Trump's tweet of SA government's own making, says IRR

United States (US) president Donald Trump tweeted on Thursday morning that South Africa has begun seizing land from white farmers and that he asked the US secretary of state to look into the matter. Frans Cronje, CEO of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), who recently undertook a trip to the US to speak to investors and think tanks about expropriation without compensation, responds to the tweet and subsequent fallout.

You recently went to the US to present the IRR's research about the risks of expropriation without compensation. Would you say the US media coverage and Trump's subsequent tweet have been as a result of your, and others like AfriForum's, information campaigns?

I would not say it is the result of campaigns against land expropriation without compensation, but rather it is the making of government's own populist pronouncements about land expropriation. If a group of activists travelled around the world and successfully campaigned against land expropriation without compensation in South Africa, it is simply because the state has given them ammunition to do so by creating an environment for it.

But the government must not engage in blame shifting. To broadly quote our former IRR president Helen Suzman – it is not our questions that have embarrassed the government, but their answers.

You presented research to the Cato Institute while in the US. Their expert was quoted on a Fox news show, and that seemingly prompted Trump's tweet. How did your representations differ from those of AfriForum, who also visited the institution?

The IRR visits the US every year and has been doing so for the past 40 years. Our briefings are based on policy and trend analysis. We think the question of expropriation without compensation has driven South Africa to the brink of real economic and social trouble.

Expropriation without compensation is an utterly foolish policy that hounds out investment, while raising popular expectations that cannot be met. The pressure that is now mounting on the South African government originates from its own commitment to the policy of expropriation without compensation. 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.

Be that as it may, surely Trump saying that the "South African Government is now seizing land from white farmers" is patently false and further harms the economy and relations between the countries? Either he was misinformed, or he has misinterpreted the information?

When the government put this expropriation without compensation business into motion and made the promises and created the expectations, a line was crossed. Their message was, "we will take property and under some circumstances not pay for it". The government has also moved from promises to implementation. We now have farms that have been identified for expropriation and some have received expropriation notices. We also have more reports of invasions – often encouraged by political leaders. Once those lines are crossed there is no going back. It is completely irrelevant whether there is one case or 1 000. The line has been crossed and the precedent set and if that momentum is not halted we risk the trickle becoming a flood.

Why did so few people get the long-term calls on Zimbabwe and Venezuela right? Because the early evidence of where those countries were headed left just enough room for doubt – that the naiver of observers said it would not happen. We must not make the same mistake.

How does the IRR see its role in the discussions about land expropriation without compensation?

We will continue with our role of analysis and advising on policy based on facts, government statements and stated policy, and established trends. We also continue to lobby for property rights for all South Africans, as we have done for almost 90 years. Property rights are a necessary condition for South Africa to draw the investment to improve living standards and escape our apartheid past. Such rights also anchor civil liberties in all free and open societies. Just look at the correlation between property rights protections and media freedom.