Dying days of SA’s farm commando units

Controversy over rural security has deepened in South Africa with a government decision to phase out a paramilitary force that was part of the apartheid state’s security apparatus.

The announcement in February by President Thabo Mbeki that commando units were to be disbanded has elicited sharply divergent views. White farmers say commandos are an integral part of rural security, while black officials and policemen claim that they have persisted in perpetrating rights abuses.

“The first ones to go will be the ones where there’ve been allegations of [rights abuses] the problematic areas,” a defence ministry representative, Sam Mkhwanazi, told Irin.

The allegations of rights abuses have played a significant role in the government’s decision to phase out the part-time force.

Responding to calls for the commando units to be retained, Minister of Defence Mosioua Lekota was quoted as saying: “A structure like that, which is not under proper training, proper regulation, and doesn’t even have arresting powers — they are just citizens armed with weapons — that [think] they can do anything they choose to do, cannot be allowed in a constitutional order.”


As recently as 2001, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the South African government to investigate the commandos, following allegations of violent criminal conduct towards black people in the rural Mpumalanga Province. [See: www.hrw.org/press/2001/08/safrica0822.htm]

HRW published recommendations that “commando units should not be deployed for policing purposes. Civilians who wish to be involved in policing on a part-time basis should be police reservists, and should receive training in policing skills and instruction on the laws of South Africa and respect for human rights.”

Organised agriculture, however, does not share the view that commandos are a threat to South Africa’s constitutional order and human rights. “We need commandos, and we see them as one of the backbones of the rural protection plan, without a doubt,” said Agri-SA Chairman Kiewiet Ferreira, a farmer in the central Free State Province town of Harrismith.

In October last year, Irin reported that incidents of violent crime on farms, the so-called “farm attacks”, had increased. But the police differ with Agri-SA over the reasons behind such crimes. The motive was more often than not theft, and not the political goal of chasing white farmers off the land as Agri-SA members feared, the police said. [See: www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=30499]

Police statistics have indicated an increase in the number and violence of farm attacks between 1997 and 2000. In 1997, the total number of incidents was 433. By 1998 the number had increased to 769. It jumped to 813 in 1999 and to 906 in 2000.

In what has become a highly politicised issue, police crime figures for 2001 have not been cleared for release. However, Agri-SA has put the number of incidents at about 1 000.

In 1997, there were 88 murders connected to farms attacks. By 1998 the figure had jumped to 142 and was at 144 in 1999. It stabilised at 144 murders in 2000. The figures for 2001 were said to show a small increase over the 2000 statistics.

Ferreira pointed out that in 1998, former President Nelson Mandela included the commandos in a rural security plan, and “encouraged farmers, especially white farmers, to join the commandos and help in rural protection”.

Ferreira warned that the government was miscalculating in its new approach. “We believe commandos are a very important structure in combating not only farm attacks, but also general crime in rural areas,” he said. “We know the minister said commandos are too white, and there were a lot of racial incidents on the white side of the commandos, but there’s only been a few incidents of that [nature].”

“If you take [into account] how many operations commandos have been involved in under the police — more than 50 000 operations in 2001 and 37 000 operations in 2002 (most of them road-blockades, foot patrols, vehicle patrols, farm visits, manning of observation posts) — that’s nearly 90 000 operations in two years,” Ferreira said.

“Yet, since 1996, according to our records, there were only 30 criminal cases involving the commandos taken to the courts. If you have nearly 90 000 operations in two years and, we believe, 30 criminal cases since 1996, that’s not bad.”

However, he admitted that the commandos were not reflective of South Africa’s demographic mix. “The minister was saying commandos are too white. At this very moment, 42% of all commandos are African, coloured [mixed-race] or Asian groups,” Ferreira said. “Yes, for sure, on the officer side, it is mostly white, just over 90%. But that’s also due to a lack of funding: in the last nine years, they have cut funds and human resources for commandos, so there’s not a lot of money to train officers,” he said.

The government had indicated that a special police unit would be responsible for rural security, Ferreira said. “Our experience in April 2002 when the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] took away all the regular services from the Lesotho borders, with KwaZulu-Natal and Free State, and left it to the police to protect that border and conduct crime prevention, was that they [the police] could not manage.”

“On the Free State side, they asked the Fouriesburg commandos to help the police with that work,” said Ferreira, who maintained that commandos were the “eyes and ears on the ground, from the people for the people”.

But for many South Africans, the commandos remain a tangible reminder of the apartheid-era military machine. The controversy sparked by their removal indicates the distance South Africa still has to travel to achieve reconciliation.

A senior black police officer in the tiny rural Free State town of Warden told Irin that most black officers welcomed the government’s decision to phase out the part-time force.

On the wall in the charge office of the Warden police station is a poster that reads: “SAPS [South African Police Service] is ready to serve the farming community that feeds our nation.” The officers Irin spoke to at the station made it clear that SAPS would much prefer doing this without the “interference” of the commandos.

“The government’s plan to have commandos was a good plan, but some of them — not all of them — were misusing their powers,” said one senior police officer, who asked not to be named. “They were using that uniform to exact revenge against non-whites, black people. If you are a black person you cannot travel on a farm at night, because [if they catch you] you will get it.”

He alleged that “these people, they want their [apartheid] government back, they want to rule again. But they have no chance, so they capitalised on the brown [army] uniform of the commandos. You can tell from the language they use, they are telling people ‘you think this is Mandela’s land’ if they catch you on a farm.”

However, Jan Wessels, the officer commanding Bravo Company of Harrismith Commando and a farmer in Warden, believes most residents don’t trust the police. “There’s a bridge to cross before that will happen,” he said. “Lots of people, white and black, don’t trust all policemen. Crime does not get investigated, the police themselves are deep into corruption. There’s a big bridge to cross [in terms of trust]. If they don’t get their house in order, the people won’t join them.”

The police service has been through an intense and largely successful transformation process, unlike the army, which still has a predominantly white top brass.

“With the phasing out of the commandos, the members of the permanent [defence] force will come and take back their camouflage clothes and R4 [assault] rifles. But that does not mean the end of the Harrismith Commando, that does not mean the end of us in the Warden area,” Wessels said. “We have the structures in place. If a fire breaks out, these structures will be used to fight the fire.”

Irin interviewed Wessels at the command centre of Bravo Company, situated in an open field a short distance from Warden’s main street. On one wall is an Afrikaans-language poster reading: “Identification of the Enemy”. It details the “enemy’s” purpose (to destabilise); orders (to commit crime); modus operandi (method of operating); motive (economic, political, revenge); and time frame (“African time”).

Wessels was adamant that no member of his commando had been involved in violating the rights of people in the area. He said he had felt insulted by reported comments of provincial government ministers regarding the commandos and their attitude towards their black compatriots. “We feel really bad about this political announcement,” he told Irin. “Commandos are made to seem like a lot of hooligans. We are trained soldiers, we fought a war for this country [against the Basotho in 1858], and now the politicians of the day make us seem like a bunch of hooligans.”

“These extreme-right people, we are not part of them. They are not farmers. It has been suggested that we should fight this perception that it’s ‘Boer commandos’ doing things like planting bombs,” he said in reference to a recent bombing campaign conducted by far-right-wing groups.

“I’m 30 years in the army now, and never have I had commandos doing such things,” said Wessels. “If you are in my commando and you are doing such things, you will get legally charged. We are a very proud commando unit.”

By contrast, Selo Letawana, the mayor of three rural Free State towns — Warden, Vrede and Memel — has hailed the president’s decision as “long overdue”. “There’s significance given our history. We want to be policed by police, not the army or a part-time army force. The commandos have done nothing to improve the relationship between farmers and workers. Commando members are mainly farmers, and there are those who exploit and abuse workers… so it becomes a problem with revenge attacks,” he said.

“We had organised a TV for all stakeholders to watch the president’s speech, and when he made that announcement [on the commandos], people exploded with applause,” Letawana said.

According to the government’s information system, the phasing out of commando units was part of an overall transformation of the SANDF. – Irin

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