Each day, in part as a form of self-torture, I visit the Drudge Report to see what the American right is talking about. You will rarely find stories about Africa in Drudge’s mix of salacious gossip, mainstream headlines and right-wing news, but for the past few weeks, quite a few stories have involved South Africa, specifically, proposed land reforms that are being portrayed in outlets like Breitbart as the opening salvo in a coming ‘white genocide’ in the former Dutch, then British, colony.
Eventually the story reached Fox News and its most powerful viewer, who weighed in via tweet on the imaginary situation that Tucker Carlson had convinced him was underway in the country, “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,” the U.S. President wrote.
Part of the reasoning behind this incendiary tweet might have been an attempt to change the media conversation, then focused on the Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen convictions, but it’s in situations like this where Donald Trump’s lack of curiosity or basic knowledge of the world becomes most dangerous, exacerbating tensions in faraway places that he simply doesn’t understand and views through a prism created by right wing hacks (and his own long held racist views).
One of the greatest victories of the international left in the latter half of the the last century was mainstreaming the fight against Apartheid to such a degree that that system became untenable and former ‘terrorist’ Nelson Mandela and his compatriots, including many principled whites (most of them Jewish), jailed and even murdered in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle, were freed from prison. Mandela, of course, became President of the South Africa soon thereafter at the head of his resistance group turned political party, the African National Congress (ANC), which remains in power to this day.
However, victory for successive ANC governments has not done as much as we might have hoped to address the historic inequalities in the country that had been in some ways expanded under the Apartheid regime that replaced British colonial rule.
One of the most insidious things about the settler societies established by Europeans in Africa and elsewhere was the denigration of local cultures and even languages to such a degree that a kind of self-hatred was often internalized by these subject peoples, one that far outlasted the independence struggles of the last century. We see this most clearly in the sway that European languages, especially English and French, still retain over much of Africa today.
As might have been expected, a new elite centered on the ANC soon appeared in Praetoria, the country’s capital, one that shares the culture and language of the colonizers rather than promoting the numerous indigenous languages including Zulu and Xhosa, which are spoken by more people in the country than English, the language most foreigners associate with South Africa.
Worse, corruption and other criminal behaviors have flourished and have been uncovered at the very top, with former President Jacob Zuma toppled and charged with 16 offenses, including fraud and money laundering, in February.
He was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this year. Ramaphosa is a proponent of an amendment to the country’s constitution that would allow the state to expropriate land without compensation, an idea which South Africa’s parliament will once again review, but which has not yet been decided on and may not go the President’s way. A bill allowing land seizures has just been withdrawn by the Portfolio Committee on Public Works and pushed back to the country’s parliament for reconsideration, meaning that it will be some time before the issue is resolved one way or the other.
While South African democracy is young, and corruption is a serious problem, it’s relatively vibrant in comparison to the unaccountable strongmen in control of many of its neighbors. Despite this, and feeding into the need for fair land redistribution, unemployment rates in South Africa are a little above 37%, an unthinkable number in most of the world.
As explained in a Human Rights Watch report, even if Ramaphosa is able to get his amendment, it may not be enough, “Recent public hearings organized by the Constitutional Committee of Parliament to discuss amending the constitution to allow for expropriation of land without compensation has overshadowed discussions about the broader range of measures needed. Section 25 of the constitution, which is the subject of the amendment discussions, protects the right to property and provides for fair expropriation that reflects a balance between the interests of the public and those affected. Discussions on reform should focus on a process that would include restitution, redistribution, improving access and strengthening tenure over urban plots, farmland and communal lands.”
Further, As Nic Borain, a political analyst, recently told Reuters, “Reforming the land distribution and ownership will be good for South Africa. That there will be instability and worries about property rights is inevitable, but we don’t expect that the government will act in a way that radically destabilizes investor security.”
Unfortunately, this message was missed by white nationalists and their fellow travelers, especially in the United States and here in Canada.
Apartheid is over but massive inequality persists
It’s important to remember that under Apartheid, black South Africans, already humiliated and dispossessed by successive waves of colonizers, were barred from owning land in much of their country under the 1913 Native Land Act.
Balancing the needs of the majority population with property rights today remains a deep, systemic problem as a recent land audit, the first done post-Apartheid, proved, “The audit shows that whites owned the majority of land at 72%, followed by colored people at 15% [a term still used in the country for people of mixed race, DR], Indians at 5% and Africans at 4%.”
For more than 20 years the South African government has tried to buy land from willing sellers for sale to the country’s majority population, but the numbers show that this isn’t working, or at least not quickly enough.
Difficult as it is for Donald Trump and his followers to understand, South Africa is a rich nation in relative terms and has more than enough resources to provide for all of its citizens, the problem is unequal distribution, a problem that has bedeviled many former colonies (and increasingly the advanced economies of the West, if for different reasons, where income inequality has reached levels that would have seemed astonishing just a generation ago).
As for the other issue most often brought up in right-wing media, violent crime is a very serious problem for all South Africans regardless of their ethnic origin, but the dangers facing whites are being exaggerated, as Bloomberg explained it, “South Africa’s high crime rate has affected rural areas, with some farmers killed in attacks. Statistics released in May by Agri SA found that farm murders decreased to 47 in the 12 months through March, less than one-third of the highs in the late-1990s, although other groups argue attacks have recently increased.”
More alarming is an unrelenting epidemic of violence against women. As reported by AlJazeera at the beginning of August, 70,000 South African women were sexually assaulted there in 2017 alone. Surprisingly, this information, which could be used to bolster their case about violence in the country, was entirely missing from the stories circulating on the right, perhaps because it’s overwhelmingly directed at women in general and those with the ‘wrong’ color of skin, in particular.
In the minds of right-wingers, ownership of property is sacred, regardless of how it was acquired, always to be protected without question, even in the face of enormous historical wrongs. The property of white South Africans, most of it bought or inherited from the European settlers who originally stole it, is mostly held by white run private interests rather than the yeoman farmers of right-wing myth.
The economic needs of South Africa’s majority need to be addressed if the country is to truly open a new chapter in its history, realizing the dream of a diverse, fair and equitable society, the one that Nelson Mandela and so many of those who fought against colonialism and Apartheid there and the many foreigners who worked in solidarity with them, dreamed about.