The conclusion of the recent court case between Afriforum and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will be seen by some as a licence to voice sentiments around ‘killing’ and ‘burning’, writes Robert Davel, CEO of Mpumalanga Agriculture. He says it is important to ask whether this sort of rhetoric is a political theatre South Africa can afford. He also unpacks:
- How, as an organisation representing the farming economy, Mpumalanga Agriculture has a direct interest in the matter.
- In a 2017 study across the country, around 70% of farms experienced crime of one sort or another (violent crime, theft, vandalism, etc). In Mpumalanga this was over 78%.
- Agriculture contributes about 3% to GDP, and around 5% of employment – making it’s contribution to the economy indispensable.
In a constitutional state, it is important to respect the judgement of the courts even if this is going to be appealed, as Afriforum has indicated.
Farming is not an easy vocation. It’s hard work, with often limited rewards. Farmers have to deal with all the challenges of a harsh and changing climate, unpredictable markets, failing infrastructure, a difficult and unfriendly regulatory environment, and constant dangers to physical security.
These challenges would be familiar to most South Africans, but for those of us in the agricultural sector, they are compounded by the isolation in which we live and work. We’re often on our own, with only our own resources and the help of our neighbours to turn to.
The farming economy also has a particular place in South Africa’s political imagination. Terence Corrigan of the Institute of Race Relations wrote about the “brutal farmer stereotype”. in 2018 It presents the idea of a “farmer” or a “boer”; not as a fellow citizen engaged in a certain type of work, but as a symbol of a larger societal problem.
Corrigan wrote: “The concept of the ‘farmer’ has been deployed as a signifier of depravity and an expression of abuse in the South African countryside. (I wonder if any other occupational group has had the dubious honour of attracting, or being targeted by, a political chant: ‘Kill the farmer, kill the boer’?)”
Sometimes, accusations are levelled against “farmers” where no actual farmer was involved.
Farming communities vulnerable to violent crime
It’s hardly surprising that incendiary rhetoric of this nature is deeply unsettling to farming communities. It implies that farmers are not a true and integral part of our country and our communities. Indeed, such rhetoric suggests that the threats farming communities face are understandable, if not justifiable. It normalises what a constitutional democracy – based on common citizenship and the rule of law – should not and cannot ever accept.
Such language also scratches at very real concerns. Often being beyond the reach of rapid help, farming communities are vulnerable to crime. Many in these communities have personal experience of crime. I’d say, every farmer can attest to this, and invariably knows or knows of someone who has been murdered – so they feel acutely vulnerable.
Let’s put some numbers on this. Agri SA conducted a study of crime trends in 2017 to establish the costs and frequency of farm crime. Across the country, around 70% of farms experienced crime of one sort or another (violent crime, theft, vandalism, etc). In Mpumalanga, my own province, this was over 78%. The total cost of crime was estimated at over R7.7 billion. Only a quarter of farmers bothered to report each crime they experienced, many feeling it would be a waste of time.
A report by Afriforum produced earlier this year put the number of people murdered on farms and smallholdings – farmers, farmworkers, residents, visitors – at 364 between 2016 and 2021. This only refers to actual murders, not to the higher number of farm “attacks”. Depending on the year, between 8% and 22% of murders were accompanied by torture.
Against this background, is it any wonder that farmers find language glorifying killing and destruction threatening? This is the case, whether it is intended metaphorically or not. It also undermines the cohesive and united future to which the overwhelming majority of South Africans aspire.
It affects all farmers
And this a not “racial thing”. The threats to life and property that confront farming are as much a danger to black as to white farmers. Anyone who disputes this has not been paying attention.
Former Agri SA head Dan Kriek once said: “The whole narrative, the fact that black farmers and farmworkers 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?”
We farmers are practical people. We prefer to focus on durable solutions to real problems.
Agriculture contributes about 3% to GDP, and around 5% of employment. If one adds up its contribution to value chains, agriculture is indispensable to over 10% of GDP. During the Covid-19 pandemic, agriculture came through for the country. As the country faces inflationary pressures and rising costs of living, remember that these problems would look a great deal worse without a robust domestic farming economy.
If we care about South Africa and its future, we need to care about its farming and its farmers.
It’s no mystery to us that we need good relations across the various stakeholder groups. As organised agriculture, and as individual farmers, this is a priority for us. No other industry is mandated to take the responsibility for our employees in the way that we are. By and large we do so. Of course, there are inevitable conflicts – as in any industry – but these should be dealt with on the merits of individual cases.
We do not condone poor behaviour from farmers; we are firm on this for reasons of the law and because much of our commercial access depends on maintaining ethical standards. Where failures arise, Mpumalanga Agriculture’s door is always open to at tend to any issues. But it causes immense frustration when we face baseless allegations presented as fact, or vague claims without details that would enable investigation, or when complex claims and counterclaims are reduced to easy platitudes and certainties. We appeal for more discernment and reflection on these matters.
Let there be no doubt that we as farmers are here to stay, to contribute our skills and energies to South Africa and our communities. This is our offering, a practical one, and it’s a much better one than divisive political rhetoric.
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