Farm Murders: Poverty, Crime And Greed

Murders on farms in South Africa ranks as one of the most emotive, politically polarising and perhaps complex phenomena in the post-apartheid era.

Marc Davies
Apr 25, 2017

Farm Murders: Poverty, Crime And Greed

Murders on farms in South Africa ranks as one of the most emotive, politically polarising and perhaps complex phenomena in the post-apartheid era.

In March 2017, 64-year-old Nicci Simpson was tied to a chair and an electrical drill pierced through her feet, legs and knees on a farm in the Vaal area. In February, two other women in their sixties on a Dullstroom farm were stabbed and burned with a blow torch. Most recently, on April, 20 2017, "three gruesome murders" in two separate incidents on a single day shocked the Free State farming community.

Murder and violence on farms in South Africa ranks as one of the most emotive, politically polarizing and unyieldingly complex phenomena in the post-apartheid context. Descriptions of heinous brutality one might assume could only be the work of Hollywood's darkest imaginations frequently evoke despair and ire among many close to the site of violence. Others, outraged by the (real or perceived) plight of farmers frequently turn to Facebook groups or other online fora in which discontent with media or government for 'turning a blind eye' often takes centre-stage.

In the parliamentary debate on farm murders in March, Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said, "It is not ordinary crime when people are tortured until they die ... This is the shocking and uncomfortable truth of farm murders which can no longer be ignored". The "uncomfortable truth" about farm murders and attacks, however, may not be as clear-cut as Groenewald imagines. Competing explanations for crimes of this particularly violent nature obstruct agreement over how to address this unyielding blight on rural life.

'Farm murders may increase to 70 or 80 this year'

But there is widespread consensus that farmers are far more vulnerable to murder and attacks than other sections of the population. Dr John Burger of the Institute for Security Studies claimed in 2013 that farmers or "individuals working on farms are almost four times more likely to be murdered than the average South African" based on 2012/3 Statistics South Africa figures.

Independent crime analyst Dr Chris de Kock, former head of Crime Research and Intelligence (SAPS), told HuffPost South Africa that farm murders reached a peak in the late 1990s, ranging between 100-200 a year. "Following interventions by [Nelson] Mandela's government, these numbers decreased and stabilised around 50 to 60 a year in the 2000s."

Though recording a slight decrease in farm murders year-on-year in 2016/7, from 50 to 46 by end March, according to crime statistics presented last month, De Kock suspects the total number of murders may increase to 70 or 80 this year. "Something went wrong in 2016/7, farm murders started increasing dramatically," he said

Criminality, 'White Genocide' and the search for answers

Mystified by competing explanations or motives, farm attacks and murders unsurprinsgly provoke heated debate, especially on the backdrop of increasingly radical rhetoric on land ownership and addressing historical dispossession. For the former police minister Nkosinathi Nhleko, "farm killings" (a term denounced by the South African Human Rights Commission as "stereotypical and divisive") are a serious concern but "must be seen within the broader context of criminality in South Africa". Others, on a more extreme end championed most notably by singer Steve Hofmeyr, have decried "white genocide" and propelled the view that whites, particularly on farms, are subject to systematic race-based targeting.

While the charge of "white genocide" is widely disputed, De Kock says whenever a crime takes place between people of different race groups, race-based motives cannot immediately be ruled out.

When we look at crime in South Africa, whether assault in a bar, a robbery in a Sandton flat or on a farm elsewhere, race - or hatred and anger linked to race-based disparities or historical experiences - cannot be overlooked in a country with such a deep-seated background of racial antagonism.

-- Dr Chris De Kock, Independent Crime Analyst

Approximately 98 percent of the cases subject to SAPS docket analysis, however, indicate robbery as the overriding motive, De Kock said. Burger, in a 2010 Mail&Guardian report echoed this view, stating "far more than 90 percent of these attacks can be attributed to robbery as the main motive".

De Kock says there is no evidence of ideologically-based motives for targeting or extreme levels of violence, including a "perception among many farmers in the 1990s that farms were being attacked repeatedly so farmers would be weakened and land taken back easily".

The reasons for extreme violence during numerous farm attacks and murders, however, remain up for debate. In addition to possible race-based tensions, evidenced in at least one recent murder trial, De Kock says farmers might be subject to "all kinds of force" and violent measures as anger escalates, or as a result of the amount of time available to carry out a crime, the significant distances from other properties where help can be sought, and poor policing.

Though Groenewald in Parliament said the "generalisation that farm workers who are treated poorly is the reason for the attacks is not true", secretary general of the African Farmers Association of South Africa (Afasa), Aggrey Mahanjana, told HuffPost SA there have been instances in which mistreated farm workers have led attacks out of anger.

"Many people being attacked are elderly and vulnerable in those remote environments which makes it conducive for criminals to attack. Others are attacked by former employees of farms because they were abused by their employers," he said.

"I know one gentlemen, a black man, from Alice [Eastern Cape] who was badly attacked by his farm workers because he was very rough to them. If a goat went missing, he would beat them over that missing goat, so they wanted to sort him out for abusing them. So, often there is an element of revenge for mistreated workers," Mahanjana claims.

Link between political statements and murders?

Provocative statements about land and farmers, De Kock argues, also shouldn't be underplayed as one of many potential motives. While falling short of drawing a direct relationship between political utterances and farm murders or attacks, De Kock says political remarks may help attackers to rationalise their crimes.

"You must remember, robbers, criminals and murderers have to rationalise their crimes. They have to live with it. I don't think you can just go and kill or maim people and not rationalise. If a politician is making [inflammatory] noises that I heard on the radio, this may just start to help me rationalise my crime".

A March 2017 study published by AfriForum's Ernst Roets on the "impact of politics and hate speech" on farm security, however, argues the links between political rhetoric -– or incidents of "hate speech" –- and farm murders is strong. Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema and President Jacob Zuma's singing of "Dubul'ibhunu" ('Shoot The Boer')' in 2010 and 2012 respectively are cited as two of five key examples in which a sharp rise in murders followed the political "events". The study, however, has not yet been independently scrutinised.

Free State Agriculture's Operational Manager, Dr Jack Armour, told HuffPost South Africa they view farm insecurity as an issue of "crime, inequality, poverty and desperation". "Our own independent sources show there are black farmers and workers also getting killed, not just whites. It is also not only poverty and desperation, but also crime syndicates and greed driving targets on farms. We remain soft targets".

Questioned about the implementation of government's rural safety programme, acting Police Commissioner Khomotso Phahlane in March said commendable progress in decreasing crimes committed on farms and smallholdings had been made but they "wouldn't yet celebrate", according to News24.

In the interim, the death toll continues to rise in 2017, and with it a deeper sense that government cannot, or will not, take the matter as seriously as these communities have hoped.