Grim Reaper Stalks South African Farms


A deadly but apparently unnoticed phenomenon is threatening to engulf rural South Africa, where more than 1 000 white commercial farmers have been murdered in the past four years. In short, South African farmers are dying today at a greater rate than at any time during the violent struggle against apartheid. Few political commentators, politicians, community leaders, journalists or city people seem to be bothered by this phenomenon.

This is largely because white farmers, especially Afrikaners, are widely regarded as racist and backward people who were the backbone of apartheid for half a century. Their forefathers occupied the land used by black people in the Western and Eastern Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries and in the rest of South Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. The 1913 Land Act and similar legislation officially robbed black people of land and gave it to mainly Afrikaner farmers — themselves the product of a traumatised, collective psyche emanating from the British concentration camps and scorched earth policies of the invading imperial army during the Anglo-Boer war of just over 100 years ago.

These then were the granite men of apartheid, whose political ideals in support of “Christian values” constituted a nationalism so fierce as to be indistinguishable from naked fascism. Agri SA, the white, commercial farming union, declares that most farm attacks are politically motivated and aimed at driving whites from their land – hinting darkly that political parties are behind the attacks. There is no hard evidence to support this view. In fact, very few of the attackers have ever been arrested or their political affiliations identified.

The available evidence suggests rather that the continuing farm attacks are spontaneous, anarchic, and the result of anger generated by massive unemployment and poverty in the rural areas. Farmers targeted most frequently are apparently those with a reputation of not paying their workers enough and treating them cruelly or with little respect. The forced displacement and illegal eviction of farm workers has resulted in a mushrooming of rural shantytowns or “informal settlements” as South Africans euphemistically refer to them.

There is a strong suggestion of vengeance in many of the farm attacks. More often than not, the brutality of the murders is clearly disproportionate to any accompanying effort to steal vehicles, money or firearms. Sometimes nothing at all is stolen.

In some areas of the country, the issue of farm security has even assumed transnational dimensions. South African farmers bordering the mountain kingdom of Lesotho last year lost nearly 50 000 animals to cattle rustlers and stock thieves, according to official figures released recently.

Former counter-insurgency expert and apartheid army chief General Constand Viljoen proposes that stability in the rural areas can be created “only if the right attitudes exist”. These “right attitudes”, writes Viljoen in the latest issue of Farmer’s Weekly, should manifest themselves in the establishment of rural “no-go areas”, which in the language of counter-insurgency warfare means areas where trespassers can be shot on sight. It is the kind of proposal consistent with and to be expected from a retired general under whose command top military officers stood by with a force of more than 100 000 soldiers from the apartheid army, ready to mount a right-wing military coup d’etat on the eve of the country’s first democratic elections eight years ago. With such people still roaming at large after having subsequently been granted generous amnesties by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the potential exists today of a rural right-wing backlash in reaction to the wave of current farm attacks.

The slow pace of implementing the government’s land reform and restitution policies may be an important contributing factor in the current unrest. Or perhaps the land and rural security problem is just so intractable that nobody in government has the necessary will or capacity to deal with it. But whatever the reasons behind the farm attacks, it certainly seems as if many South African human rights activists, in their clamour for reparations and full disclosure of the country’s discredited past, have lost sight of current events right under their noses, in the rural areas where most of the population lives.

Foremost among the reparations lawsuits announced recently, is a $50-billion class action against various banks, financial institutions and multinational corporations that allegedly profited from apartheid. The first of these cases is set to start in New York on August 9, according to United States attorney Ed Fagan. The action is being brought on behalf of victims of apartheid, against several banks and business corporation in the United States, Switzerland, Germany, France, Britain and elsewhere. They include Swiss banks Credit Suisse and UBS, the US’s Citibank and IBM, and German firms Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank and Commerz Bank.

In a separate action, the South African History Archive (SAHA) has launched a High Court action relating to missing TRC files and alleged violations of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. SAHA director Verne Harris complains he obtained from the current defence establishment a pile of apartheid-era military intelligence files, with the personal identifiers of every intelligence source removed. “Not a single human rights activist mentioned in those files has been protected in this way,” he alleges.

And in a further, separate action, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) of Chief Gatsha Buthelezi is seeking a court interdict to nullify the TRC’s conclusion that 33 percent of all the gross human rights violations reported to the Commission stemmed directly from the IFP in collusion with the apartheid regime. The IFP boycotted the TRC’s public hearings at the time, concerning death-squad activities during the apartheid years. Buthelezi now serves as a Cabinet minister in the present government of so-called national unity.

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