What lies behind the incredible level of brutality displayed in attacks on farms? Sinesipho Tom spoke to a political scientist and a criminal psychologist who have been studying shocking phenomenon. The answer, as always, is not simply black and white.
“Limpopo farmer found ‘riddled with bullets’ at the Frischgewagt farm between Stoffberg and Groblersdal.” “We will rape your kids, 9 attackers tell farmer.” “Police find 21-year-old Brendin Horner’s body badly beaten and tied to a pole in Free State.” “Three caught after woman strangled in Delmas farm attack.”
These have just been some of the headlines in the upsurge of recent farm attacks. While crime has become part of everyday life in Mzansi the brutality of these attacks continues to shock.
Political scientist Prof. Joelien Pretorius from the University of Western Cape and criminal psychologist Dr Karin Walton, founder of Karin Walton Psychological Services, have been studying recent and historical farm attacks.
Walton believes that the viciousness of farm attacks is triggered by the psychological effects of multiple contributing factors.
“I don’t think anything with human beings is as simple as one reason. There are always going to be multiple reasons. But I do think that the big ones are economic deprivation, a culture of violence just generally and opportunity. If you have a culture of violence and you have opportunity you have a very dangerous melting pot,” she says.
Pretorius, who did a psycho-political analysis of farm attacks in South Africa in 2014, believes that the brutality of farm attacks are caused by a combination of psycho-political violence, the fear of being caught, poverty and issues of geography and isolation on farms.
She developed a framework of psycho-political violence which explains some of the attacks. “The argument that I made in my article was that in some of the attacks you can clearly see that there is a power dynamic going on. So, there is a perception that the farmer has all the power and usually the farmer is white.”
‘If you have a culture of violence and you have opportunity you have a very dangerous melting pot.’
According to this dynamic the attacker feels generally disempowered, she says. “Then when the attack happens suddenly that person has got the power. So, when the roles are reversed the violence that is dished out is so severe because what the attacker was experiencing psychologically is now returned to the farmer, but in a physical way.”
Pretorius indicates that this dynamic does not require a previous relationship between attacker and victim.
“There might be cases where people feel disempowered in society in general. When they get in a position when they then have the power they might stereotype the person as part of the reasons why they are disempowered in other spheres of their life.”
‘There is transferral of that feeling of disempowerment… It’s part of a bigger societal dynamic.’
She explains that some studies have proven that people who feel disempowered tend to lash out at people who have nothing to do with their feeling of disempowerment.
She cites a study done in newly industrialised England that showed an upsurge in domestic and gender-based violence in cotton mill towns where men were forced by circumstances to work in factories. The men were incorporated into the system but were disempowered at work, having no power over their daily lives.
“They didn’t have power at work. When they got home where they had the power and they exercised it. The result was an increase in domestic violence towards women and children during that period.”
Pretorius suspects that this dynamic is coming into play in the farm attacks happening today.
“I think in some cases in farm attacks you get a similar dynamic where there is transferral of that feeling of disempowerment. But now I have the power, now I dish it out to someone even though I don’t know that someone. It’s part of a bigger societal dynamic that might be playing itself out here,” she says.
Isolation on farms
Pretorius adds that another issue that contributes to these ruthless farm attacks is geography and isolation on farms. This gives the attackers time and a clear window to execute their mission.
“They know that police stations are far away and so are neighbours, so the farmers will not be able to ask for help. Were it in the city and someone had pressed the armed response alarm, they would either shoot and leave or they would steal and leave because they have to. But when they are on a farm and they know nobody is going to get to them things like torture starts,” she says.
Walton points out that there is a general culture of violence in South Africa.
‘Why are we surprised that children think this is how the world works?’
“A lot of perpetrators are also coming from communities in which violence has been normalised, where this is just something that happens. Where it is normal for there to be firearms. Where it is normal for people to be threatened and where it is normal to be drunk and assault one another,” she says.
“In our informal settlements, when those children witness this on a day-to-day basis and see their parents do this, why are we that surprised when they think that that’s how the world works?” she asks.
Walton states that most of the perpetrators already had a trail of convictions following them.
“I actually saw in one study where they had looked at people who have been arrested and convicted of murders that a lot of them sometimes actually committed up to a hundred other crimes prior to that.”
This culture of impunity leads to an escalation of violence. “If things can happen to women and children in our townships in the middle of the day or even at night where there are people around and nothing is done, why do we think that it would stop there?” she asks.