President Trump embraced a longtime white-nationalist talking point when he tweeted about alleged “large scale killing” of white farmers in South Africa, drawing praise Thursday from white nationalists and protests from anti-racism groups in the U.S.
“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,” Trump tweeted Wednesday night. Appearing to quote a Tucker Carlson segment on Fox News, Trump wrote the “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.”
South Africa’s government immediately protested Trump’s remark, writing on Twitter that “South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.”
“Thank you!” tweeted David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, later adding an image that said, “Stop White Genocide,” with the hashtag #SouthAfrica. Duke has strongly praised Trump in the past, including after last year’s violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., when Trump struggled to criticize white nationalists who clashed with anti-racism protesters.
Land reform is a complicated issue in South Africa, and violence is also a serious problem. But experts say white nationalists and other far-right figures in the U.S. and abroad have conflated the issues to push a message of “white genocide” happening in South Africa.
The claim had long percolated on the far-right before appearing on Fox News and in the White House, which is what made its sudden appearance on Trump’s Twitter feed striking to anti-racism groups.
“This is a white supremacist talking point,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement on Twitter. “For years they’ve campaigned to stop ‘white genocide’ in South Africa & made false claims about race-based killings of white South African farmers.”
For decades, South Africa has struggled to correct the legacy of apartheid, in which a white ruling minority — the descendants of European colonialists — had denied black South Africans various rights and access to farmland.
Today, black South Africans make up 80% of the population but own just 4% of the country's land. The government, dominated by the African National Congress since 1994, has pursued policies seeking to transfer white-owned farmland to black owners, often meeting failure.
South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa has suggested amending the constitution to allow uncompensated seizures by the government.
The issue has been closely followed in the U.S. by white nationalists and far-right figures, who have hyped stories of black-on-white violence in South Africa, as they often do in the U.S., to help push their political messages about the need for white power.
“Opening up space to talk about White South Africans — giving his base the permission to seriously discuss White dispossession — is a monumental achievement,” tweeted Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist.
Spencer added a caveat: “I'll remain critical of all this because Trump is effectively live-tweeting Fox News, and he has simply not been effective at implementing policies that reflect his defining ideas.”
South African experts and political figures largely denounced Trump’s “large scale killing” tweet.
"People are not being targeted because of their race, but because they are vulnerable and isolated on the farms," Gareth Newham, head of the crime and justice program at the Institute for Security Studies in the capital, Pretoria, told the Associated Press.
"He is part of the right-wing lynch mob using the fear factor in order for us to maintain the status quo," Zizi Kodwa, a member of the ruling party's national executive committee, told the Associated Press. "Donald Trump is a weapon of mass destruction."
A former U.S. ambassador to South Africa under the Obama administration, Patrick Gaspard, accused Trump of using a “disproven racial myth” to distract the public from the recent guilty plea and criminal conviction of close political associates Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort.
But AfriForum, a group that represents some white South African interests, welcomed Trump’s tweet.