Behind Trump's Tweet: Meet the South African Lawyer Defending White Rights

Behind Trump's Tweet: Meet the South African Lawyer Defending White Rights

A spike in farm murders in South Africa has pushed farmers to take up self-defense training. A long campaign of violence against the country's farmers, who are largely white, has inflamed political and racial tensions nearly a quarter of a century after the fall of apartheid.

SourceMujahid Safodiem/APF/Getty

Why you should care

Ernst Roets is on a mission to protect the rights of a minority: White farmers.

The anger in the room is palpable. People are talking over each other and banging on tables in frustration. “The land is ours!” screams an elder. “We have been robbed,” says a woman at the back. In the corner of the conference hall, calmly sipping his coffee, is Ernst Roets. He looks unfazed by the ruckus, as if he is not the one they are all yelling at.

For Roets, being hated is an occupational hazard. He is the deputy director of AfriForum, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of the Afrikaans people — that is, White South Africans. The 31-year-old is on a mission to defend his people’s culture and land rights, which Roets believes are under attack from an oppressive, Black-majority government. His ideas may seem fringe, but AfriForum has 200,000 paying members, and its influence is growing by the day, mostly thanks to Roets’ willingness to debate anyone, anywhere.

Today, he is at a land rights summit in Johannesburg, trying to explain to a roomful of indigenous South Africans that much of their country was actually “vacant” when the colonists first arrived. “If land was stolen, it must be given back,” he says, “but we must acknowledge the historic fact that much of the land was acquired legally.”

While President Donald Trump vaulted the issue into global consciousness with a tweet Wednesday night, citing a Fox News segment, land reform has been a hot topic in South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994. The government has spent millions in trying to buy and redistribute land from White owners to Black citizens, but its efforts have fallen short of promises. About 73 percent of arable land in the country is still in the hands of White South Africans, who only represent 9 percent of the population.

Now the government is considering a new way of speeding up the process: expropriation without compensation. President Cyril Ramaphosa this month announced his support for a constitutional amendment to allow the state to seize land without having to repay its proprietors. “If people are not allowed to own land because of their skin color,” Roets warns, “that complies with the criteria for a crime against humanity.”

To be sure, most Black South Africans find his arguments offensive. Andile Mngxitama, founder of the Black First Land First movement, says Roets is an arrogant racist who should be locked up rather than interviewed on national television. “You do not argue with thieves,” he says. “So why are we debating the land issue with the people who stole the land from us?”

Roets, however, maintains that South Africa’s biggest roadblock to progress is what he calls “Black racism,” a double standard that forbids Afrikaans from discussing their struggles while allowing Black citizens to insult, even hurt, their White neighbors with impunity. AfriForum actually won a hate speech ruling against Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, for repeatedly singing a song that encouraged listeners to “shoot the Boers/farmers” because they are “rapists/robbers.”

When asked about privilege, [Roets] speaks of culture, not race. When debating land rights, he talks about economic freedom, not colonialism.

Still, Roets’ biggest concern is not hateful comments but farm murders. AfriForum claims that for the last two decades, there have been about two farm attacks per day and two farm murders per week, largely targeting Afrikaans. Many question the veracity of this data, but AfriForum maintains the government is purposefully ignoring these crimes.

Stopping such murders has been Roets’ “calling” from a young age. Growing up in a small agricultural town in northern South Africa, his neighbor’s family had been the victims of an attack in which a mother and two children were murdered. One of his schoolmates was also killed during a farm invasion — shot in the head while he slept.

“I felt a big sense of discrimination and always knew I wanted to work for my community,” says Roets. So he became a lawyer and got a master’s degree in constitutional law and minority rights. While in university, he got into student politics and founded AfriForum’s youth branch in 2006. His office in Pretoria is covered in photos of those early days, including one of him being arrested for protesting against a proposal to change Durban’s name to its precolonial one, eThekwini.

Yet Roets prides himself in being an intellectual rather than a soldier. “I am a very analytical person, and I actually enjoy being cross-examined,” he explains in his characteristically calm, almost dispassionate tone. He’s particularly adept at challenging the premise of an argument: When asked about privilege, he speaks of culture, not race. When debating land rights, he talks about economic freedom, not colonialism.

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Ernst Roets on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight.

This rhetorical prowess is what makes Roets dangerous, argues Adam Habib, professor of political geography and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Habib says Roets uses socially acceptable labels to disguise a “proto-fascist agenda” and worries that his activism is part of a global rise in race-driven ideologies. “AfriForum’s discourse is gaining traction because it resonates with similar views in many other countries,” says Habib.

Indeed Roets is traveling a lot these days. In May, he visited the U.S., where he hawked his book on farm murders, Kill the Boer, on Fox News with Tucker Carlson — whose Wednesday segment inspired Trump’s tweet — and even met with national security adviser John Bolton. And Roets’ international lobbying seems to be bearing fruit, with Australia’s Home Affairs minister recently suggesting that White South African farmers should get “special attention” for visas on humanitarian grounds, and now Trump is entering the fray.

Back home, however, the land debate is quickly heating up, and Roets’ stances are becoming increasingly contentious. The father of three now gets regular death threats and has had to relocate his family to a secured residential compound. Would he ever consider moving abroad? “Never,” he says. “This is my country. If everyone leaves, I will be the one who closes the door behind them.”

OZY’s 5 Questions With Ernst Roets

  • What’s the last book you finished? Equality by Default by Philippe Bénéton.
  • What do you worry about? My greatest concern is the double standard in South Africa with regard to racism and condemning of violence.
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My wife and my children.
  • Who’s your hero? I don’t have one particular hero. I am, however, most inspired by the heroic deeds of my immediate ancestry. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a medical doctor for the British army and a decorated war hero from the First World War. My great-grandfather on my father’s side escaped a British concentration camp when he was 3 years old.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To be able to close AfriForum’s doors due to the fact that we have achieved what we had set out to do and that the organization had become redundant.

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