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President Trump’s false claim about murders on South African farms

(Evan Vucci/AP)

“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”

— President Trump, in a tweet, Aug. 22, 2018

It’s not the first time a segment on Fox News gets the president tweeting. But it’s the first time Trump claims South African farmers are being mass-murdered.

This myth was fueled by white supremacists for years before it surfaced in a presidential tweet.

More than two decades after the end of apartheid, South African farmland owners remain a predominantly white group. Fringe groups in South Africa and the United States say these white farmers are targeted and killed at disproportionately high rates. There’s no evidence for this claim, experts say, but it feeds the white-supremacist agenda by stoking racial resentment and division.

South Africa's land expropriation debate and the myth of "white genocide" have been a rallying cry for white nationalists around the world for years. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Trump made two claims about South Africa in his tweet: that the government is seizing land from white farmers and that a “large scale killing of farmers” is underway.

The president’s first claim about land seizures has some merit but is mostly false. Trump’s second claim, that South African farmers are being killed on a “large scale,” is a fiction not supported by data.

We have no clue how this myth about farmers being killed ended up on the president’s Twitter feed. It didn’t come up on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the Fox News show Trump referenced in his tweet. But it has been swishing in the alt-right and white-nationalist ether for years. The Fox News segment may have jogged Trump’s memory about something he came across previously.

The Facts

When South Africa ended apartheid rule in 1994, approximately 15 percent of the country’s agricultural land was owned by the government or by “previously disadvantaged individuals,” a term used for people of African, colored or Indian descent. The remaining 85 percent “was owned by white commercial farmers,” according to Agri SA, an industry group.

Fast-forward two decades. In 2016, the government and previously disadvantaged individuals owned 26.7 percent of South Africa’s agricultural land — still the smaller share, although it was up from 15 percent in 1994, according to Agri SA.

A land audit released in November 2017 by the South African government found that, of the farms and agricultural holdings owned by individuals (as opposed to companies or trusts), whites owned 72 percent, followed by colored (mixed-race) people at 15 percent, Indians at 5 percent, Africans at 4 percent, others at 3 percent and co-owners at 1 percent.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and South African lawmakers have proposed plans to seize privately owned farmland and effectively redistribute it from white owners to previously disadvantaged individuals.

“Among the greatest obstacles to growth is the severe inequality between black and white South Africans,” Ramaphosa wrote in the Financial Times. “For the South African economy to reach its full potential, it is therefore necessary to significantly narrow gaps in income, skills, assets and opportunities. One of the areas where this disparity is most devastating is in the ownership and access to land. As the World Bank has observed, ‘South Africa’s historical, highly skewed distribution of land and productive assets is a source of inequality and social fragility.’”

The “land question,” as Ramaphosa put it, goes back more than a century. Colonists in 1913 approved a law that restricted the African population to slightly more than 10 percent of South Africa’s land, while the white minority was entitled to the rest.

Patrick Gaspard, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa under President Barack Obama, said “this is the most complicated and the most charged issue in South African politics and in the South African economy.” The country "has 9 percent of its population controlling a little bit more than 70 percent of farmland in the country,” he said. “That 9 percent is overwhelmingly white.”

Gaspard added: “None of this [land] policy has moved forward. The architecture for it has not even been designed or pulled together.”

Carlson and his guest on Fox News, researcher Marian L. Tupy of the libertarian Cato Institute, criticized Ramaphosa’s plan during the segment that piqued Trump’s interest. They warned it could lead South Africa down the same destabilizing path that Zimbabwe took in 2000, when it began to seize farmland owned by whites without compensation.

But there was no talk whatsoever on Fox News about any farmers being killed.

“The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has begun, and you may have seen this in the press, seizing land from his own citizens without compensation, because they are the wrong skin color,” Carlson said, adding later that Ramaphosa “has changed the country’s constitution to make it possible to steal land from people.”

The South African government is considering a constitutional amendment to expropriate farmland, but that plan has not been finalized, so it’s premature to say that Ramaphosa has “changed the country’s constitution.” The government is also weighing whether it can redistribute farmland under current laws.

Carlson complained that Ramaphosa was “seizing land from his own citizens without compensation.” But Ramaphosa outlined a plan for farmland seizures “in the public interest subject to just and equitable compensation,” according to his op-ed in the Financial Times.

The South African parliament, he added, may decide that farmland seizures without compensation are justified in some cases. As possible examples, Ramaphosa mentioned “unused land, derelict buildings, purely speculative land holdings, or circumstances where occupiers have strong historical rights and title holders do not occupy or use their land.”

Citing “press reports,” Tupy wrote in an Aug. 20 blog post that “South Africa’s government has begun expropriating privately-owned farmland without financial compensation.” The one press report linked to in Tupy’s blog post, from an Australian news site, says that the South African government offered $1.87 million for two game farms in the northern part of the country (the owners wanted 10 times as much money) and that the seizure has been challenged in court.

That report, in turn, is based on an article from a South African newspaper that says a government official “emphasized that there was no talk of expropriation without compensation, but that the courts would have to give clarity on what constitutes ‘just and equitable’ compensation.” The seizure of the two game farms was carried out under South Africa’s current laws and has been described by local media as a test case.

So, Carlson flubbed some details on his show, and Trump made the same mistake on Twitter. Outside of what appears to be a test case, the South African government has not begun to seize land from white farmers.

Moving on, then. Where did Trump get his information about a “large scale killing of farmers” in South Africa? The White House didn’t answer our questions, and Carlson didn’t go near that one on his show.

“My focus is on the relationship between property rights and economic development,” Tupy emailed. “I have not studied the [South Africa] farm violence. So, I cannot be of help.”

South Africa recorded 19,016 murders during the year from April 2016 to March 2017, according to police statistics. This included 74 farm murders, 0.4 percent of the total.

But estimates of the farm murder rates are misleading, according to our friends at Africa Check. After wrestling with a world of different statistics, the fact-checking service found that no reliable data exist to verify claims about unusually high South African farm murders. “Until an accurate estimate of the number of people ‘residing on, working on or visiting farms and smallholdings’ is released, it will not be possible to calculate a farm murder rate,” Africa Check found.

In any case, the government’s farm-murder statistic has been declining steadily from its peak in 2001-2002, when the total was 140. Separate figures from Agri SA show that murders of farmers are at a 20-year low, with 47 recorded in the year from April 2017 to March 2018 period, the Guardian reported.

James Myburgh, a South African researcher whose work was referred to us through Tupy, wrote that considering the total number of white farm owners, the more than 60 murders recorded in 2016-2017 would be far above the norm by his calculations. However, he acknowledged that the official farm-murder statistic was flawed. This is the best-case scenario for Trump: that some educated guesswork based on flawed statistics sort of backs him up, maybe.

In the end, we don’t see any sound basis for Trump’s claim that South African farmers are being killed on a large scale.

The State Department’s most recent report on human rights in South Africa, covering 2017, describes farm conditions and discrimination at length, but there’s no mention of farm murders or land seizures in this report.

At a briefing Aug. 23, the day after Trump’s tweet, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the president had spoken to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about South Africa but did not say exactly what was discussed. She said seizing land without compensation “would risk sending South Africa down the wrong path.” But she also seemed to reject the premise of Carlson’s criticism, that South Africa was looking like Zimbabwe.

“It may be easy for some to try to draw a comparison, but there are very big differences,” Nauert said. “In Zimbabwe, we saw the government there squash civil society, shut down the media from doing their jobs in reporting, and destroyed an independent judiciary. And we've not seen that happen in South Africa.”

The State Department otherwise had no comment on Trump’s tweet. Nauert’s remarks don’t back up either of the president’s claims.

It’s essential to keep in mind that white-supremacist groups have been spreading false claims for years about a “white genocide” in South Africa. The more specific claim that white farmers are being attacked and killed on a large scale is popular on the white-supremacist website Stormfront, which has a section devoted to South Africa, and appears to have originated with a political group called AfriForum. [Update: A reader pointed out that Carlson discussed the farm murders in May with a leader of AfriForum, though he didn’t bring them up again in this week’s segment.]

“I was utterly floored to think that a president of the United States in 2018 could surface and promulgate white-supremacist mythology from some of the most extreme corners of a discredited movement,” Gaspard said. “My first reaction was: ‘This can’t be real. This can’t be Donald Trump’s account.’”

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that alt-right and white-supremacist groups in the United States have seized on the myth of a “white genocide” happening in South Africa since at least 2012. For them, he said, it’s a propaganda tool to warn about the dangers of coexisting with minorities, refugees or immigrants.

“We’re not talking about an epidemic of mass killings or anything like that,” Pitcavage said of the South African farm murders. “But white supremacists, first in South Africa, and then in other parts, including the U.S., started to promote the idea that this was a race war, this was a genocide. It was grist for the mill for American white supremacists.”

In 2012, he said, white supremacists in the United States “started promoting something called the South Africa Project, which was to raise awareness of this so-called ‘white genocide’ in South Africa.” In April, he said, one group appeared at the South African Embassy in Washington, posting signs on the Nelson Mandela statue outside that read, “Kill the farmers” and “Kill the Boers.” (That’s a term for some white South Africans.)

“The president clearly heard something from somewhere but it may not have been someone from the alt-right,” Pitcavage said. “It may have been someone close to him. He has an unusual circle of friends and associates, and it’s quite possible he talks to a wide circle of people about these things.”

South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, called Trump’s comments “unfortunate.”

“It is regrettable that the tweet is based on false information,” Sisulu said in a statement, adding that South African officials would be meeting with U.S. officials and reaching out to Pompeo “to seek clarification.”

The Pinocchio Test

Trump started off by tweeting a mostly false claim that South Africa was seizing land from white farmers. The South African government is considering plans to redistribute private farmland, which is owned mostly by whites, but this plan is not yet final and Trump’s protest appears to have been spurred by one test case.

That’s not why we fact-checked his tweet.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Trump added an outlandish and baseless claim that South African farmers are being killed on a “large scale.” He prodded the secretary of state to investigate this myth fueled by white supremacists.

The president earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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“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”
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Wednesday, August 22, 2018