ATTACKS: ‘Everyone on a farm is a victim or potential victim’

There attackers who tortured an elderly farm foreman in an hours-long attack on a farm near Zastron, are still at large. Photo: Supplied

The recent spike in farm attacks and murders are not as racially motivated as “right-wing narrative groups” might suggest, warns Constitutional law expert prof. Elmien du Plessis.

As hundreds of people, including the BWB (Boereweerstandbeweging), prepare for a Mandela Day march against farm attacks, Free State Agriculture president Francois Wilken also reiterates: “It is not a racial thing.” This echoes sentiments of the African Centre for Food Security who say “increased hunger and poverty” contribute to the spike in rural crimes.

According to recent statistics by lobby group Afriforum, there has been a significant rise in farm attacks and murders in the last two months as South Africa is in lockdown because of the covid-19 pandemic. Among the recent murder victims count Zakiyyah Ismail (26), a livestock farmer in Weenen in KwaZulu-Natal who was four months pregnant. Two weeks ago, the 82-year-old Janetta du Toit and her son, Wimpie (54), were injured during an attack on their farm in Petrusburg in the Free State.

Prof. Elmien du Plessis is a leading expert in land and expropriation law. Photo: Supplied

Since the covid-19 lockdown took effect on 27 March this year, there has been a rise in criminal activity throughout the country, and farm attacks contribute to the surge, says Du Plessis, who lecturers at North-West University in Potchefstroom. She adds, “It is natural that we will now see a spike in criminal activities everywhere in the country, and farms are part of that increase in crime.”

According to Afriforum’s statistics 40 farm attacks and five murders took place in June 2020. A further four murders took place in the first week of July alone, including that of Ismail who was reportedly killed in front of her children.

‘Interest groups politicising farm attacks’

Perpetrators of violent crimes know no color, and the real motives behind the spate of violent attacks on farms and rural communities are relatively unknown, says Du Plessis. “It is difficult to impede that perpetrators are going to deliberately kill white farmers. There are interest groups that take over the narrative to politicise the threat.”

Free State Agriculture president Francois Wilken. Photo: Conrad Bornman.

Wilken, who leads the 116-year-old Free State farmers’ organisation, agrees and calls for calm. He says farm attacks in the province have been random and, instead, fueled by desperation. “There are elements who try to politicise farm attacks and it is not a racial thing.”

No one is safe on a farm, Wilken tells Food For Mzansi. “These perpetrators know no colour. In the Free State the victims are black and white. I mean, even farm workers are targeted. Everybody in a farming enterprise is a victim or a potential victim.”

Senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Dr Johan Burger, however, believes that government is not doing enough to address the security needs of farmers. Farmers are responsible for providing the nation with food daily, he says, and yet, “the government does not seem to acknowledge that farm attacks are a problem.”

Burger argues that farming is a strategic asset for the betterment of the people and should therefore be safeguarded. “This is a problem that threatens a sector that provides food for the nation. One would expect that everybody agrees that farming is a strategic asset for the country that needs to be protected and safeguarded.”

Shocking levels of brutality

Meanwhile farmers nationwide are riddled with fear due to the recent spate of criminal activity. “The level of brutality in these attacks is alarming. Some of these attacks are extremely violent. Victims are tortured for hours without end,” says Burger.

Jannie Strydom, CEO of Agri Western Cape. Photo: Twitter

Agri Western Cape CEO Jannie Strydom too warns that violent attacks on farmers and agricultural workers not only affects the sector, but has a direct impact on the consumer.

While the Western Cape has had a relatively low incidence of farm attacks, there has also been a surge of violent attacks in the last few lockdown-weeks after no incidents were reported in April and May this year.

Strydom believes that despair has become a powerful motivator as the nation battles to recover from the economic pinch caused by strict lockdown regulations, particularly during levels four and five. “Farming has become a high-risk job, and when rural safety is threatened, so is our food security. Social decay has led to an environment where there is no respect for the law, law enforcement or structures of authority.”

It will take a combined effort to break the cycle of crime, Strydom adds. “The belief that it is the role of the police alone to fight crime, is careless. Instead, combined, integrated and focused efforts are required to bring back values, respect and integrity to all communities, both rural and urban.”

These perpetrators know no colour. The victims are black and white. I mean, even farm workers are targeted. – Francois Wilken, FREE STATE AGRICULTURE

TLU SA tells Food For Mzansi that farmers have been left orphaned. Secretary general Chris Van Zyl says farmers need to remain on high alert and work with farm watches to strengthen rural safety.

“Farm attacks are considered priority crimes. Despite this, it does not receive as much dedicated (police) personnel as other crimes. The police simply do not have enough capacity to protect farmers,” he says.

‘Laws must have sharp teeth that bite’

Dr Ivan Meyer, the Western Cape minister of agriculture. Photo: Supplied

During a recent meeting, the Western Cape MEC for agriculture, Dr Ivan Meyer, reiterated that he is concerned about farm attacks. He believes criminal elements are taking advantage of the increased vulnerability of farmers due to lockdown measures, but also that a loss of income motivates the vulnerable to commit these crimes. “We intend to forge ahead with plans to ensure that farmers, farm workers and rural communities, who form the backbone of our agricultural economy, are safe.”

In a media release, the IFP calls on government to prioritise the prevention of farm attacks and murders. Spokesperson Blessed Gwala says, “Government seems reluctant to act with the urgency that this matter deserves. We want to see government leading from the front in raising awareness around farm attacks and murders. We want to see government establish an independent court – specifically for dealing with farm attacks and farm murder cases.”

The IFP’s KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson on community safety and liaison, Blessed Gwala. Photo: Supplied

Gwala also calls for a review of the justice system, in particular laws that deal with serious crimes, “so that anyone found to be involved in farm attacks and murders is punished severely. Our laws must have sharp teeth that bite. People must know that if they commit crimes, they will be severely dealt with by our laws. We need to send a strong message that crime is not tolerated.”

DA parliamentarian Dianne Kohler-Barnard says, “It is as if farmers and farm workers have been declared persona non grata. They are needed to ensure food security, but are then left to try and solve any and all problems they might encounter on their own.”

However, prof. Steven Worth, director of the African Centre for Food Security, does not believe that increased policing will bring about sustainable security for farmers or their workers. Instead, he believes despair was a powerful motivator and until that was addressed, no amount of policing can fix it.