The Slatest

Trump Has Some Thoughts About Land Reform in South Africa. Here Are the Facts.

Members of the Landless People’s Movement of South Africa.
About 1,000 members of the Landless People’s Movement of South Africa march on to the National Land Summit in Johannesburg on July 27, 2005. ALEXANDER JOE/Getty Images

The old joke that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography needs a Trump-era update: The president’s tweets are God’s way of teaching Americans comparative political economy.

Last night, out of the blue but apparently inspired by a segment on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, Trump tweeted that he had “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 tweet parrots an inaccurate narrative pushed by far-right activists and white supremacists in both South Africa and the United States. There are not widespread farm seizures in South Africa, and the killing of farmers has significantly declined since the late 1990s. The State Department seemed to be caught unprepared by the tweet and it’s not clear if there’s really going to be any follow-up on Trump’s instruction to Pompeo. But Trump did highlight an ongoing issue that’s much more complex and nuanced than how he portrayed it.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced earlier this summer that his ruling African National Congress would push forward with a controversial plan to amend the country’s constitution to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. Land distribution has long been a central priority for the ANC. At the end of apartheid in 1994, 85 percent of South Africa’s farmland was owned by white farmers. Today, it’s 72 percent. (South Africa’s population is just 9 percent white.) The government thus far has adhered to a policy known as “willing seller, willing buyer” to redistribute property, but the process has clearly worked much slower than hoped, and there have been growing calls for more aggressive solutions.

The call for expropriation without compensation was a surprise coming from Ramaphosa, who’s generally considered part of his party’s more moderate, pro-business wing. But with new national elections coming in 2019, Ramaphosa is under pressure from the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party led by Julius Malema, who wants the state to nationalize land and called on black supporters to occupy white-owned property.

Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and the ANC doesn’t currently have the votes. Neither the EFF, which wants more radical land distribution, nor the largely white Democratic Alliance, which opposes it altogether, are likely to back Ramaphosa’s amendment. There’s good reason to believe that the president is floating this proposal to head off a challenge from the left ahead of next year’s election and would be perfectly happy for it to languish in Parliament indefinitely.

Still, the idea has spooked financial markets, and any talk of land seizure inevitably triggers comparisons to neighboring Zimbabwe, where thousands of white-owned farms have been seized sometimes violently and without compensation since 2000, resulting in the collapse of the country’s agriculture sector. With hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans having fled to South Africa as a result of their country’s economic distress and lawlessness, the lessons of that country’s experience are pretty clear. But the political contexts of the two countries are quite different: In contrast to former Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship, South Africa is a democracy with much stronger rule of law. Even if the amendment were to pass, mass seizures of land on the Zimbabwe model are unlikely.

Aninka Claassens, director of the Land and Accountability Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, says that the land in question is often misunderstood. There’s a great deal of land near urban areas that’s either owned by government entities or barely used by its private owners. “If you made those available, you could generate income,” she says. As for rural areas, “It’s not as though all the farmland is being used by very productive white farmers. There’s a lot of land that’s not being used.”

She also notes that for all the concern about property rights, land expropriation already happens regularly, for instance when the government grants mining rights to companies on land owned by private individuals, and that often the victims are poor and black, not rich and white.

Still, there are reasons for concern. In a country as corrupt as South Africa, further erosion of property rights and state seizure of property are a recipe for abuse, particularly if the land were nationalized, as Malema proposes. Ramaphosa may only want to use this authority sparingly, if at all, but he’s also raising the hopes of his supporters and may very well start a political process he can’t control.

“It’s a very dangerous thing to do. People don’t even realize that the Constitution can’t be changed before the election, so people are going to feel very let down,” Claassens says. “ This rhetoric of expropriation without compensation, the idea that there’s something wrong with the Constitution, provides a kind of silver bullet that removes responsibility for the problem from the government.”

South Africa’s deep economic inequality and the lingering legacy of apartheid are serious endemic problems. Land expropriation as endorsed by Ramaphosa is not necessarily the best way to address them. Trump’s endorsement of white supremacist paranoia isn’t exactly a productive contribution to the debate.