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South Africans Reject Trump's Characterization Of Land Ownership Issues


President Trump last night told his Twitter followers that he's going to have the State Department look into attacks on white farmers in South Africa. South Africans are now accusing Trump of trying to stoke racial tensions in the country. South Africa has been grappling with a complicated debate on land reform. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It began with a report by Tucker Carlson on Fox News.


TUCKER CARLSON: The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has begun - and you may have seen this in the press - seizing the land from his own citizens without compensation because they are the wrong skin color. That is literally the definition of racism. Racism is what our elites say they dislike most. Donald Trump is a racist, they say, but they pay no attention to this at all.

KELEMEN: Trump was quick to pick up on this, writing on Twitter about the, quote, "large-scale killing of farmers" in South Africa and ordering his secretary of state to look into it. The South African government was taking none of it, accusing Trump of having a narrow perception of what was happening in the country and of stoking racial tensions. Many others were shocked by Trump's tweet, according to Anton Harber, who teaches journalism at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.

ANTON HARBER: It's surprising that he should pick up on it in this way, in response to a Fox News report which was just inaccurate, wrong and very unfortunately so.

KELEMEN: Harber is on the board of a fact-checking group that has looked into some of the myths in this debate over land reform in post-apartheid South Africa. A researcher at Africa Check, Kate Wilkinson, warns against provocative statements and misleading data. She says police reports show that 47 people, a figure that includes blacks and whites, were killed on farms in South Africa in the past year.

KATE WILKINSON: We just cannot say whether people living on farms and small holdings in South Africa face a risk that is higher than the average South African.

KELEMEN: Here in the U.S., though, far-right groups have been warning about what they call a white genocide in South Africa and have even gathered thousands of signatures for an online petition to encourage President Trump to allow white South Africans to emigrate here. Professor Harber says one reason for this is a group called AfriForum, which has made inroads with white nationalist groups here in the U.S. and now, it seems, with the White House.

HARBER: They're quite vocal. And they present themselves as a group that protects minority rights. But they're largely seen as a group that protects white Afrikaans' rights.

KELEMEN: AfriForum welcomed President Trump's tweet, as did many right-wing activists. South Africa's foreign ministry, on the other hand, called in U.S. Embassy officials to complain about it. At the State Department, spokesperson Heather Nauert confirmed that meeting. She also said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken to President Trump about South Africa's land reform debate.


HEATHER NAUERT: I should mention that the expropriation of land without compensation - our position is that that would risk sending South Africa down the wrong path. We continue to encourage a peaceful and transparent public debate about what we consider to be a very important issue, and the South Africans certainly do as well.

KELEMEN: Nauert couldn't say if there are actually any plans in South Africa to carry out such land seizures. She only said Pompeo would, in her words, focus on this. The latest flap comes as the president's wife plans a trip to Africa. No word yet on what countries Melania Trump will visit when she travels without her husband in October. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.