Several deadly altercations between farmers and alleged thieves this week have turned the spotlight to theft from farms in South Africa. Although farmers agree that violence can never be condoned, they say it points to a countrywide void between frustrating levels of crime and failed law enforcement.
On Monday, 6 December 2021 police in North West called for information on the killing of two suspected stock thieves who had been found assaulted and burned near Mahikeng.
Also on Monday, two farmers accused of murder were granted bail of R5 000 each in the Paarl Magistrate’s Court. Jan Basson and John Woest were charged with the murder of 40-year-old Chatwell Rogers, who they allege to have been a known stolen fruit seller. Rogers was shot and killed on 30 November 2021.
A few dozen farmers and farmworkers staged a demonstration on crime on farms outside the court building on Monday.
‘It should not have happened’
“What happened is really tragic,” says Willie Rossouw, chairman of the Paarl Agricultural Association. “This shouldn’t occur in society at all and no farmer wants to see this happen in their community. We extend our sympathy to the family [of Rogers].”
But he deems it important to acknowledge farmers’ daily frustration with crime that doesn’t get policed or prosecuted.
“Farmers are really left to fend for themselves and the authorities will have to step up their responsibility.”Paarl Agricultural Association chair Willie Rossouw
He says that fruit theft poses two problems. “It does huge damage. You think you’re going to start picking in an orchard but when you get there, you find there isn’t much fruit left. But the main concern is that thieves are increasingly armed. Ten years ago, a thief would dump their bag and run away when confronted. Now they are coming armed and ready to fight. Our own farms are unsafe now.”
He feels the solution lies in a long-term address of social issues such as drug abuse, which he believes drives much of the local theft, and a shorter-term address of lax policing and the judicial system. “Lawlessness has to be dealt with – down to the little things.”
A given aspect of farming
Derek Donkin, CEO of the SA Subtropical Growers’ Association (Subtrop), says that their fruit are not stolen by hungry individuals. “The level at which they operate… they are stealing large quantities. That’s their business.”
Subtrop is located in Tzaneen in Limpopo and represents avocado, litchi and mango growers. Avocadoes are particularly targeted for their high value. Donkin says from bags to bakkie loads are stolen at a time and then taken to central pickup points to be distributed. “People are making money from stolen fruit.”
“We haven’t done a survey [on the extent of the theft] for a while, so it’s very difficult to put a number to it. But it’s a reality of the environment we operate in.”Subtrop CEO Derek Donkin
The level of theft differs from area to area, depending on factors such as proximity to roads from where the stolen fruit can be moved, and the level of security from one farm to the next. “Thieves go where it’s easiest to go,” says Donkin. Farmers are thus forced to carry the high and unwanted cost of security, which has long been a necessary element of farming.
Donkin feels produce theft should be seen for the problem that it is. “We often hear from government about the effect that stock theft has on farmers, but it should be out there that fruit theft also has a detrimental effect on farmers. We should be talking about ‘produce and stock theft’.”
Stock theft wiping out livelihoods
“Stock theft doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care if you are black or white. It doesn’t even matter how tight your security is. Thieves will steal from you.” Sehularo Sehularo from the Northern Cape farmers’ association Saamtrek Saamwerk says livestock theft is a frustrating reality for farmers in South Africa. And it can sometimes wipe out entire livelihoods.
“We see teachers and police officers who retire and invest in livestock. Then, after three months… gone.”
The worst incident Sehularo recalls was a farmer discovering the theft of about 80 sheep and 40 goats from his kraal two years ago. The farmer went to bed at the end of that day and died in his sleep. Although it can never be confirmed, locals believe he died of a heart attack.
Sehularo says that because unemployment is a reality, stock theft is a reality too and farmers expect it to become worse in the festive season.
“People are stealing, people are stealing, people are stealing.Saamtrek Saamwerk coordinator Sehularo Sehularo
Stock theft not only affects their farmers but also farmworkers who lose their jobs, says Sehularo. And there seems to be no end in sight. “The cases seldom go to court. Are the police officers involved? We don’t know. It only goes to court when someone gets killed.
“But violence can never be the answer. An eye for an eye won’t solve anything.”
Sehularo says unmarked animals make it easier for thieves to steal them and he urges farmers to mark their stock. He further believes every rural police office should have a dedicated stock theft investigator.
‘Thieves will take anything’
“Fruit, livestock, farm infrastructure, inputs… anything unfixed gets stolen,” says Uys van der Westhuijzen, Agri SA’s chairman for the rural safety centre of excellence. “It’s countrywide and it’s millions of rand that get stolen.”
He says farmers incur enormous security costs. “It’s not as easy as installing an alarm in a townhouse. You have to secure your storage and fences, electrify and install cameras. Farmers are now putting cameras on roads to monitor vehicle movement – and paying for the signalling so police can know where suspicious vehicles are going.”
“Farmers are paying for what gets stolen, the cost of security and the cost of systems to assist the state in doing its job.”Agri SA chairman for rural safety Uys van der Westhuijzen
He says the deadly incidents of the past two weeks point to a void between crime and police reaction, not only in the moment but also over time. “We condemn all violence. But we have to ask if it could have been avoided. Many times there is provocation during property invasion, the police take too long to respond and the situation escalates.
“There are dedicated police officers but our police stations don’t have enough vehicles, staff, etc. The poor policeman in blue always takes flack for being in the wrong. We need to acknowledge that too.”
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