A cold shoulder

“Listen to me when I hand you this volume. I’m not giving it to you because I am white. I’m giving it to you because I am a South African and because you have a responsibility to protect all South Africans – including farmers.”

Those were the words of Belinda van Noord on 17 January 2013 to Colonel Simon Chabangu, Secretary to the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa. In her hands she held a red folder. In the red folder were one hundred letters, written by victims of farm attacks. A mere week before, Belinda’s brother was buried. Her father not long before that. Both were shot to death in cold blood in their farm butchery in Brits.

In her own letter she writes:

“South African citizens are no longer safe because violent criminals roam our streets, cities, towns and rural areas. Hardly a day goes by without there being news reports of people being killed in their homes, women being brutally assaulted and raped and, in some cases, of children who have to look on in horror how their parents are being killed. If Government can prioritize ‘Save the Rhino’, why can’t Government protect its citizens? Is a rhino worth more than the life of a person?”

Little did Belinda know that the Minister of Police had already released a media statement before the letters were presented. He was aware of the fact that AfriForum was there to support her. In his media statement of 17 January 2013 he writes:

“The Ministry of Police has noted a very disturbing trend by Afriforum (sic) over the past few years, which has the potential to compromise our efforts in the fight against crime.”

Even before he had received the letters, he had described the presentation as a mere “publicity stunt” which could not be taken seriously. And he said:

“We therefore strongly condemn such actions and urge Afriforum to stop misleading the public, compromising government’s efforts on crime and begin to contribute to the fight against crime through intellectual, society-building initiatives and developmental safety agendas.

The continuous mocking, grandstanding and publicity-seeking stunts at the expense of real crime victims do not serve any good cause. We urge Afriforum (sic) to refrain from their divisive approach of racialising crime. Crime affects us all, black or white, young or old, rich or poor. What concerns us is to fight crime, fight it smartly and toughly.”

A month and a half before, on 1 December 2012, hundreds of farmers gathered before the office of the Minister of Police. Many of them had survived farm attacks – some had the scars to show for it, both physical and emotional. Belinda van Noord was not present. Her father and brother were still alive.

The Minister went out of his way to prevent the march from going ahead, and even declared it illegal. AfriForum was forced to approach the High Court for an urgent declarative order that the march may proceed.

The participants arrived at a closed Police Department and the Minister refused to accept the memorandum. In reaction to media enquiries he said via his spokesperson that farm murders would not be prioritized because the majority of farmers were white and that he was not willing to consider crime on a racial basis.

The Minister continued by saying that AfriForum and those who insisted on prioritizing farm murders have a racial agenda and that we should realize that farmers are not “golden sons and daughters” who are entitled to special treatment. He said further that the police had a comprehensive rural safety plan, but that farm murders were merely a type of murder. It would make no sense to prioritize farm murders, as farm murders are murders and the police were not willing to elevate one type of murder above the rest.

In spite of the evidence, the Minister of Police is refusing point blank to acknowledge that farm murders are a crisis.

Deprioritizing farm murders

The irony is that farm murders used to be a priority for Government.

  • In 1997 Government said that farmers appeared to be uniquely targeted in violent and murderous attacks. Statistics on farm murders were released annually and Government even appointed a task team with the aim of compiling a plan to deal with farm attacks.
  • In 1999 the Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure Priority Committee was convened with the aim of escalating rural safety to national priority.
  • In 2001 an investigative committee on farm murders was instituted.
  • In 2003 former President Thabo Mbeki announced against all expectations that the commando system would be abolished and replaced by a structure which would be controlled by the police (this promised has to this day not been fulfilled). Statistics on farm murders were, however, still released.
  • Shortly after the abolition of the commandos, farm murders increased. By 2007 attacks on farms had escalated by almost 25%. The reaction of the Minister of Police was that no further statistics on farm murders would be released and that a new “Rural Safety Strategy” would be implemented. According to this policy farm murders were, in spite of the sharp increase, officially no longer a priority.

The Department of Police took the decision to deprioritize farm murders in spite of the finding of its own commission of enquiry that at least 6122 farm attacks and 1254 farm murders had taken place between 1991 and 2001. The rate at which farm murders were committed, more than doubled from 1991 to 1998. In the same year Government decided to deprioritize farm murders, murders on commercial farmers (excluding their families and employees) was calculated at 98,8/100 000. That was more than three  times higher than the national average for South Africa and fourteen times higher than the world average (source: ISS).

During 2011 the murder rate on police officers was calculated at 51/100 000, half of the murder rate on farmers four years previously. Government’s reaction to this issue was, however, to organise a national conference and formulate a counter-strategy.

Today no official statistics are made available on farm murders and it is left to civil society to compile statistics. Organisations such as TAU SA play a crucial role here. A book released by Kraal Publishers, Land of Sorrow is the leading authority on farm murder statistics today.

What is also pointed out in Land of Sorrow is the unique nature of farm attacks. They are namely exceptionally brutal. Criminologist Lorraine Claassen recently found in a research article that the brutality of farm murders can be compared to terrorist attacks. Eileen de Jager from Crime Scene Cleanup (also known as one of the “Blood Sisters”) said that they have had to clean up just about every type of murder scene, and that no other crime compared to the cruelty and brutality of farm murders.

A further unique characteristic of farm murders is the unique role played by the victims in their communities. Farmers are employers and maintain communities. They produce food and build the economy. Every time a farmer is murdered, a farm is destroyed. Every time a farm is destroyed a community is damaged.

The fourth unique quality of farm murders – and from a practical perspective probably the most important – is the fact that farmers live in unique circumstances in isolated areas, where the reaction times of the police and even of neighbours are not ideal.

Especially against this background, farm murders should be prioritized. We are not saying that farm murders should be prioritized because farmers are golden sons and daughters, as declared by the Minister in the media. Farm murders should be prioritized because it is a unique crime and because unique crimes should be fought with unique counter-strategies.

The Minister’s ideological bias is clear when he argues that farm murders cannot be prioritized because farm murders are merely a type of murder and it does not make sense to elevate one type of murder above others. If this argument is to be applied consistently,

  • how does the Minister explain Government’s decision to prioritize rhino poaching?
  • how does the Minister explain Government’s decision to prioritize copper cable theft?
  • how does the Minister explain Government’s decision to prioritize violence against women and children?
  • how does the Minister explain Government’s decision to prioritize gang violence?

We have to realize that the attitude of Government and the Minister of Police in particular towards farm murders is not based on logic, reason or a genuine effort to end the problem. Farm murders are not prioritized because that would boil down to Government admitting that murders in the farming community have become uncontrollable. It would be a political embarrassment for Government to admit that those who are most severely affected by crime are in fact not their supporters but those against whom Government has openly romanticised violence.

What now?

This brings us to the question: What are we to do now?

We do not believe that sweet-talking anyone will bring about the prioritizing of farm murders. This means we will have to re-evaluate our strategy in this regard. We will have to adopt a double strategy in this regard, much in the same way the ANC of yore adopted a double strategy.

In its policy documents the ANC referred to the so-called “parallel paths to power”. Oliver Tambo referred to this very issue when he said that the ANC had to follow a two-pronged approach, one political and one military. In Mandela’s absence Mbeki was the de facto leader of the political approach, which aimed at a political outcome. On the other hand Chris Hani believed that his demands should be achieved with violence. Mbeki and Hani were often pitted as opponents in the media, but from the policy documents of the ANC and more recent interviews with ANC leaders, it became clear that this was a pre-conceived strategy by the ANC. The term “parallel paths to power” were used in this manner at various intervals.

I am not suggesting that we follow the route of the ANC by adopting a two-pronged strategy of peace and violence. On the contrary, the idea of violence should not even be entertained. What we should do, is to adopt an activist approach with passion and enthusiasm, while at the same time adopting a do-it-ourselves strategy.

Activist approach

Now is the time to escalate the pressure. We have to take note of the governing party’s theory of “balance of forces”. According to this theory the balance of power must always be considered when taking decisions. Role-players with few supporters can be ignored, but role-players who have a strong power base and have the ability to be heard and influence the national discourse, must be accommodated.

We have to realize that our successes cannot at this juncture be measured by the immediate reaction we receive to our actions, but by the degree to which we succeed to mobilize support and awareness. The protest march of 1 December 2012 did not fail because the Minister refused to accept the memorandum. On the contrary, it succeeded because the realities of farm murders were covered in an almost full-page article in a London paper the next week. It succeeded because the Minister was confronted afterwards by a barrage of media enquiries as to his failure to pay attention to the victims of farm murders.

Our task is to sustain this pressure, to build momentum, to not rely on quick fixes, to make the world aware of the reality and to build support in the process. Our strategy should be to do everything in our power to convince Government to prioritize farm murders, but to not lose hope when they appear disinterested. If they are not interested, we have to make sure that they are embarrassed by their lack of action, in the local media and even in the international media if necessary.

We should apply the golden rule of Christian activism in our actions. That means that our actions should always be governed by what is morally justifiable. It is important not to confuse this concept with political correctness. They may appear to be the same thing, but in reality they are often poles apart. The true test for integrity is whether we are willing to take action or take a stance when we are convinced that our actions are morally justifiable, even if we realize that they may not be politically correct.

We have to realize that advocacy and gaining support are now more important than shock tactics. I cannot be convinced that masses of South Africans have never heard of farm murders, and I know through the work I do at AfriForum that social leaders abroad are aware of the crisis. Our challenge is to inform them with the aid of trustworthy information and tested research of the reality, rather than to propagandize the matter by, for instance, inflating statistics or spreading around insensitive photographs. The cold, hard facts are shattering enough.

Do-it-ourselves approach

While we drive the activist approach, we also have to realize that we cannot depend on Government’s intervention in the matter. We have to take responsibility for our own safety.

While we may be upset about the abolition of the commando system in 2003 and the failure of Government to fulfil its promises to create an alternative system in its place, we should never underestimate the role we are able to play with regard to crime prevention.

AfriForum compiled a detailed research article together with the crime specialist, prof Rudolph Zinn, on the impact of community safety structures. The findings were amazing. It was confirmed that communities have various means at their disposal to ensure their own safety, as was the case during the commando system. These activities are completely legal and are not done in competition with the police, but in support of the Service. The research included case studies and came to the conclusion that communities who had organised their own safety structures had seen a drastic impact on crime in their areas. The impact was so great that it even increased the value of their property.

In a country where the Department of Police have neither the will nor the capacity to come up with a workable solution, we have to make sure that every community across South Africa is organised into a community safety network. These networks have to take responsibility to compile crime statistics, ride patrols, initiate crime prevention strategies, sharpen awareness, do training and even execute civil arrests if necessary.

One of the community safety networks in the study had indicated that they had taken over 50% of the responsibilities of the police, even to the point of enforcing municipal by-laws.

While we take the initiative to curb crime in our communities, we have to unify and support our communities where people are affected by farm attacks.

We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. When Government is unwilling to take up its basic responsibility to protect its people, we have to take the initiative to protect our inalienable rights to life, privacy, bodily integrity and dignity.

This struggle is also not unique. On 16 June 1900 Lord Roberts announced Britain’s “scorched earth” policy – a policy which led to the deaths of more than 30 000 Afrikaans women and children. During this time people lived with the daily reality of murder, but they never gave up. Their slogan was: “We remember those who were murdered, and fight on with those who are left.”

In the same manner the generation of 1900 is today praised for its courage and long-suffering, we have to realize that the generation of 2013 will be remembered in 100 years by the decisions we make today. Whether it is said that we gave up under pressure and did not create a future for our children, or whether it is said that we built on the example of our courageous ancestors by creating a future for our children in spite of our circumstances, depends entirely on ourselves.

One of the best-known leaders of the previous generation, General De Wet, said on 3 December 1916, just after the war when many felt overwhelmed, that people should stay hopeful. May his words still mean the same to us today:

“We are at the point where we are about to become a great nation, or stop existing as a nation altogether. Let us work while we have the light. Let us build this nation.”