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South Africa's Ramaphosa warns against using farm murders to stoke racial hatred

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday urged South Africans not to use murders of white farmers to inflame racial tensions by falsely equating them with ethnic cleansing, a week after a farm killing stoked violent protests.

FILE PHOTO: President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his State of the Nation address at parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 13, 2020. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

The killing of Brendin Horner, a white farm manager, in Free State province at the start of this month, triggered riots in the town of Senekal. White demonstrators stormed a police station where two Black suspects were being held. Some fired shots and set fire to a police car.

“What happened in Senekal shows just how easily the tinderbox of race hatred can be ignited,” Ramaphosa said in his weekly message to the country. “We must resist any attempts to use crime on farms to mobilise communities along racial lines.”

Murders on farms, the vast majority of which are white- owned, are an explosive issue in South Africa, where white minority activist groups promote the idea that they are victims of a “white genocide” aiming to force landowners to flee.

“Killings on farms are not ethnic cleansing. They are not genocidal. They are acts of criminality,” Ramaphosa said.

Murders of white farmers make up a tiny fraction of the total in South Africa, which has the world’s fifth highest murder rate. In the 2019/20 financial year there were 21,325 murders across the country, of which 49 were white farmers, according to police statistics.

There are about 37,000 white farm operators or managers in South Africa, according to 2017 census figures.

Afriforum, a group representing Afrikaners -- descendents of mostly Dutch settlers who own most private farm land -- said in an emailed response to questions that Ramaphosa’s words “failed to resolve this crisis”.

“Part of the farm murder crisis is that senior politicians, also in the governing party, readily romanticise violence against farmers in their utterances,” Afriforum head Ernst Roets said.

Police Minister Bheki Cele will visit the family of the victim on Tuesday, a government statement said.

“The majority of victims of violent crime are black and poor, and it is young black men and women who are at a disproportionately greater risk of being murdered,” Ramaphosa said.

Nevertheless, claims of a “white genocide” in South Africa have gained traction among white supremacist groups across the world, and in 2018 they even caught the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump, who in a Tweet pledged to investigate South African farm murders.

The government is preparing to expropriate white-owned land without compensation, as part of an effort to redress economic inequalities that remain stark a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid.

Roughly 70% of privately-owned farmland in South Africa is owned by whites, who make up less than 9% of the country’s population of 58 million.

Editing by Ed Osmond