South Africa is in the news in two related ways that need more than headlines.
The first, the one that provides perspective for the second, is the obituary of Princeton Lyman, a career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa when that nation was transforming itself from white supremacy to a multiracial, democratically elected government in the 1990s. He died at the age of 82 on Aug. 24.
The second is President Donald Trump’s tweet last week informing us that he has asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”
The source of the tweet is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who said the president of South Africa has begun “seizing land from his own citizens because they are the wrong skin color,” echoing sentiments of white supremacist groups.
The facts are different. National Public Radio quoted one of the nation’s largest farmer organizations saying that the number who were killed has declined to a third of the number recorded two decades ago.
And far from being a new crusade, the effort concerning land ownership has been underway since the nation ended its official racist policy of apartheid.
Black South Africans make up 80 percent of the population yet own 4 percent of the land even now, decades after official segregation was supposed to have ended. The ruling African National Congress party is pushing to expropriate some of the land that white South Africans seized during apartheid, leading to that imbalance, and to do so without compensation in some cases.
This is a racial issue only because everything concerning South Africa has embedded racial disparities. A more equitable distribution of land ownership, especially when the imbalance remains as a remnant of a white supremacist past that the nation has rejected, is a complex issue but no more so than the resolution that ended apartheid to begin with.
And that brings us back to the late ambassador, a man who once told a reporter that when he arrived in South Africa, “the negotiations were in total disarray … The threat of more violence was palpable. No one knew where the country was heading.”
Lyman proved to be a major, if under-appreciated, player, earning the trust of both Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress party, and the nation’s white president at the time, F.W. de Klerk.
He helped bring the two men together, kept them talking, and eventually they reached their historic accord.
Compare that to Trump’s tweet, the first time he has used the word “Africa” on Twitter since he took office.
The South African government tweeted back, saying it “totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.”
Normally a president could turn to our ambassador for advice, as previous presidents did with Lyman, but we have not had one since President Obama left office. So we are left with a foreign policy that originates with white supremacist groups and gets filtered through Fox News before it arrives at the State Department.