Trump's South Africa tweet is false, counterproductive and dangerous

Trump's South Africa tweet is false, counterproductive and dangerous
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Last week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE elbowed his way into a contentious, divisive debate about land reform in South Africa.

Reacting to a spectacularly uninformed segment of Tucker Carlson Tonight, he tweeted that he had asked Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUN condemns Iran military parade attack President strikes softer tone on North Korea at United Nations Overnight Defense — Presented by Raytheon — Trump returns to UN praising Kim | Iran in crosshairs later this week | US warns Russia on missile defense in Syria MORE “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.’”

Not only were the president’s comments riddled with falsehoods, they were counterproductive and dangerous. 

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First, the president (and Carlson) got it wrong. The South African government currently is not expropriating land without compensation, and there have not been large-scale killing of farmers. Those are patently untrue statements. In fact, some studies indicate that the number of killings of farmers and farm workers is at a 20-year low.

What is happening is that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is debating whether to pass an amendment that clarifies an existing constitutional clause that allows exportation without compensation for the public good. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has said land distribution will be handled responsibly, stressing, “It will not be a smash and grab.” Expect a long, drawn-out bureaucratic process.

The context here is important. Since the ANC came to power, it has struggled to address a legacy of racial discrimination and economic inequality. No issue is more potent than land ownership for black South Africans.

It is both symbolic and integral to economic uplift for South Africa’s historically disadvantaged black population, and it has been moving too slow for the ANC. While some 3 million hectares have been transferred into black hands since 1994, land ownership is still disproportionately white owned. 

Ramaphosa faces considerable pressure, especially from his left flank to make headway on this issue. His party is up for re-election next year, and one of the two opposition parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters, is touting more radical reforms, including state nationalization of land.

Ramaphosa does not want to cede this issue and risk his rural constituency. At the same time, Ramaphosa is sensitive to the business community’s reactions.

As a former corporate executive, he understands land expropriation without compensation is anathema to investors, and he wants to show that the process will follow the rule of law and respect property rights.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Ramaphosa has followed up every public statement on land reform by engaging directly with South Africa’s farmers and corporations.

Second, the president’s tweet and his directive to Secretary Pompeo is the absolute wrong way to shape a policy debate in South Africa. No country appreciates Washington wadding into its internal affairs, but South Africa is notoriously intolerant of finger-wagging.

Whatever U.S. leaders say publicly — under any administration — tends to be a lightning rod in South Africa. If President Trump wanted to spur a constructive debate on land reform, he failed miserably.

The South African government swiftly rejected Trump’s tweet, accusing him of seeking to “divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.”

Indeed, the president’s tweet has overheated social media platforms in South Africa, increasing the volume of hateful, racially charged comments. Justice Malala, a columnist, on Monday wrote that “this sensitive, important, complex and divisive debate will now be drenched with Trump’s ignorant, bigoted, and shortsighted views. We do not need yet another populist hack on this — we have enough already.”

His tweet also gives further credence to a narrative that the United States does not care about South Africa. The president has still not appointed an ambassador to South Africa, and U.S. aluminum and steel tariffs have hurt the country’s economy, which exported $1.3 billion in aluminum and steel in 2017 to the United States.

South Africa — the continent’s second-largest economy and an incoming U.N. nonpermanent Security Council member — is now even less likely to countenance U.S. requests on national security issues. The president’s tweet has made bilateral relations more difficult with a country where diplomacy is never easy — even in the best of times.

There is still time to walk back this disaster. President Trump should clear the air and correct some of the factual inaccuracies in his tweet. Then, the United States should exit the public debate. U.S. interests would be better served by following the advice of Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, who passed away last week.

Lyman counseled that South Africa has to "own" its challenges, but the United States can fashion its assistance to “facilitate it, help it though several crises and encourage it in a multitude of ways.”

If South Africa fairly and justly resolves its land issue, it will do so because it brokered its own settlement, and not one imposed or devised by outsiders.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). He is the former national intelligence officer for Africa at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.