Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS
Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS

Until the wee hours of Thursday morning, watching Donald Trump had been a spectator sport for South Africans, who have delighted at mocking his crazy comments on matters as diverse as immigrants, Canadian politics, Amazon and North Korea.

All that changed when the US president launched a Twitter assault on SA’s land expropriation plans and what he called the "large scale killing of farmers".

Trump’s tweet appears to have been brought about by two events. The first was his crumbling ability to see off legal challenges to his presidency as his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was found guilty of bank and tax fraud, and the guilty plea entered by his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, on charges of campaign finance violations. These events called for a distraction.

The second, and perhaps more proximate, cause of Trump’s Twitter assault was the airing of a six-minute diatribe against President Cyril Ramaphosa and land expropriation by the right-of-centre Fox News channel. Trump’s tweet included references to "@TuckerCarlson" and "@FoxNews" and occurred after the airing of this segment.

Tucker Carlson’s full-frontal assault against Ramaphosa and SA is an astonishing piece of what has come to be known as "alt-right" journalism.

According to Carlson, Ramaphosa "has begun seizing land from his citizens because they are the wrong skin colour". This, he says is "literally the definition of racism".

Also in the line of fire is Trump’s old foe, Barack Obama, who had done the unthinkable and "praised Ramaphosa by name" for inspiring hope at the recent Mandela celebration in Johannesburg.

Carlson goes so far as to describe Ramaphosa as a "racist" and Obama as a "coward" for not calling him out over land expropriation.

Carlson approached the US state department for comment and was told: "SA is a strong democracy with resilient institutions including a free press and a resilient judiciary." This, he said was "an unbelievable statement".

And so Trump was moved to tweet. This is what he said: "I have asked secretary of state @SecPompeo to closely study the SA land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large-scale killing of farmers."

The temptation to dismiss this as yet another example of Trump skating on thin facts should be resisted. The US is in a position to inflict a lot of pain on SA.

His tweet came a day after the Cato Institute think-tank published an editorial calling on Trump to boot SA out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which allows it to trade with the US on favourable terms.

More than that, Trump has shown a willingness to rapidly escalate his displeasure with a country, with large consequences. The most recent and salutary example is Turkey, where he has imposed sanctions and threatened more because of the detention of a US pastor.

The result has been catastrophic for Turkey’s currency and may have caused severe long-term damage to its economy.

There is indeed a vigorous debate over land expropriation in SA and, should it be implemented in a sweeping, destructive manner, there is no doubt that it could damage this country, as this newspaper has frequently pointed out.

But that debate is being conducted through a democratic parliament, which has engaged in public consultation. It has been the subject of vigorous discussion in a free media and will require the amendment of the constitution by a two-thirds majority.

No land has yet been seized without compensation.

To describe Ramaphosa as a frothing racist who is stealing land because he hates whites is absolutely untrue and has no basis in fact. SA’s response has been mature. It has refrained from an angry retort and has asked the US ambassador for clarity on Trump’s tweet.

The ANC has been meeting Agri SA to explain that it does not want a policy change to damage agricultural production and that it is looking at the more productive use of fallow land.

Ramaphosa needs to get onto the front foot and explain this more nuanced case for expropriation to the world in clear terms if he is to roll back the tide of disinformation. A failure to do so will allow this sensitive debate to be defined by the late-night tweets of a man under siege.