Ramaphosa's 'killings of white farmers' comment: What the president meant

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: AFP)
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: AFP)

On September 26, 2018 President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke to financial news service Bloomberg on the sidelines of the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York. In the interview he said that there are "no killings of… white farmers in South Africa". The comments came in reaction to President Donald Trump's recent tweet in which he lamented the "large scale killing of farmers" and land seizures.

Reaction from South Africa was swift, with criticism from some quarters that Ramaphosa was lying and that white farmers were in fact being killed. Gareth van Onselen, an analyst at the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), tweeted in reaction that Ramaphosa's message was "palpably false at face value".

What Ramaphosa said

"[Trump and I] were seated together at a lunch table, so we never really got time to talk about the tweet. It was just an opportunity to shake hands, to say 'how are you?' and all that. But on the tweet itself, it was clearly misinformed. Whoever gave him that information was completely wrong. There are no killings of… white farmers in South Africa. There's no land grab in South Africa.

"We're involved in a process of discussing land reform. Land was the original sin in the history of South Africa. We're seeking to put right what was done wrong many, many years, hundreds of years ago when the majority of the land mass of the country was appropriated by a minority…"

What did Ramaphosa react to?

Ramaphosa reacted to Trump's tweet on August 23, 2018, in which the president of the United States said that he will ask his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to investigate "land seizures and expropriations" and the "large scale killing of farmers" in South Africa. South Africans reacted sharply to Trump's comments, with minister of international relations and cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu calling it "unfortunate" and based on "false information".

Why did Trump tweet?

By all accounts Trump tweeted in reaction to a segment broadcast on television by Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson, who was earlier visited by AfriForum's Ernst Roets and handed a copy of his book, Kill the Boer. Roets argues that the government is "complicit" in farm attacks and that there is "a looming process of ethnic cleansing". Carlson told his audience that Ramaphosa was "a racist" and that the South African Constitution had been amended to enable the seizure of white land.

What has Ramaphosa said about crime?

In November 2017, answering questions in the National Council of Provinces, Ramaphosa spoke about farm killings and said: "We condemn the farm killings that continue to take place in our country, because we can never justify any form of taking of life. The farm killings must be brought to an end."

In his maiden State of the Nation Address, he said: "In improving the quality of life of all South Africans, we must intensify our efforts to tackle crime and build safer communities." And in July he referred to crime as "pervasive" and the result of "high unemployment rates, poverty and inequality". He added that normal South Africans bore the brunt of high levels of crime.

How bad is crime in general and rural crime in particular?

Levels of crime in South Africa have reached inordinately high levels. In 2017/'18 murder rates increased by 6,9% on the previous year, with 57 murders daily at a rate of almost 36 murders per 100 000 people. According to official police statistics there were 62 killings on farms in the period under review. Afrikaner rights group AfriForum disputes this figure, saying it is higher. Criminologists agree that violent crime in South Africa is rampant and affects every sector of society.

What did Ramaphosa mean?

Ramaphosa spoke in the context of the Trump tweet, which in turn was based on the Carlson segment on Fox News. The president commented on the two main planks of the Trump tweet: "land seizures" and "large scale killings of farmers". Both are untrue. There is no evidence of government sanctioned land seizures (eg. land grabs), nor is there empirical evidence of "large scale killings" on farms.

Ramaphosa prefaces his statement ("There are no killings of… white farmers in South Africa") by referring to Trump's tweet ("But on the tweet itself, it was clearly misinformed. Whoever gave him that information was completely wrong.") His statement seemingly was not a comment on crime in general (where white farmers are also victims), but a comment specific to the Trump tweet about "large scale killings".

Van Onselen, in a thread on Twitter, argues Ramaphosa's statement that Trump's tweet was "completely wrong" is absolutist, which does not leave room for nuance or context. He added that the reference to "large scale killings of farmers" is not "completely wrong", that there is no genocide but that it is a "profound problem".

In a statement the IRR says researcher James Myburgh has determined the murder rate among farmers to be 108 per 100 000 farmers, as opposed to 34 murders per 100 000 people in 2016/'17. Its CEO, Frans Cronjé, commented: "Ramaphosa's comments are offensive to the victims of farm murders - black and white - and to the millions of South Africans who live with insecure title to the properties they occupy. Retreating into the realm of fiction will not help to break the political and economic impasse that has been triggered by the government's attempts to dilute property rights."

AgriSA, the country's largest representative body of farmers, has also criticised Ramaphosa, saying that it is "displeased" with Ramaphosa's remarks."Farm attacks and murders on all farmers, farmworkers and their families is a huge problem that needs to be recognised," said Dan Kriek, AgriSA president and appealed to him "to give the necessary nuances and facts about the matter".

Comment from the Presidency?

Khusela Diko, Ramaphosa's spokesperson, said from New York: "The president was responding to a question posed to him about President Trump's tweet where he spoke of 'land and and farm seizures and expropriation and large scale killings of white farmers'. This is what the president was dismissing and we reject the notion that he lied. There is no programme of large scale killings of white farmers in South Africa. Yes, there is crime and it happens in all our communities; no one in SA is targeting white people or farmers."

She added that Ramaphosa responded to a question and did not repeat the particulars of what was asked, such as the reference to "large scale killings". 

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