Cyril Ramaphosa. REUTERS
Cyril Ramaphosa. REUTERS

Officials from the department of international relations and co-operation will meet with the US embassy on Thursday, to discuss US President Donald Trump's tweet about land and farm murders.

Trump tweeted that he has asked US secretary of state Mike Pompeo to study expropriation without compensation and farm murders, seemingly after watching a segment on Fox News.

He tweeted that he asked Pompeo to "closely study the South African land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers".

Trump also included the sentence: "South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers", and tagged Fox News host Tucker Carlson and the channel in his tweet.

The presidency said on Thursday that it had noted Trump’s tweet, "which is misinformed in our view", but said the matter would be taken up through diplomatic channels. "To this end, the presidency will request the minister of the department of international relations and co-operation to obtain clarification from the US ambassador," said Khusela Diko, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson. 

Minister Lindiwe Sisulu described Trump’s tweet as “unfortunate”, adding “it is regrettable that the tweet is based on false information”.

In the segment on the Tucker Carlson Tonight show on Fox News, titled, "Inside SA’s racist land seizures", Carlson stated as fact that the constitution had already been amended, and ridiculed the US state department’s statement on the process in SA.

Trump’s tweet also comes after US think-tank the Cato Institute published an editorial calling on his administration to act against SA, possibly by removing it from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) trade deal, which allows favourable South African exports to the US.

An editorial on the topic was written on the think-tank’s web site by Marian Tupy, who was the expert interviewed by Carlson on the segment. Ernst Roets and Kallie Kriel, leaders of lobby group AfriForum, reportedly visited Carlson’s studio earlier this year in their tour to the US, where farm murders were among the issues they raised.

Huffington Post reported at the time that Roets and Kriel had also met with the Cato Institute during their visit to the US.

'Mature response'

Political analyst professor Somadoda Fikeni has applauded Pretoria’s reaction to the Trump tweet, saying it is the “most mature response”.

“When you are dealing with sensitive matters, you don’t want to inflame them. Stick to facts and pretend there was a misunderstanding. They on the other side might say it was misunderstood, and it works to your favour if you are a country that seems measured and understands the policy issues, and the timing,” he said. 

Fikeni said Trump’s antics are aimed at deflecting attention from his own woes in light of the scandals that have characterised his presidency. 

On Tuesday, Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort was convicted on bank and tax fraud charges; at the same time, his erstwhile lawyer and adviser Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felonies. However, Fikeni said, the deflection attempts did not make Trump’s commentary on the land issues in SA any less dangerous. 

The US is SA’s third largest trading partner after China and Germany.

“Donald Trump is facing a myriad challenges at home that may impact his party’s performance in the mid-terms. Often, leaders create external enemies — for deflection purposes. He looked for enemies in Iran, Asia, Mexico so that the focus is on those melodramatic moments. The US being a superpower is not to be ignored, even when its leader is unpredictable and also does not have a nuanced understanding of global issues; that makes him more dangerous,” he said. 

Labour union Solidarity — which warned earlier this month that the country’s land expropriation policy would lead to fallout over Agoa — said it would watch the outcomes of the investigation by Trump’s administration with keen interest. It said SA would no longer be eligible for Agoa if expropriation threatened property rights. 

Solidarity’s deputy general secretary Marius Croucamp said the union was not shocked by the sentiments expressed by Trump because similar concerns over Agoa eligibility were expressed by US diplomats they met with a few months ago. 

“We met with diplomats of the US on steel tariff issues; they told us that the concern was that property rights should be upheld," Croucamp said. “The land issue has intensified since then ... The issue of farm murders and property rights is something we have been concerned about, we will see what comes out of the American investigation. It’s alarming.” 

Verify the facts

Communications minister Nomvula Mokonyane also responded to Trump's tweet. It was unfortunate that the first citizen of the US could say that SA had actually amended its constitution, she said on Thursday.

The minister was responding to questions during a post-cabinet media briefing about Trump’s tweet and noted that the tweet was posted after the cabinet had concluded its meeting on Wednesday, so the cabinet had not discussed it. She insisted that the tweet has not affected SA’s relations with the US. “For now, we have not fallen out with anyone,” the minister stressed.

Mokonyane noted that Trump’s tweet was in response to a report on Fox News and said any “self-respecting nation” would want to verify the facts. She said that more work needed to be done through Brand SA and trade missions on spreading the word about what the government’s intentions were with regard to land expropriation because the “onslaught” was intensifying.

Right-wing politics were raising issues not only about land but about migration as well. There had to be constant briefings by the department of international relations and co-operation with its diplomats and with foreign representatives in SA, which has a responsible, democratically elected government with good intentions towards a better, more prosperous world.

“We are concerned about what is being perceived,” she said, adding that it was concerning that South Africans who were supposed to be patriots were raising these issues. However, she noted that many nations had afforded SA the space to resolve the land issue.

The minister said SA was still a country under construction and issues of land are very important to its future in terms of economic growth, transformation, reconciliation, and for the restoration of the dignity of all South Africans. There has to be change and faster processes with regard to the expropriation of land without compensation.

She said that SA should not be compared with other countries and has to deal with its own challenges.