concept: It’s still being studied, nothing will happen soon, he proposes to redistribute state-owned land rather than privately owned land.

But parliamentary elections are approaching in 2019. If the EFF takes larger bites out of ANC support as the election nears, prepare for a more radical ANC land policy.

And if that happens, prepare for two more things: accelerating South African economic decline and state failure—and intensifying racial messaging from American white nationalists. Americans have often seen South Africa as a distorted reflection of their own country, its fate an alternative or a foretelling of their own. On its own, South Africa is an important place: It is still, despite everything, the most advanced, stable, liberal, and democratic country in Africa. But the transatlantic-reflection effect makes South Africa especially important for Americans at this moment. Trump supporters such as Carlson are testing many themes for the election of 2020—and the message that A vote against Trump is a vote for white-race suicide already heads the list.

Race baiters feed off one another. In our interconnected world, the cross feeding can now cross borders. Trump’s tweeting empowers provocateurs such as Malema, who can now condemn the more cautious approach of the Ramaphosa government as craven truckling to an internationally despised U.S. president. In turn, Trumpists in the United States can seize on the provocations of Malema as proof of the malign intentions of dark-skinned people worldwide, as in this August 25 Breitbart News story, by Joel Pollak:

Radical South African politician Julius Malema confirmed President Donald Trump’s concerns Thursday, declaring defiantly that the point of the country’s proposed new “expropriation without compensation” policy would be to take land from white farmers.

South Africa and the United States are very different societies, but their histories have traced some similar trajectories—and they often exert cultural influence on one another. At the zenith of American self-confidence, in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States prodded and assisted South Africa toward a future of free markets and racial equality. Now—at this lower moment in U.S. history—South African mistakes could empower the most reactionary forces here, as well as impoverish South Africa itself. Liberalism and illiberalism have both gone global. Humanity’s best hopes and worst prejudices sustain each other or degrade each other, across borders, together.