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Trump Brings Attention To Polarizing South Africa Land Reform Issue

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's turn now to South Africa and something that has been at the center of an emotional debate in that country for many, many years. It's the question of farmland and who owns it. Now, you might be wondering why this is coming up now and why this is coming up in the U.S. And the answer is, as in so many things, President Trump, who tweeted seemingly out of the blue that he would ask Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to, quote, "closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large-scale killing of farmers," unquote.

Now, he may have been prompted by something he saw on Fox News because he ended the tweet with an apparent reference to a headline on Fox - South African government is now seizing land from white farmers. We thought it would be useful to both fact-check those claims and to hear how this is playing out in South Africa, so we've called Lynsey Chutel. She is a journalist at the digital media outlet Quartz, and she is based in Johannesburg.

Lynsey, thanks so much for talking with us.

LYNSEY CHUTEL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So this tweet from President Trump about the issue of land reform in South Africa was probably the first time a lot of Americans had heard of the issue. But this has been an issue, a very polarizing and emotional issue, in South Africa for a long time now. So what does land reform mean in South Africa?

CHUTEL: So land reform has been a debate that has been around South Africa since the end of apartheid. And basically, what it is is the idea that the black population of South Africa, which is the majority, needs to have the land redressed. So you remember with apartheid that black people were systematically removed from their farms, from their homes. So for example, you saw black families being huddled into, like, a tiny part of the country, like, only between 10 and 15 percent. That was the only area they were allowed to own land. And that just became smaller and smaller.

You found that in the 1950s and '60s where black people who had lived in areas that were now suddenly demarcated white areas, you would find the police rolling into those neighborhoods and literally bulldozing black homes because those were now white areas. So after 1994, one of the many things that need to be addressed in South Africa is the fact that black people own just over 1 percent - even today - just over 1 percent of rural land, and they own less than 10 percent of urban land. And that is 80 percent of the population.

MARTIN: So let's fact-check specific phrases, if we could sort of take them apart. President Trump said that the government is now seizing land from white farmers. Is that true?

CHUTEL: So that is incorrect. There's a lot of misinformation and confusion around the farm seizures. So our constitution has always had a clause that allows for the seizure of land. So now we are asking, well, what does that mean - if the Constitution says that you can seize land to redress the past, what does that mean? So what South Africa is doing - and this is quite boring and, frankly, unsexy - is that the president has appointed a committee, and the committee is going to all nine provinces, to small towns and big cities, and they are having a long, drawn-out meetings with everybody to discuss with them what land reform means to them and how we'll do it.

So you're literally seeing people lining up, waiting for their turn at the mic to go, this is what land reform means to me. My family was taken off the land - for example, a black family. You're seeing white families, especially young, white men who say that South Africa's the only country we've known, and our concern is that if you drive us off, where will we go? So we're having a real dialogue. But instead, what's happening is that this misinformation is hijacking the conversation from a far more rational debate that's supposed to happen.

MARTIN: President Trump also referred to the large-scale killing of farmers. Is that true?

CHUTEL: So there has been a growing narrative, and it's really catching hold in the United States, particularly among the "alt-right," or shall we just call them white supremacists? And what they're doing is that they're saying - alleging that there is a genocide in South Africa. And over and over, South Africans have said, there is no genocide here. But there's an argument here that white farmers are being targeted. But the reality on the ground is that the farm murders peaked in 2002 and was around about 150, and they've now decreased to less than 50. In some cases, there are arguments that the crimes are racially motivated, but in a lot of the cases, they're just seen as plain crime.

And the frustrating thing is that when you make it out as if white people are the main victims of crime, you ignore the fact that the highest victims of crime and murder in South Africa are actually young black men. So it just completely colors who the victim is. And I think that it rolls back the hard work the majority of South Africans have been doing to try and reconcile after the terrible injustice that was apartheid.

MARTIN: This question of how land should be owned and what process should govern that has been debated in South Africa for many, many years now. How did this become an issue for President Trump?

CHUTEL: So South Africa has a group. It's called AfriForum, and they say they represent Afrikaans speakers, but what they really do is represent a conservative white minority of Afrikaners. They formed this group saying that white people are now going to be targeted by the new black government. That's, of course, never happened. But they swirl in this narrative that the white minority is going to be killed at some point.

They're a very slick PR team. And what they've done is that they've found an audience in the United States, specifically with conservative media. So for example, Breitbart has picked up this issue a couple times. Glenn Beck has discussed it on his show, and he's told his listeners that South Africa is heading toward a race war. And then, of course, Tucker Carlson has brought this issue up a number of times, so much so that AfriForum actually traveled to the United States in May and got an audience with Ted Cruz's staffers and an audience with John Bolton. So this group, who rely on misinformation, who rely on paranoia and fear, are able to get an audience of such a large scale in the United States. And it would be laughable if it wasn't so dangerous.

MARTIN: That's Lynsey Chutel. She is a journalist with Quartz. And she was kind enough to join us from Cape Town. And she's based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Lynsey, thanks so much for talking with us.

CHUTEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.