A few weeks ago, Trump caused a media furore when he tweeted that he was going to instruct his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to look into “land and farm seizures” and “the large-scale killing of farmers” in South Africa, seemingly after he had watched a segment the previous night on Tucker Carlson Tonight about Expropriation Without Compensation in South Africa.
The tweet immediately ignited a fierce partisan debate. Political figures from all over the world and opposite ends of the ideological spectrum weighed in on the subject, their opinions predictably biased by their pre-existing view of Trump, whether negative or positive.
And, sadly, as a result, much of the nuance in the discourse around EWC was lost. There is a more complex discussion going on in South Africa, but much of that is unknown to international commentators who probably knew very little about SA politics before Trump’s rash tweet. Scrambling to appear knowledgeable on the subject, opponents of Trump leapt to glib defences of EWC as a good policy designed to correct past injustices in SA (there is, in fact, robust opposition to EWC by South Africans of all races and political persuasions) and his supporters were quick to characterise South Africa as just another hellish foreign shithole.
This is nothing new. South Africa has often been used to serve certain political narratives. The far right in the USA have been pushing the myth of “white genocide” in South Africa for some time now in order to advance their own apocalyptic racial theories. Leftist journalists, from outside the country, have a tendency to seek out bizarre far-right fringe figures like Eugene Terreblance, creating the impression that such radical beliefs are somehow typical of the average South African (who is hardly ever featured). Nevermind the fact that Terreblance was an Afrikaner nationalist who led a bumbling paramilitary organisation in a tiny little rural town far from the centres of economic and political power in SA.
I’ll never forget the time that an intelligent British guy I knew from University insisted to me, despite my protestations, that I was probably “a weird South African” and not representative of the country after he watched a documentary on Terreblance, and came to the absurd conclusion that Terreblance was. There is great arrogance and ignorance in watching an hour-long film on a country you’ve never been to and thinking you know more than somehow who grew up there, but as the Dunning-Kruger experiments have shown, people with limited knowledge are not able to properly assess the limits of their expertise and sometimes lack the humility to question themselves.
This is the danger of “diagnosing from a distance”. It has become very easy in the Internet age with a plethora of information at our fingertips to think that we are more well informed than we are.
Many South Africans were also displeased by Trump’s intervention (and some were happy), but this included people who were au fait with local issues and had put forward their own arguments against EWC. These are reasonable people who don’t deny South Africa’s history and want to correct those historical wrongs, just not by undermining property rights. The Eugene Terreblance view of South African history is certainly not mainstream.
Of course, I do not expect every single person in the world to have in depth and detailed knowledge of the political scene in South Africa, but it is really annoying when people oversimplify it according to their own ideological biases and political enmities, distorting the more complicated truth in the process.
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