On Wednesday, the government of South Africa withdrew a proposed seizure of white-owned land. Just six days after President Donald Trump warned he was closely studying the situation in South Africa, the ruling African National Congress party withdrew a bill that that would have enabled the government to force owners to sell land at prices well below market rates. The measure was intended to redress supposed racial disparities in land ownership. 

The ruling said that the bill, which was passed by parliament in 2016, needs further consideration. Leftists in the country have threatened to kill whites. According to President Cyril Ramaphosa, who himself owns a cattle operation of more than 12,600 acres, whites in South Africa represent just 8 percent of the population but “possess 72 percent of farms.” In contrast, he said that “only four percent” of farms are in the hands of black people who make up four-fifths of the population.

Whites from the Netherlands and Great Britain settled along the coast of South Africa in the 1600s. In the 1940s, the South African government imposed its apartheid system of racial and ethnic segregation. The country saw significant economic growth for decades even while racial strife grew deeper. Apartheid was eliminated in 1990, and South Africa has had a representative democracy since then. While most of the whites speak Afrikaans -- a derivative of Dutch -- and have Dutch ancestry, they have no right of return to the modern Netherlands. Since the announcement of compulsory sale of white-owned land, tensions have been growing.

In a tweet last week, Trump wrote, “I have asked Secretary of State... (Mike) Pompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.” He added, “South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers.”

The government of South Africa initially reacted angrily to Trump's tweet, telling American officials that his comments were “alarmist, false, inaccurate and misinformed.”

In July, Ramaphosa announced that the ruling ANC party would amend the country’s constitution to allow government expropriation without compensation to speed up the process of land redistribution, but no land has yet been seized. Since the end of apartheid, the ANC had followed a “willing-seller, willing-buyer” model under which the government bought white-owned property for redistribution to blacks. So far, progress has been slow. According to the government, title deeds show that blacks own four percent of private land, and only eight percent of farmland has been transferred to black hands. This is well short of a target of 30 percent that was to be met in 2014. However, AgriSA, a farm industry group, says 27 percent of farmland is owned by blacks, including state land and plots tilled by black subsistence farmers in the old homelands. The homelands are analogous to Indian reservations in the U.S.

The 17 million people who reside in the former homelands, who represent a third of the population, are mostly subsistence farmers working on communal land. Critics of the government contend that millions of subsistence farmers should be given title deeds for the farmland in place of seizing land from whites. Some members of the ANC support the proposal. 

There is resistance from tribal leaders, especially since former president Kgalema Motlanthe, called them “village tin-pot dictators.” Warning the ANC in July to exclude territory under their control from expropriation, the Zulu king said he would die to defend his land.

Some whites in South Africa that they are being subjected to a genocidal campaign of dispossession, which is a claim that has been echoed by supporters in the U.S. and UK. Violent crime is a serious problem across the country. According to AgriSA, 47 farmers were murdered since 2017. However, farm murders are at a 20-year low. Afriforum, which champions white rights in South Africa, plans to intensify its publicity campaign to warn the world about the threat South Africa poses to property rights and farmers’ lives.

In 2017, the U.S. gave $471 million in aid to South Africa, mostly in the area of HIV/AIDs prevention.
 

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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