Donald Trump, the president of the United States (US), on Wednesday night tweeted about South Africa after presumably watching a television news programme on Fox News. His government, he said, will investigate "land and farm seizures, expropriation and the large scale killings of farmers" in South Africa. How did the message reach him? We trace the origin of his tweet.
Earlier this year news outlets in Australia owned by Rupert Murdoch started carrying horrific stories about the scourge of rural crime in South Africa. Newspapers in the NewsCorp stable published accounts of violent crime, while Sky Australia, carried on Murdoch's Foxtel television, explained that there was a systematic assault on whites in South Africa.
It was grim. "Horror tales from South African farmers," reported The Australian; "South Africa's white farmers attacked, raped and forced from land," said The Daily Telegraph; "White minority 'targeted' in South Africa," added the Courier Mail; and "Rights groups silent on the whites of South Africa," lamented The West Australian.
Newscorp even sent its chief national reporter, Paul Toohey, to spend time in the country to give his readers a flavour of what was happening in South Africa. And Sky Australia, in addition to all the newspaper articles published in NewsCorp publications, repeatedly gave him a platform. Farmers' assets, Toohey said in one interview, "are close being worth nothing, they have no future, they're under attack... the country clearly isn't for them". He added that President Cyril Ramaphosa "wants to take white land" and added that the government is taking "specific measures against white South Africans."
Sky broadcast segments with the titles: White farmers face surge of violence in South Africa, White farmers facing a grim future in South Africa, White farmers "are under attck" by their government and White South African farmers face "a pending genocide".
Then Peter Dutton, the Australian MP who was home affairs minister and representing a constituency in Brisbane with a sizeable number of South African expatriates, joined the fray, saying whites in South Africa need to be given special refugee status in that country. Marches by former South Africans were held in Perth and Brisbane, with many urging the Australian government to help South African farmers.
At around the same time AfriForum, the Afrikaner rights group, released a statement saying that after they had entertained a "prominent Australian journalist" in the country – so that he could get a "first hand" account of the situation – the Australian "mainstream media" started giving coverage of the South African government's assault on private owenership and farm attacks. It will, AfriForum said, start to intensify its international awareness campaign.
On 1 May 2018 AfriForum's Kallie Kriel and Ernst Roets departed to the US. Their destination was anyone and any institution that was willing to hear them out, with meetings set with two think-tanks, the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute. A former South African diplomat, who used to be based in Washington, refers to both as tier-3 think-tanks – not part of the independent, larger grouping of think-tanks in the US capital nor part of the think-tanks that draft the bulk of new policy for the two dominant parties. They are instead considered ideological and receive support from Republican donors like the controversial Koch brothers, particularly Cato.
"Cato's Africa analysis isn't very highly regarded on Capitol Hill… the Senate and House committees will rather look at Heritage if they were looking for the conservative voice," the former diplomat explained.
On 7 May 2018 Kriel and Roets posed in front of the Cato Institute after a meeting with "a senior representative" of the organisation where, according to Roets, they spoke about the "crisis" in South Africa. Roets also gifted a copy of his book, Kill the boer, to the institute. Marian Tupy, an analyst at Cato, told HuffPost in Washington that it believes the policies of the South African government are "racist" and suggested that there are similarities between the apartheid and present democratic government.
On 9 May 2018 the pair visited USAID, the US government's international aid organisation, and "met" with President Donald Trump's national security advisor John Bolton. (A spokesperson for the US government later said Bolton didn't know them and that the meeting was by chance.) On 10 May 2018 they met officials in the office of Republican Senator Ted Cruz and left behind a copy of Roets' book for the failed US presidential candidate.
AfriForum's biggest coup however was securing an interview for Roets on the Fox News Channel with Tucker Carlson, one of the loudest conservative voices in the country. Fox was the biggest cable news network in the US in the first quarter of the year, while Carlson's primetime show was the second most watched in that country, according to Nielsen Media Research.
White farmers in South Africa, Carlson told his viewers, were facing "waves of barbaric attacks" and "the South African government is pursuing a policy of seizing land without any compensation based purely on ethnicity". Roets told Carlson that Parliament had taken a decision to change the Constitution, and although he backpedalled later, he didn't correct Carlson when he said "there's a campaign to crush a minority". Roets also marketed his book, in which he argues that the South African government is "complicit" in the high levels of rural crime.
About a month after AfriForum's visit to Washington (which was described as a massive success) Frans Cronjé, the CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), also beat a path to Washington and met Cato's Tupy, AfriForum's contact at the organisation. He delivered a speech on 20 June 2018 in which he warned that South Africa could become the next Venezuela. He also released a report on the same day in which he warned that the ANC government has been leading an "incremental assault on property rights and the free market" in South Africa.
Besides Cato, Cronjé also visited the International Republican Institute, the National Endowment for Democracy (a SAIRR funder), the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for International Finance.
In its 2015 annual report AfriForum is named among a number of donors and sponsors of the SAIRR and was until recently also listed as such on the organisation's website. (Michael Morris, SAIRR spokesperson, says AfriForum's denotion was a mistake and that it merely commissioned a report from the SAIRR). And last week the SAIRR publicly supported AfriForum's publication of an unverified list of farms allegedly being targeted for expropriation by the state saying it has "every reason to believe the list is legitimate".
AfriForum and the SAIRR's efforts reached their crescendo on Wednesday with Trump's tweet. Carlson interviewed Tupy on his news programme in which he called Ramaphosa a "racist" and former US president Barack Obama a coward, while Tupy told viewers that the South African head of state should "behave in accordance with normal rules".
Carlson said Ramaphosa was "seizing land" and that the Constitution was changed "to steal land from people". Tupy, briefed by Kriel, Roets and Cronjé, sat listening to Carlson and said nothing while Carlson spoke about constitutional amendments and land seizures.
And then Trump tweeted, as he normally does after watching late night Fox. Seizures and farm murders must be investigated by his State Department, he said.
Roets was delighted. "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 now by President Trump," he told News24.
Cronjé was equally pleased. "It is very good that such pressure is mounting as it may help us put a stop to the madness, and if our analyses played a part creating that pressure then we are very pleased indeed."
The South African government has indicated that it will pursue diplomatic channels to follow up on Trump's comments.