The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s South Africa tweet is a reminder that white supremacy is the original white-collar crime

President Trump listens during a round-table discussion in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Most of us Africa-watchers have secretly hoped that President Trump would leave Africa alone. We had good reason to worry. Nearly 580 days into his term, Trump tweeted the word “Africa” for the first time. It was a disaster.

For many years, the lie that South Africa’s white farmers have been facing a genocide at the hands of South Africa’s black government has been a rallying cry for the far-right, racists and white nationalists around the world, including David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader. White-nationalist groups are now celebrating the tweet. The South African government responded rather differently, saying it “rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.”

South Africa’s Natives Land Act of 1913 forcibly stripped land from blacks, a policy then reinforced by apartheid. Under President Nelson Mandela, the post-apartheid South African government introduced land reform programs to attempt to peacefully restore land taken from black South Africans. But those efforts have actually benefited white South Africans more than blacks. In 2013, Bernadette Atuahene and  Alfred L. Brophy wrote in The New York Times: “Of the nearly 80,000 claims filed primarily by blacks, the post-apartheid state has settled about 70 percent by distributing a Standard Settlement Offer, which is a symbolic monetary compensation that is unrelated to the current or past market value of the property confiscated.”

Current white owners received payments of “several orders of magnitude higher than a typical settlement offer proposed to dispossessed blacks.”

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Indeed, white South Africans, who make up 9 percent of the population, still own 72 percent of the country’s private land. This year, South Africa’s parliament cleared the way for the government to expropriate land without compensation to speed up the process. (Contrary to Trump’s tweet, the government of South Africa has yet to confiscate any land.)

As for the so-called large-scale killing of white farmers, according to South African police statistics from 2016 to 2017, 74 people were killed in just more than 630 attacks on farms or small plots of land, while the total number of killings in South Africa over the same period was about 19,000. During an interview with the Associated Press, Gareth Newham, the head of the crime and justice program for the Institute for security studies in Pretoria, said the number of murders is actually down from 2001-2002, when 140 farm killings were noted by police. “The murders on farms are a reflection of the security situation in South Africa. There is absolutely no evidence that the violence is aimed at white farmers.” Newham said.

Some say the president’s tweet was an attempt to distract from the “real” story: the white-collar criminal cases of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman. It is tempting to see white-collar crime and high-level corruption as separate from Trump’s elevation of white nationalists.

But white supremacy and racism have always been a form of social and political corruption. Together they form an ideology that is dependent on segregation, rent discrimination, unequal land distribution and legally sanctioned theft — all in the name of benefiting white populations. White supremacy is a form of social corruption that costs lives, money and resources. If corruption is defined as the systematic abuse of state power to specifically benefit an individual or a group, then apartheid in South Africa, the Jim Crow era in the southern United States, as well as today’s racial inequalities in housing, schooling and the justice system constitute corruption of the highest order. White supremacy is the original transnational white-collar crime.

After all, the social corruption of white supremacy is what has propelled a uniquely unqualified candidate to the White House — namely Trump’s promises to curb nonwhite immigration, impose travel bans on Muslims and disparage people of color. There is something particularly perverse about the fact that Trump’s first Africa policy pronouncement was aimed at protecting white people on the continent. Is it any surprise the head of an administration known for its conflicts of interest, who has scaled back civil rights efforts and fetishized the plight of white American farmers, finds common cause with apologists for South African apartheid, one of the most kleptocratic systems in history?

“Donald Trump has never visited the African continent in his private life or as president of the United States,” says Patrick Gaspard, the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa under President Barack Obama. Gaspard points out that the current administration hasn’t named an ambassador to South Africa, an important regional partner. “Trump needs to keep Africa’s name out of his mouth.”

For those who believe Trump intended his tweet as distraction — it certainly hasn’t worked very well, at least so far. Cable news channels have focused overwhelmingly on Manafort and Cohen, which is not surprising given the U.S. media’s penchant for under-covering Africa. With more than half of black South Africans living below the poverty line (less than 1 percent of white South Africans do), the future of democratic South Africa largely hinges on economic opportunities for its black population, which in turn are bound closely with the distribution of land. Trump’s appalling tweet should be treated as the major foreign-policy scandal that it is.