Getting the wrong end of the stick

Dave Steward writes on the US press' response to Trump's tweet on land and farm murders in SA

Opinion on Donald Trump is now so viscerally divided – particularly in the United States – that any cause that he espouses, whatever its merits, will immediately unleash vituperative attacks from his critics and blind endorsement from his supporters.   So it is with his recent tweet on farm murders and expropriation of agricultural land without compensation.

The venerable Washington Post quickly sprang into print in an article on 23 August by David Nakamura, John Hudson and Isaac Stanley-Baker. “White-nationalist groups” they fulminated, “have for years spread false claims about murder rates, assertions that have been widely debunked”.   The problem, they assured their readers is well under control: the number of people murdered on farms has dropped by half over the past two decades – from 140 in 2001-2002 to “only” 74 in 2016-17. Another expert opined that “farm murders are at a 20-year low`’.

All this fuss had been created by Fox News and a “white-supremacist” “fringe group called Afriforum”. These conspiracy theorists “railed against a plan by the South African governing party to pursue constitutional changes allowing the government to redistribute land without compensating the owners.” This was reasonable enough, implied the Washington Post – because the measure was designed to “redress racial inequalities that have persisted for nearly a quarter-century after the end of apartheid.”

According to the article, President Trump’s tweet had annoyed the South African government which announced that it would summon US diplomats to explain the Trump administration’s position. The tweet had also upset South Africa’s Deputy-President, David Mabuza, who said that “we would like to discourage those who are using this sensitive and emotive issue of land to divide us as South Africans by distorting our land reform measures to the international community and spreading falsehoods that our ‘white farmers’ are facing an onslaught from their own government.”

The Washington Post is, of course, quite correct: there is no question of farm murders constituting genocide. It is also true that farmers comprise only a tiny percentage of all murder victims: last year 19 016 people were murdered in South Africa – giving the country a very high murder rate of 33.4/100 000 – compared with a world average of 6/100 000. Farmers comprise fewer than 2 000 of the more than 400 000 murder victims in South Africa since 1994. (By the way, that is more than six times the number of personnel that the United States lost in Vietnam.)

So why all the fuss? Well, there are a number of niggles:

- the farm murder rate is disproportionately high – around 120/100 000 according to the prestigious Institute of Strategic studies (the exact statistic is contested - but it is at least a multiple of the national rate);

- the extraordinary brutality of many of the murders – some of which involved torture;

- the fact that the ruling alliance and the radical EFF have frequently sung an old ANC war song calling for farmers to be killed. Former President Zuma’s version – in contravention of a court order – insisted that “the cabinet” was going to shoot the farmers – thus giving it a more contemporary setting;

- the crimes have become significant because of the highly volatile national debate on land ownership. Also, some crimes – like mass shootings in the USA - attract more attention than others. However, the number of farm murders in South Africa since 1994 was almost twice the 1102 victims of mass shootings in the UNSA since 1966 (source: The Washington Post);

- during the whole of the Mau-Mau uprising only 52 white farmers were murdered - fewer than the number of farm murders in South Africa last year;

- it is not quite true that the number of farm murders has been declining: according to the SAPS statistics (quoted by the ISS) the number of farm murders was as follows: 2011/12: 56; 2012/13: 60; 2013/14: 58; 2014/15: 60; 2015/16: 49; 2016/2017:74.

Then there is the question of the ANC’s plan to “redistribute land without compensating the owners.” This is too serious a question for the future well-being of all South Africans to be dismissed with bland reassurances by Deputy-President David Mabuza.

The threat to change the property clause in the constitution would drive a stake through the heart of South Africa’s historic constitutional settlement. It is based on the premise – often repeated by government leaders - that white people are not the rightful owners of property even though their families may have farmed it for hundreds of years and even though they hold proper title.

The constitution makes full provision for land reform – but requires equitable compensation. A senior government panel recently concluded that the reason why land reform has not succeeded so far is not the fault of the constitution (or of white farmers) – but of government incompetence and corruption.

It is interesting that the Government has decided to call in the US Charge d’Affaires to discuss the Trump tweet – and no doubt the state of bilateral relations between SA and the US. Perhaps, they might use the opportunity also to discuss the 22 July speech of Ace Magashule, the Secretary-General of the ANC. In it he made the following remarkable statements:

He more or less abrogates the 1994 constitutional settlement by rejecting the ”false view that our democratic breakthrough was in itself the end of the struggle for the liberation of our country. The living truth is that they (white Monopoloy capitalists) know that the democratic breakthrough was not at all the end of our revolution, but only the beginning of more protracted struggle for transformation”.

Not content with radical economic transformation in South Africa, he also wants to impose it on the rest of the world: “Now, more than ever before, there is a growing need for a common effort by the progressive movement to demand for the radical socio-economic transformation of the world relations.”

The US Charge d’Affaires might also want some elucidation of his contention that “The mismanagement of the economy by monopoly capital has plunged the world into a deep socio-economic crisis. What has become evident is that the system of capitalism cannot resolve its own contradictions.”

According to the ANC Secretary-General, South Africa is now cosying up to China: “Recently a delegation of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC visited the People's Republic of China to foster relations with the Communist party of China. The ANC and the Communist Party of China has a longstanding relationship based on firm principles of comradeship, loyalty and mutual trust.”

Of particular interest, is his charge that “The continuous acts of sabotage by the USA administration against the people of Cuba is indeed a crime against humanity.”

He also expresses his support for “the struggle of the people of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and he urges “the USA administration to respect the territorial integrity and independence of this great nation…”

Finally, he points out that “a communist party is the vanguard and the most advanced detachment led by the most advanced sections of our society. It is the political leader of the struggle of the working class guided by the scientific revolutionary theory of Marxism Leninism. Its supreme goal is to achieve the highest form of human society, which is communism. A system which is about the creation of a classless society, a communist society based on the foundations of equality.”

Is it surprising that many South Africans of all races are a touch apprehensive about the future and wish to bring some of their concerns to the attention of the world’s number one democracy?

Mr Magashule holds one of the most senior posts in the ruling alliance. Surely, we must take his views seriously? Do they reflect the views of the government – and, if not, is the government prepared to repudiate them – particularly his charge that the US is guilty of a “crime against humanity”?

Dave Steward is Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation.