CAPE TOWN, South Africa — President Trump waded into South Africa’s plans to seize vast tracts of land from farmers, saying in a post on Twitter late Wednesday that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to “closely study” the proposal and — without providing evidence — “the large scale killing of farmers.”
“South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers,” he declared.
It is unclear why Mr. Trump weighed in on the country’s plans, but his comments came after the Fox News host Tucker Carlson presented a late-night program on South Africa, including land seizures and homicides, and described President Cyril Ramaphosa as “a racist.”
On Thursday, Mr. Trump’s comments prompted the South African minister of international relations and cooperation, Lindiwe Sisulu, to describe the tweet as “regrettable” and “based on false information.”
The government said that it would seek clarification from the United States Embassy, and Ms. Sisulu planned to “communicate with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on the matter through diplomatic channels.”
In a country still struggling with the effects of apartheid and widespread economic inequality decades after Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president, Mr. Trump’s tweet was likely to inflame the divisive land ownership issue.
Here’s an explanation of the issues at stake.
Does the South African government want to seize land?
Mr. Ramaphosa announced on Aug. 1 that the governing African National Congress would move ahead with a proposal to change the country’s Constitution and allow the expropriation of land without compensation.
Land reform is a highly divisive issue in South Africa, where white residents, who make up 9 percent of the population, own 35 percent of the land, according to official figures, a legacy of colonial and apartheid-era dispossession. A government land audit last year reported that black South Africans directly owned less than 9 percent of the country’s land, despite making up 79 percent of the population.
What’s the argument in favor of doing so?
Mr. Ramaphosa has said that speeding up what he described as land reform will bolster economic growth and agricultural production.
“We can make this country the Garden of Eden,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in January.
More fundamentally, the government argued, returning land to black South Africans would make the country — among the world’s least economically equal — more just. Resolving to support land redistribution without compensation was “a call to action to decisively break with the historical injustice of colonial, apartheid and patriarchal patterns of land ownership, and to build a South Africa that belongs to all,” the A.N.C. said in a statement in May.
Within the A.N.C., a faction aligned with former President Jacob Zuma has pushed strongly for land seizures. Mr. Ramaphosa, a former businessman regarded as more moderate, has promised that land expropriation will not threaten economic stability or agricultural output, although the government has not specified how the process will work.
A series of hearings on the subject has been held in the provinces in the past couple of months, as Parliament weighs changing the law.
How is the issue tied to national elections next year?
The A.N.C. is under pressure to accelerate a restitution program that has had little impact to date on patterns of land ownership, particularly with the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist left-wing opposition party led by Julius Malema, the former A.N.C. Youth League president.
The government’s recent announcement of plans to amend the Constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation was made in support of a parliamentary resolution by Mr. Malema’s party.
Are there widespread farm seizures and killings of farmers?
Research by AgriSA, a farmers’ organization in South Africa, published in July, found that the number of killings of farmers was at a 20-year low. In 2017-18, 47 farmers were killed, according to the umbrella group of hundreds of agricultural associations. The figures were consistent with a steady decline of violence since a peak in 1998, when 153 died.
South Africa recorded 19,016 murder cases from April 2016 to March 2017, according to the South Africa Police Service. The number of murders on farms during the same period was 66, compared with 140 in 2001-2.
Most official statistics do not appear to break down the homicides by race, and they include farmers as well as employees who live on the land. “There is no official crime category called ‘farm attack’ or ‘farm murder,’ ” however, according to Africa Check. “The crimes mentioned in the definition — such as murder, rape and assault — are recorded by the police station investigating it.”
During Wednesday’s broadcast, Mr. Carlson said Mr. Ramaphosa had started “seizing land from his own citizens without compensation because they are the wrong skin color.”
While there have been some land grabs by private groups in the past — not sanctioned by the government — no farms have been seized and no expropriations without compensation have taken place since the start of the national debate, according to South African news reports.
But some right-wing groups in the country have pushed the false narrative that there have been numerous seizures of white-own land.
Mr. Trump’s relations with African countries have been fraught. He drew condemnation in January for using a vulgar term to describe Haiti and some African countries, a term that analysts said would please extremist groups in the United States, where the false narrative of “white genocide” has resonated.
Mr. Trump later met with the leader of Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari, the first leader from sub-Saharan Africa to visit him at the White House. And Rex W. Tillerson, then secretary of state, sought to mend fences during a five-nation of Africa, promising $533 million in new aid.
The farmers’ situation in South Africa has also drawn the attention of Australia’s foreign minister, Peter Dutton, who angered South African officials in March by calling for emergency visas for white farmers. He later retracted his comments, including suggesting that South Africa was not a “civilized country.”
Kimon de Greef reported from Cape Town, South Africa, and Palko Karasz from London.