Taking a swipe at UK Prime Minister Theresa May as she struggled to dance with schoolchildren during her visit to South Africa this week, controversial British columnist Katie Hopkins tweeted: “Whites are being slaughtered in South Africa & inexplicably Appeaser May chooses to crucify herself”.
Hopkins’ tweet was the latest example of a global campaign to portray South Africa’s once dominant white population as a victimised minority under attack.
“The violent, ethnic cleansing of white farmers by armed, black gangs is infuriating & heartbreaking. And the world doesn’t care. Or at least the mainstream media doesn’t care. Do you?” she added.
Her comments reflect the growing influence of South Africa’s conservative Afrikaner groups who are conducting global lobbying campaigns to support their message that white farmers are being targeted and killed, that the government is seizing their land, they are being discriminated against by affirmative action programmes and that their language is being sidelined.
US President Donald Trump has also taken up the cudgels on their behalf, tweeting last week that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to closely study “land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers” in South Africa.
Between April 2016 and March 2017, 74 people – of all races – were murdered on farms in South Africa, according to police figures, compared to more than 19,000 murders nationwide in the same period.
The BBC has found that there is no reliable data to suggest farmers are at greater risk of being murdered than the average South African.
On the land question, the government has not yet started seizing farms but says it will change the constitution to allow it to expropriate land without compensation, hence the intense lobbying by those linked to farmers.
The government says this is needed to reverse the forced eviction of black farmers under white minority rule.
South Africa’s land problem
- The Natives Land Act of 1913 restricted black people from buying or renting land in “white South Africa”, leading to the forced removals of black people
- After the end of apartheid in 1994, the ANC government said it wanted to return 30% of this land to its previous owners by 2014
- It is estimated that 10% of commercial farmland has been redistributed.
Mr Trump’s intervention was a political coup for AfriForum – the main South African lobby group championing the cause of Afrikaners, especially farmers.
“They [Afriforum] are gripped in a siege mentality. They can’t see a world where their privilege is challenged. They disregard history,” said University of South Africa political analyst Somadoda Fikeni.
More than 24 years after the end of apartheid, white people enjoy average standards of living far higher than black South Africans.
But Mr Fikeni accepts that it is unlikely that groups like AfriForum will give in easily.
“Afrikaner nationalism was built around farming and language, so they see this as an existential crisis,” he said.
AfriForum’s leaders, Kallie Kriel and Ernest Roets, toured the US earlier this year, meeting conservative think-tanks, the government’s international aid agency USAid, and Mr Trump’s security adviser John Bolton, who was given a book which alleges that the South African government is complicit in the killing of white farmers, or boers.
But the main influence on Mr Trump’s tweet was Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who aired a programme about farm killings, and who had also hosted Mr Roets during AfriForum’s US tour.
Mr Roets welcomed the tweet – despite the fact that it incorrectly claimed the South African government was “now seizing land”.
“I think our lobbying has certainly had an impact because we have spoken with a lot of people who have had contact with President Trump and we have spoken with many think tanks, one of them, for example, the Cato Institute, which has taken a very strong stance shortly before this statement by President Trump.”
Mr Kriel told the BBC that he did not believe the “wording” of the tweet should be debated, and the focus should instead be on protecting property rights rather than allowing the South African government to press ahead with its plans.
“A crisis can be averted if there is international pressure. If you turn a blind eye, it can bring us to the position of Zimbabwe. We don’t want the country to be destroyed,” he said.
The chaotic and sometimes violent seizure of white-owned land in neighbouring Zimbabwe, which had a similar history of European settlement, has been widely blamed for wrecking the country’s once prosperous economy.
AfriForum is not the only Afrikaner group which has lobbied in the US.
Another one is the far smaller and more extreme Suidlanders (Afrikaans for Southlanders), whose members Simon Roche and André Coetzee carried out a six-month visit to the US last year.
They met various far-right activists, including David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Trump supporter, as well as other white supremacists and Nazi sympathisers, according to South African journalist Lloyd Gedye.
“This network has allowed the Suidlanders to spread its message of ‘white genocide’ around the world,” he wrote in the Mail & Guardian newspaper.
This includes Australia, where several right-wing rallies have been held this year with protesters – many of them white South African migrants – holding up placards such as “Recognise the genocide” and “Stop the murders”.
The message has resonated with Australia’s former Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton who said in March that he was looking at giving South Africa’s white farmers access to fast-track visas because they were being “persecuted” and needed help from a “civilised” country.
This prompted outrage from the South African government.
Mr Fikeni told the BBC that international support for South Africa’s white farmers was not surprising, and tied in with the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump, and the rise of right-wing parties across Europe.
“The anti-establishment is growing across the world, partly because of immigration pressures. There are those who feel local cultures are being invaded, who want whiteness to be maintained in its purest form,” the political analyst said.
May differs with Trump
The view that white South Africans are at risk of a “genocide” has also been taken up by members of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group, a small right-wing group in the European parliament.
British national Janice Atkinson – who serves in the parliament as an independent after being expelled by the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party (UKIP) – unsuccessfully pushed for a parliamentary debate on South African farm murders last November.
In February, Ms Atkinson – who has built strong relations with South Africa’s right-wing Freedom Front Plus – wrote to then-UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, urging him to push the South African government to drop its land reform plans.
She added that South Africa “is on the brink of another Zimbabwe” and quoted Freedom Front Plus leader Connie Mulder, as saying that South Africa “could slip into a Rwandan situation”. Some 800,000 people were killed in the 1994 genocide in the East African country.
“The world must open its eyes now to what is happening. If it does not it will have blood on its hands for not acting to prevent what will, tragically, be an entirely predictable catastrophe,” she wrote.
Mr Kriel said AfriForum believed that as South Africa was its former colony, the UK had an “extra responsibility” to put pressure on the African National Congress (ANC) government not to expropriate land without compensation.
But Mrs May, during her visit to South Africa, said she supported measures that were legal and transparent and she welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s assurances there would be “no smash and grab” seizures of land.
The editor of the UK-based Africa Confidential publication, Patrick Smith, said he believed that Mrs May’s comments were “recommended by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to differentiate the UK’s position from that of Trump and his white nationalist pals”.
Since the vote to leave the European Union, the UK government was “working hard to get a foothold in markets it hasn’t paid attention to” so it was unlikely to strain relations with the South African government over land, Mr Smith added.
Unlike other groups, AfriForum was not claiming that there was a genocide against white South Africans, but there were “elements” of it, like inflammatory rhetoric and the brutal murder of farmers, Mr Kriel said.
In 2011, the High Court banned the song Shoot the Boer – then the political signature tune of radical Economic Freedom Front (EFF) leader Julius Malema – saying it amounted to hate speech.
“The words of one person inciting others… that’s how a genocide can start,” said Judge Collin Lamont as he delivered his judgement on Mr Malema, whose vocal, and popular, calls for land reform have pushed the ANC to toughen its position.
Mr Kriel said AfriForum believed that the ANC’s land reform plan had reneged on the pact reached with Afrikaners when apartheid ended in 1994.
“There is supposed to be a just system where there is no infringement of human rights and property rights,” he said.
But for Mr Fikeni, AfriForum is selectively reading the constitution, which outlines the rights of all South Africans.
“There needs to be redistribution to address the wrongs of the past. You can’t talk about reconciliation and forget social justice,” he said.