When US President Donald Trump pledged to investigate large-scale killings of white farmers in South Africa and violent takeovers of land, Pretoria said he was misinformed. Elsewhere, there was quiet satisfaction.
For a little-known South African activist group, Trump’s intervention, following a Fox News show criticising the land reform plans of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress, signalled a job well done.
“The best possible outcome that we hoped for was for a statement by the president of the USA, which we got,” Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of Afriforum, told Reuters in his office in a quiet suburb of the capital.
The office walls display photographs of street protests by Afriforum, stepped up this year against land distribution plans and what it calls the targeted killing of white farmers.
In South Africa, no land has been seized and while violent crime is a huge problem, the vast majority of victims are poor and black. Of 20,000 murders in the last recorded year, 46 were white people killed on farms, according to police data.
Afriforum is an interest group representing Afrikaners – the 5 percent of the population descended mainly from Dutch, German and French settlers.
It belongs to a wider movement called Solidarity, which has grown from a 100-year-old trade union into a sprawling and well-resourced organisation offering education and training and a range of other services in Afrikaans.
Ramaphosa’s vague pledge this year to pursue land expropriation without compensation to right the wrongs of apartheid has given new impetus to both groups, who have brushed aside his insistence he will protect property rights.
Critics, including some prominent Afrikaners, accuse them of stirring racial fears at a time when Ramaphosa is trying to defuse threats of unrest from a far-left party.
Solidarity says it reflects fears rather than stirring them.
“On expropriation, they can’t threaten that sort of thing and not expect a reaction,” Flip Buys, chairman of the umbrella movement, said by telephone.
“Some battles you must fight. We must save the country from what happened in Zimbabwe,” he said, referring to the widespread violent takeover of white-owned farms in the early 2000s.
More fringe white groups, including the survivalist Suidlanders, have been warning for decades that Afrikaners are under threat.
But Solidarity and Afriforum are working at a different level, holding prominent protests, lobbying foreign governments and preparing to approach the United Nations to request land expropriation be recognised as a breach of human rights.
Afriforum and COPE, a party formed by dissident ANC members with three seats in Parliament, said they met senior US embassy officials on Monday to ask Washington to put pressure on South Africa to protect property rights.
The US embassy said COPE and AfriForum delivered a petition to one of its officials.
Conversations with a dozen members of Afriforum at its rallies and elsewhere, reviews of its social media accounts and private text messages sent by its members reveal an increasingly influential movement with an agenda that divides South Africa.
Roets had appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show in May where they spoke about what they called targeted killings of white farmers and plans to take land along racial lines.
The government, academics and a wide range of commentators say neither is happening, but right-wing journalists from Canada, Britain and Australia have made programmes on the issue.
“Afriforum has understood this emergence of white chauvinist identities around the world and is manipulating it for its own ends,” said Adam Habib, vice-chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“The problem with that is it will fracture our communities.”