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In Tacit Rebuke, U.S. Embassy in South Africa Rejects Trump Tweet

Internal cable cites report that farm murders in South Africa are at their lowest level in 19 years.

Farmworker Mogoala Justice Ratalele stands near his boss, farmer Hans Bergmann, after being held at gunpoint during a theft, in Tzaneen, South Africa, on Nov. 2, 2017. (Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images)
Farmworker Mogoala Justice Ratalele stands near his boss, farmer Hans Bergmann, after being held at gunpoint during a theft, in Tzaneen, South Africa, on Nov. 2, 2017. (Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump incensed South Africa by wading into a politically fraught debate on land reform issues and violence against white farmers, a rallying cry for white nationalists in the United States and elsewhere.

Now, the U.S. Embassy in South Africa has tacitly rebuked the president in a cable sent clarifying the issue and correcting misperceptions put forward by the president on Twitter, following a misleading statement on Fox News.

The cable, sent Wednesday morning and obtained by Foreign Policy, does not mention the president or his tweet at all. Titled “Despite Crime Epidemic, Farm Murders Down,” the cable outlines statistics on murder rates on white-owned South African farms.

“Some journalists and lobby groups have simplified complex land disputes to serve their own ends,” the cable says.

Political officers from the U.S. Embassy reached out to a broad array of experts—including farmers, police, crime researchers, and academics—to gauge the extent of violence against white farmers. They found “no evidence that murders on farms specifically target white people or are politically motivated,” the cable states.

“Farmers suggested that they are more vulnerable to violence because of the remoteness of the farms and inadequate responses of law enforcement agencies, but they also noted that farm violence has never resulted in any kind of land seizure,” according to the cable.

The U.S. president set off an international diplomatic incident last week by tweeting an inaccurate Fox News claim that the South African government is seizing land from white farmers. He said he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “to closely study the South African land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”

The South African government responded sharply to the claims, which it maintained are based on “false information,” adding that “South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.”

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on “internal communication, including allegedly leaked documents.”  But the official said that “crime rates in South Africa are very high, including in rural areas, where South African of all ethnicities have been victims of tragic and senseless violence.”

The department’s  annual country reports on human rights “have documented concern ‘about killings and other violent crimes against white farmers, and, on occasion, their families,’ but we have not seen large scale killings of white farmers. ”

The redistribution of farmable land is a highly charged political issue in South Africa tracing back to the country’s painful history of white-rule apartheid that ended in 1994. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the legacy of apartheid still manifests in how land is distributed: Though white South Africans make up less than 10 percent of the population, they own some 72 percent of the agricultural land. The South African government has pledged to address the issue to tackle inequality but insists it will not seize land from farmers without proper compensation or recourse. Still, some far-right political groups and white nationalist groups have touted the issue and inaccurate information on the targeted killing of white farmers as “white genocide.”

There appears to be little doubt that South Africa is confronting a serious epidemic of violent crime, with police documenting more than 140,000 armed attacks from 2016 to 2017, a conservative estimate given South Africa’s low crime reporting rate. But the worst violence is in South African cities.

The U.S. Embassy cited a recent report by AgriSA, a nonprofit industry group that represents 70,000 commercial farmers, that estimated that there were 47 farm murders from 2017 to 2018, fewer than at any time in the past 19 years. Police records documented 74 farm murders out of a total of 19,016 total murders in South Africa between April 2016 and March 2017.

“Diverse contacts in civil society, academia, and government underscored that murders on farms represent less than four percent of all murders in the country,” the cable states. “Many of those murdered on farms are the workers—who are not white—while defending the farm,” an AgriSA official informed U.S. Embassy staff.

This story has been updated.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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