Mail & Guardian

Anatomy of a farm murder

08 Apr 2010 16:46 | Vuvu Vena

Statistically, the picture is far from clear or complete: the political and racial sensitivities that swirl around farm attacks in South Africa appear just as likely to blind the scientists. Vuvu Vena canvassed a range of organizations struggling to make sense of the deadly phenomenon.

The targets
Farm owners, farm workers, labour tenants, and their families
"Everyone is reluctant to break down [surveys into farm attacks] into race. Currently these attacks include everyone in the farming community -- farm workers, farmers and their families. There are only two indicators -- farm attacks and farm murders. It includes everyone." -- Kerwin Lebone, researcher, Institute for Race Relations

"What we're seeing is violent conflict in isolated places among people who know one another, live in close proximity, but ultimately in different worlds." -- Ruth Hall, senior researcher, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies

"In many ways the term 'farm attacks' is a term that has come to be used to refer to robberies on farms, especially on farms run by white farmers." -- David Bruce, senior researcher, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

The motives
It's largely guesswork, but anecdotal reasons for farm attacks include robbery, wage and work disputes, punishment and politics.

"Out of 3 000 attacks from 1998 to 2001 motives were found in 2 644 attacks in that period. Two percent were shown to have a racial or political motive, in 89% the motive was robbery, in 7% intimidation and in 1,6% there were labour related motives.” -- Kerwin Lebone, on a report of the Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks released by the SAPS in 2003

"All research so far shows that far more than 90% of these attacks can be attributed to simple crime -- robbery is the main motive.” -- Johan Burger, researcher crime and justice programme, Institute for Security Studies

"Such killings are also the product of inequality: in the midst of rural poverty, commercial farms ... are where money and other goods are to be found." -- Ruth Hall

Use of extreme violence
Farm attacks are characteristically carried out with more violence than is required to commit a robbery, suggesting they may be punitively or politically motivated.

"Very often these attacks are accompanied by extreme violence and torture, similar to house attacks. The difference is that often during attacks on farms, criminals have more time to commit them. That's why you see more brutality ... victims are more isolated.” -- Johan Burger

"The extent of violence towards, and murders of, farm workers, farm dwellers, labour tenants and their families is unknown. But available studies, such as by Human Rights Watch, suggests that the levels are very high in deed, with numerous instances of violence being perpetrated by farm owners." -- Ruth Hall

"Look at the brutality behind the murders. Like the recent incident in Klerksdorp where an old lady of 80 was murdered. She was tied around the legs and her throat was slit. She was helpless anyway. There was no need to go to such an extent.” -- Nantes Kelder, AfriForum Youth representative

The fear factor
Lack of adequate policing, macho talk and the spectre of land invasions are some of the factors driving the climate of fear.

"In 1998 then President Mandela came up with the rural safety strategy -- a joint police and military plan. Since the closure of the commando force (between 2003-2004) the coverage of police has been eroded in the rural areas, which meant that the farming community had to rely on themselves for their own safety and security." -- Chris van Zyl, deputy general manager, Transvaal Agricultural Union

"Following the [2003] announcement that the Commando System of the South African National Defence Force was to be phased out, a system was put in place by the South African Police Service that would prevent a safety and security vacuum. It included increasing the number of police officials at rural stations; increasing the number of reservists and establishing a stronger crime combating capacity at station level." -- Brigadier Phuti Setati, SAPS spokesperson

"It is getting to a stage where we have to think of the stability of the country." -- Andre Botha, chairperson rural safety, AgriSA

"The general discourse of the past week has been people saying what they want to say. This [is] macho dialogue ... we need to go back to a dialogue that is accommodating of other people's fears and insecurities." -- Dr Fanie du Toit, executive director, Institute for Justice and Reconciliation

"Some white farm owners have perceived this escalation in violent crime to be part of a conspiracy to drive them from the land, perhaps masterminded by elements within the government." -- Human Rights Watch study, 2001

The stats
There are no global data on farm attacks in the country. Different organisations have put together their own statistics and surveys. Much of it is out of date, covers different time periods and fails to give detailed breakdowns of who, within farming communities, is under attack. The South African Police Service (SAPS) stopped releasing figures in 2007.

The only available figures on the SAPS website -- where the M&G was directed by a police spokesperson when we asked for statistical information about farm attacks -- pertain to a general overview of murder statistics in South Africa as a whole.

A week in the life of a dead man
Saturday April 3

Sunday April 4
Monday 5 April
Tuesday April 6
Wednesday April 7
Thursday 8 April
Friday April 9
--Additional reporting by Tarryn Harbour

View the original online publication here