JOHANNESBURG — South Africa's government said Friday it had summoned the top U.S. diplomat in the country to "convey the unhappiness of the people" over President Donald Trump's tweet about alleged white-owned farm seizures and the "large scale killing of farmers."
In a statement, South Africa said it told U.S. Charge d'Affaires Jessye Lapenn it was "disappointed" over the failure to use available diplomatic channels.
South Africa's government has said Trump's tweet was based on "false information" and served "only to polarize debate on this sensitive and crucial matter."
The country is in the middle of a racially charged debate over land reform, a lawful process that seeks to correct the legacy of decades of white-minority rule that stripped blacks of their land.
Nearly a quarter-century after the end of apartheid, white South Africans, who comprise about 8 percent of the population, own more than 70 percent of the private agricultural land.
In July, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the ruling African National Congress party would amend the constitution so the state could start to expropriate land without compensation to speed up the process of land redistribution, but that has not yet happened and no land has been seized.
A fringe group of the white minority claims land reform will inspire violent attacks, though experts say farm attacks reflect the country's generally high crime rate and are on the decline.
Claims of "genocide" against white South Africans, however, have been picked up by some white nationalists in the U.S., and leaders of a right-wing South African group traveled to the U.S. in May to lobby officials about the alleged targeting of white farmers.
Trump's tweet early Thursday followed a Fox News segment claiming South Africa had started seizing white-owned farms. The tweet was quickly lambasted by many in South Africa, with one top ruling party official, Zizi Kodwa, telling the Associated Press that Trump has never experienced apartheid and doesn't know its legacy of stark inequality.
Later Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the administration's position was that land expropriation without compensation "would risk sending South Africa down the wrong path."
Nauert toned down Trump's language suggesting that massive land seizures were underway and did not repeat the president's suggestion that large numbers of white South African farmers had been killed.
Trump's tweet did find support among some South Africans, while some farmers spoke out about their security concerns.
"We try very hard not to go and live in a walled security area somewhere, but it costs a lot of money in the first place to have the necessary security," said Leon Sholtz, a farmer in Broederstroom in North West province.
"It is fact that we have lost four of our neighbors in the last 10 to 12 years due to farm murders. ... I think it is something that the government should look into and try and stop as soon as possible."