November 13, 2023 - 11:55am

The South African government has quietly issued new rules stipulating farms with an annual turnover of more than 10 million rand (about £436,000) will not be permitted to export to the UK or EU if they are too whiteThe restrictions, published at the beginning of November, specify that farms which are less than 51% black-owned must undergo a convoluted black economic empowerment (BEE) certification process, with an accredited BEE certifier, in order to qualify for an export permit.

In response, the South African Agri Initiative (SAAI) and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, last week lodged a complaint with the trade offices of the EU and UK, arguing that these rules will strangle investment and growth, and violate the rules of fair trade. The head of SAAI argues that these regulations raise insuperable obstacles to the export market for family farms with few employees but a good turnover — that is, farms which employ advanced technology to ensure good yields.

And this, in practice, means white ones. Black-owned farms tend toward subsistence production, producing only around 10% of South Africa’s overall yield; high-tech, high-productivity ones are usually white-owned. And, as SAAI points out, where such enterprises are operated only by family members, it’s difficult to see how ownership or employment could be diversified in order to meet BEE criteria without simply expropriating the farmers. 

SAAI is no stranger to protesting the incursions into South African agriculture of an increasingly racialised bureaucracy. Last June, the body also highlighted new race-based regulations on applying for water licences, arguing that these are similarly impossible for family farms to meet.  

These regulatory changes come against a backdrop of rising hostility to the 7% of South Africa’s population that is white. The Democratic Alliance recently called for an inquiry into a reported escalation in murders of white South Africans on remote farms. And recent footage of crowds at a political rally chanting “Kill The Boer” doubtless did little to allay fears of persecution, for all that the ruling ANC insists the chant is a way of remembering South African history, not a literal incitement to murder.

It remains to be seen whether the UK will make any response to SAAI’s complaint, or comment more broadly on South Africa’s rollout of race-differentiated bureaucracy. But how, or even if, we respond feels significant.

I was born into a Britain that, officially at least, held a sincere commitment to racial equality. But, as the febrile events that followed Hamas’s attack last month have demonstrated, this consensus is now balanced on a knife-edge against a newer public politics of race — roiled by tribal hostilities and competing grievances. 

Against this old world, I can easily imagine Kemi Badenoch taking a clear stand for free trade, and against the imposition of race-based restrictions on trade. In light of the emerging one, though, it’s far from clear that we in Britain even have the standing to do so any more. Are we opposed to, or on board with, institutionalising a two-tier model of rule based on identity or politics? We should watch how (or whether) the UK Government responds to the SAAI complaint. It may offer important clues as to our own direction of travel.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.