Cross-border crimes leave farmers, workers discouraged

'South Africans need to open their eyes,' pleads Free State Agriculture after spate of recent farm attacks

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“A hungry man is a dangerous man,” warns Free State Agriculture president Francois Wilken after a recent spate of farm attacks which are leaving both farmers and their workers discouraged.

Wilken believes that farming communities are being targeted by desperate criminals from the neighbouring Lesotho, which has been plagued by political instability since its return to democracy in 1983. Also, the decline of South Africa’s mining industry has had a devastating effect on Lesotho, leading to massive job losses.

“It’s been coming on for years,” Wilken tells Food For Mzansi. “Actually, the whole thing is triggered by the collapse of our mining industry. Lesotho’s economy has gone to the dogs, and now the young men who used to work on the mines are also without jobs. It has become easy to commit crimes in South Africa and then flee back across the border.”

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

Wilken’s plea comes just a day after Lesotho opened up more border posts to speed up the return to work of locked-down mineworkers. Mining Weekly reports that 12 000 mineworkers only had access to one border post when re-entering South Africa from Lesotho. Nikisi Lesufi, an executive with the Minerals Council, says three border posts are now open, with a re-entry capacity of up to 150 people each.

Meanwhile Free State farmers and workers continue to fear for their lives. Less than a week ago, five armed men reportedly attacked and assaulted a Tweespruit farmer, John Parr, as well as his wife, son-in-law and two children. Two of the five armed men were killed in the crossfire that broke lose just after sunrise on Sunday morning.

In Hobhouse, 45km further, a further two farm attacks saw workers being assaulted and robbed of livestock. Other farming communities in towns bordering Lesotho have also been targeted by criminals, with crimes reported in Clarens, Clocolan, Ficksburg, Wepener and Zastron.

The people (of Lesotho) say, ‘We live like white people and you have a car. You pretend this farm is yours. – Mmakarabo Pharoe

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According to Free State Agriculture, more than 30 cross-border crimes were reported during the lockdown. Of the more than 300 sheep and cattle that were stolen from various farms, 100 were later recovered at the Caledon River rising in the Drakensberg Mountains on the Lesotho border. Besides the animal theft, farmers are also perturbed by criminals who attack their workers, as well as a spike in house burglaries and theft of solar panels, vehicles, tractors and bales of fodder.

“It isn’t easy for those who continue to farm close to the border of Lesotho. Many have already left these towns, but a few remained and, I guess, they are willing to take a beating in their endeavour to feed the nation. They try to remain positive, but it is very tough,” says Wilken.

The right to live in ‘functional society’

“The other problem is that the South African Police Service are no longer allowed to just cross the border to arrest criminals. Interpol forbade them. Our farmers are much more vigilant. We have even had a 12-year legal battle with government about the protection of borders. In the end we lost a lot of money and saw no results. We have even approached the Constitutional Court.”

Wilken is referring to a matter where local farmers took government to court for failing to secure the Lesotho border, and neglecting to protect them from stock theft, illegal grazing and farm attacks. The case, which was settled out of court in 2010, tested the rights of around 300 farming families to live in a “functional society” in line with the terms of the Constitution.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a senior research consultant for the Institute of Security Studies, Photo: kykNET Verslag

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a senior research consultant for the Institute of Security Studies, tells Food For Mzansi that Lesotho is a functional yet unstable state.

“Their new prime minister, Moeketsi Majoro, has been in place for a few weeks, and it looks like things might go slightly better soon. Unemployment remains a major issue, though. And, in terms of farming, the long-running dispute over new regulations around the wool and mohair trade seems to have settled down.”

The Lesotho High Court will today say whether bail will be granted to Maesiah Thabane, the alleged mastermind behind the 2017 killing of former Lesotho prime minister Tom Thabane’s wife, Lipolelo. The 81-year old Tom Thabane resigned in May this year – at least two years before the end of his term. He was succeeded by the 58-year-old Majoro, an economist and former executive at the International Monetary Fund as well as Lesotho’s former finance minister.

Free State Agriculture met with concerned community members again on Thursday. Wilken says they have accepted that cross-border crimes “are part of the package. It will not go away. Instead, we have to remain alert, and build relationships with the police. The farmers are more vigilant now and they respond quickly (to crime alerts), although the police are still on the slow side. If it was not for the farmers, there would often not be any arrests. In the Tweespruit attack, SAPS arrived on the farm two hours later.”

‘South Africans need to open their eyes’

Wilken has urged all South Africans to unite behind Free State farming communities, adding that often people make a mistake in thinking only white farmers are targeted. “If you look at last year’s statistics, black farm managers were killed in Ladybrand (situated 18km from Maseru, the capital of Lesotho). Workers, who are predominantly black, are equally being attacked and intimidated. South Africans need to open their eyes. We’ll have to stand together.”

Mmakarabo Pharoe’s late husband, Tankiso, was stabbed with a knife 24 times during a farm attack in Ladybrand in 2018. He was the manager of the Brandenburg farm when attackers struck and tied his hands and feet to a fence. She was also raped in the incident. In an earlier Netwerk24 interview she says, “Children from Lesotho came across the border to steal. The grownups told Tankiso that they would kill him. The people (of Lesotho) say, ‘We live like white people and you have a car. You pretend this farm is yours’.”

Wilken says he is worried that the covid-19 pandemic will lead to even more job losses in both the Free State and Lesotho. “Before the lockdown, our unemployment rate was at 30%. Heaven knows what it currently is. This is a major crisis, and a hungry man is a dangerous man. But we will keep on producing and distributing food… Farming communities are only asking to be safe.”

Jakkals le Roux, who heads up Free State Agriculture’s rural safety committee, says farmers in the Tweespruit and Hobhouse areas have to be commended for their swift response to assist recent victims. The rural safety strategy, in partnership with SAPS, is indispensable in order to arrest attackers, he adds.

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