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.
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 some white minority activist groups promote the idea that they are victims of a 'white genocide' that aims to force landowners to flee.
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 2019/2020 financial year there were 21,325 murders across the country, of which 49 were white farmers, according to the latest police statistics.
There are about 37,000 white farm operators or managers in South Africa, according to 2017 census figures.
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.
"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.
"Contrary to the irresponsible claims of some lobby groups, killings on farms are not ethnic cleansing. They are not genocidal. They are acts of criminality and must be treated as such," Ramaphosa said.
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.
(Reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Tim Cocks and Giles Elgood)