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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Blood in the dust: The plight of South African farmers is far from black or white

By Jewel Topsfield, The Age, 23 June 2018

In the first week of June two farms were attacked in the South African province of Free State. The modus operandi was more or less the same. Armed intruders tied up the victims and stole guns, cash, mobile phones–whatever they could get their hands on–and then fled in the farm vehicles

Attacks on farms, which are particularly vulnerable due to their isolation, are the nightmarish reality for those living and working on the land in South Africa, which is tormented by a level of heinous crime Australians struggle to comprehend.

Dan Kriek, the president of AgriSA, the largest representative body of commercial farmers in South Africa, condemns both attacks “in the strongest possible terms”.

But there is a difference between the two that troubles him.

One of the attacks, on a white farmer and his wife, was reported in the media. But the other attack–where the victims were two black farmers–received no coverage.

“The point I am trying to make is the media is not reporting the true state of affairs–farm attacks and farm murders are shared by all racial groups in this country,” Kriek says.

He believes the media portrayal of the farm murders as an onslaught on white farmers does nothing to help social cohesion in a country still haunted by apartheid.

“The whole narrative, the fact black farmers and farm workers get attacked and murdered, gets lost in the whole conversation. How do we–in a country with our history–then convince the whole of society this is a problem we all need to address?”

Kriek, a mild-mannered white farmer with a prize cattle stud near the town of Tweeling in the Free State, is at the epicentre of an emotive debate around race, rural violence and land reform that is roiling South Africa.

There are few more affected than Kriek–as AgriSA president and a farmer he knows many of the victims of farm attacks.

Far-right extremists, both in South Africa and other countries including Australia, claim white South African farmers are facing a genocide.

Most people don’t accept the hyperbolic claims of a white genocide–it is difficult to equate South Africa with Rwanda or Nazi Germany.

But there is a concern among white farmers (large-scale commercial farms are almost all white-owned) that they are being deliberately targeted.

They are alarmed by farm attacks and murders–in some cases involving gruesome torture–and land reform aimed at addressing racial disparities in land ownership.

“From the farmers’ perspective the political landscape has recently become more hostile, largely as a result of calls by political leaders for more radical land reform,” says Dr Johan Burger from the Institute for Security Studies.

“They point to statements by various political leaders such as those accusing white farmers of having stolen the land and calling for the expropriation of land without compensation.”

The vexed questions of whether white farmers are killed at a higher rate than the rest of the population and whether attacks are a normal part of crime or fuelled by racial animosity are the source of much conjecture in South Africa.

In 2015 the South African Human Rights Commission said most evidence presented to it suggested the criminal element but it did not dispute some farm attacks and murders were motivated by hate or racial hostility.

This debate will be reignited at the end of June when Ernst Roets, the deputy CEO of Afrikaner-rights group AfriForum, launches a book, Kill the Boer, warning a “looming process of ethnic cleansing should be regarded as a serious threat”.

The narrative of a white persecution has gained considerable traction in Australia, where about 163,000 (mostly white) South African-born people now live.

Earlier this year Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton caused a diplomatic furore when he said Australia had “the potential to help some of these people that are being persecuted”.

His comments followed a spate of headlines in Australia including “South Africa’s white farmers attacked, raped and forced from land”, “Whites persecuted, but who cares?” and “White minority ‘targeted’ in South Africa”.

Dutton said these people “need help from a civilised country like ours”.

Dutton has never specifically referred to white farmers. However his comments caused uproar in South Africa.

“Oz minister who wants white SA farmers has history of racist rants,” screamed one headline.

“I was pissed off,” says South African Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom.

“It was reckless, irresponsible and it was just pandering to a right wing group. I think there was a lot of concern about this statement.”

A spokeswoman for Dutton said Australia’s program “doesn’t discriminate on any basis. The minister has never suggested otherwise and therefore I would discount ill informed comment.”

It’s a miracle Johnny Muller is even alive, let alone that he can still see and doesn’t have brain damage.

Muller, a dairy farmer from a property near the town of Frankfort in the Free State, was shot while struggling with an intruder during a farm attack on September 24 last year.

He shows us the scars; the bullet entered above his right eye and came out on the left side of his neck. It dodged an artery.

Someone told the family the barrel of the gun must have been almost touching his head or it would have blown out a bigger hole. “We didn’t google that,” Johnny’s wife Dalene says drily.

The Mullers believe the motive for the attack was theft: ‘I don’t think all farm attacks are for money reasons, I think some are just to hurt and injure people, but in our case they really wanted money,” Dalene says.

Somehow she managed to press a panic button. The intruders escaped in the Muller’s bakkie (small truck) when they heard the alarm.

“I closed the door and I told the children: ‘Daddy has been shot. We don’t know if he is dead or alive, probably dead, but we cannot go out there.”

It’s hard to imagine the agonising wait for help in the Muller’s cheerful kitchen, with its fruit salad tablecloth, and multi-coloured sign that says “Many people have eaten here & survived”. (The sign, Johnny says, smiling, was there before the attack.)

Dalene says although the farm attacks are a problem, they are not the only people suffering in South Africa.

“There are a lot of people being hijacked, there are a lot of people being attacked in their houses, even in the cities.”

The family never considered not coming back to the farm. “This is where we live. We decided we are not going to let some barbarians ruin our lives.”

Do they think many other South Africans farmers would be interested in coming to Australia? “I think there would be some. In this area I don’t think there would be many,” Dalene says.

Earlier this year Tony Abbott claimed that “something like 400 white farmers have been brutally murdered over the last 12 months”.

However South African police say there were 47 farm murders and 561 farm attacks in 2017-18 (they do not identify the race of the victims or their occupations). The highest recorded number of farm murders was in 1997-98 when there were 153.

AfriForum disputes the police figures and says the real toll is higher. It says there were 84 farm murders last calendar year.
AgriSA, which represents about 28,000 farmers, says an increase in farm attacks during the past two financial years is in line with national crime statistics.

The spectre of violence is everywhere in South Africa. A guard with an automatic gun stands outside Wimpy, a fast food chain in a suburban Johannesburg shopping mall. A metre away a child eats his hamburger.

Middle-class houses hide behind towering walls, topped with electric fences and coiled barbed wire. Signs warn of armed security.

Our car windscreen is cracked from an earlier “smash and grab”–a brick through the window at a robot, which is what South Africans call traffic lights, followed by “give me your cell phone or I’ll shoot you”.

The life of almost every South African I meet has been scarred by violence. They tell horrifying stories of brutal home invasions, carjackings and murders with the same tone of sad resignation Australians use to talk about cancer.

In 2016-17 there were more than 19,000 murders in South Africa–an average of 52 every day. Most victims were young black men.

The division of wealth is stark. Just a few kilometres from Johannesburg’s affluent financial hub of Sandton, where tourists pose under a gigantic statue of Nelson Mandela and then have a glass of Chenin Blanc, is the township of Alexandra.

One of the poorest urban areas in South Africa, the township, its population almost entirely black, is crammed with corrugated iron shacks. Most don’t have running water so the people use communal pumps and outdoor toilets.

The World Bank says South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with its poverty “a demonstration of the enduring legacy of apartheid”.

When Mandela campaigned ahead of South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994, his slogan promised: “A better life for all”.

But democracy has not ended all white privilege.

Almost 25 years after the end of apartheid, two thirds of agricultural land is still in the hands of the white minority. Less than 9 percent of South Africans are white.

The African National Congress failed to achieve its target of a 30 per cent transfer of farmland to blacks by 2014. In December it adopted a policy position that land should be expropriated without compensation to accelerate reform.

The government insists there will be no “smash and grab interventions”, referring to the violent land grabs that occurred in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, and the economy and food security will not be adversely affected.

Farmers have been assured productive agricultural land will not be taken.

Land expropriation without compensation would only occur in limited situations, such as where land was sitting idle for speculation. Cases would be tested in the Constitutional Court.

But still there is uncertainty and fear.

This is exacerbated by militant populist politician Julius Malema, who has urged blacks to occupy white-owned land. He says he is not calling for whites to be killed … “for now”.

Malema, then a member of the ANC, also caused an outcry in 2010 when he sang the apartheid-era song Shoot the Boer, Shoot the Farmer, which a High Court judge ruled constituted hate speech.

Malema was later expelled from the ANC and formed the radical ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters party, which commands just 6 per cent of the vote, but his inflammatory comments have alarmed white farmers.

“Politicians say ‘Kill the farmer, kill the farmer’ so they get it in their heads,” Johnny Muller says.

In 1998 Nelson Mandela said the government deplored the “cold-blooded killings on farms”.

Farm attacks were made a national security priority alongside other special crimes such as gang violence, cash in transit robberies and taxi violence.

But AfriForum is concerned the government has since de-prioritised it as a crime, including abolishing the commando system, a voluntary part-time force of the South African Army that assisted police.

AfriForum claims farmers are three to four times more likely to be killed than the average South African and the significance of racial and political motives is underplayed.

Despite the backlash from South Africa, Dutton has said he will “not step back” from the necessity of providing support to people who face persecution.

Somewhat ironically, given its advocacy promoting the plight of South African farmers overseas, AfriForum is not especially enthusiastic about Australia’s offer to take farmers.

“We were very grateful that there is recognition of the problem, that there is acknowledgement outside of South Africa that there is a problem in South Africa,” Roets says.

“But we know that exporting people would not solve the problem, at least not the collective problem. We would want to fix the problem here.”

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