South Africa accused US president Donald Trump of fuelling racial tensions on Thursday after he said farmers were being forced off their land and many of them killed.
Trump’s tweet touched on the overwhelmingly white ownership of farmland in South Africa - one of the most sensitive issues in the country’s post-apartheid history.
‘South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past,’ said the government on an official Twitter account.
The foreign ministry said in a statement it had met US embassy officials and warned them over the ‘alarmist, false, inaccurate and misinformed, as well as – in some cases – politically-motivated statements,’ on the issue.
Foreign minister Lindiwe Sisulu will also speak directly with her American opposite number, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, it said earlier.
Trump wrote overnight: ‘I have asked secretary of state... Pompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.’
His tweet apparently followed a segment on conservative Fox News about Pretoria’s plan to change the constitution to speed up expropriation of land without compensation to redress racial imbalances in land ownership.
‘‘South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers’,’ said Trump’s post, which tagged the show’s host, Tucker Carlson, as well as the channel.
In the clip, Carlson painted an apocalyptic picture of the situation accompanied by on-screen graphics warning of the ‘threat of violence and economic collapse’.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who faces elections in 2019, has claimed expropriating farms without compensating their owners would ‘undo a grave historical injustice’ against the black majority during colonialism and the apartheid era.
Even though apartheid ended in 1994, the white community that makes up eight percent of the population ‘possess 72 percent of farms’ compared to ‘only four percent’ in the hands of black people who make up four-fifths of the population, Ramaphosa said.
The stark inequality stems from purchases and seizures during the colonial era that were then enshrined in law during apartheid.
But plans to change the constitution have yet to be approved by parliament, and there is a vigorous debate in South Africa about how land redistribution would work - and whether seizures could be economically damaging as they were in post-independence Zimbabwe.
Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party which opposes forced expropriation but backs land reform, said ‘fear mongering by international leaders adds no value’.
‘The injustices of land dispossession in South Africa can be addressed by our constitution in its current form. We must ensure ownership of land for all South Africans,’ he tweeted.
Later on Thursday, US state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called for ‘a peaceful and transparent public debate’.
However she added that on ‘the expropriation of land without compensation, our position is that that would risk sending South Africa down the wrong path’.
Earlier this year, Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton sparked a diplomatic row after he said that Canberra should give ‘special attention’ to white South African farmers seeking asylum.
The level of violence against farmers and farm workers is hotly contested but the police’s latest figures show there were 74 farm murders in 2016-17, according to the Africa Check fact-checking site.
South Africa’s leading farming lobby group AgriSA on Thursday praised the government’s ‘commitment to agriculture’.
‘As a country it’s important that we find solutions together - we did this pre-1994 and we can do it again,’ AgriSA chief executive Omri van Zyl told the SABC broadcaster.
Van Zyl was speaking at a conference on the land issue also attended by Deputy President David Mabuza who warned against ‘spreading falsehoods’.
‘We would like to discourage those who are using this sensitive and emotive issue of land to divide us,’ he said.
But Kallie Kriel, chief executive of AfriForum - a group that advocates for its largely white membership - welcomed Trump’s intervention and attacked Ramaphosa for pressing ahead with the policy.
‘We need to get international support to put pressure on the South African government to hopefully make them re-visit their stance,’ he said.
Kriel added that Trump could suspend South Africa from the African Growth and Opportunity Act trade programme if property rights were not respected.
‘The US has a lot of power,’ he said.
South Africa’s rand currency dropped as much as 1.9 percent against the US dollar following Trump’s tweet, according to the Bloomberg news agency, ending four days of gains against the greenback.
Julius Malema, the leader of the radical opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party, called Trump a ‘pathological liar’ and told him to ‘stay out of South Africa’s domestic affairs’.