Fear and loathing in rural South Africa

Jan van der Bank stands with his rifle infront of his house on a farm in Hammanskraal, 16 September 2020. Picture: Jacques Nelles

The common expressions, such as “no farmer, no food” are extremely polarising and often used by certain groups pushing an unproven narrative that farm murders are a politically motivated, race-based “white genocide”.

The slogan “no farmer, no food” is often uttered by those attempting to push the false narrative that only white farmers are capable of working the land commercially, prompting plenty of antagonism in a country where land reform and ownership is an extremely hot, sensitive and complex topic.

In reality though, not all farmers are white, nor are all their workers black; those spending their lives toiling to put food on South Africa’s tables come in all colours of the mythical rainbow nation.

Another reality that often goes unmentioned is that farm attacks don’t only affect white farmers. Black farmers, black farm workers, and their families often also fall victim, and, as Louis Meintjies, a former president of the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU), aptly notes in response to the racial polarisation created by the above-mentioned narratives: “A farmer is a farmer”.

Farm attacks, with the exception of very few, are usually opportunistic crimes. Farmers are simply considered soft targets due to their isolation and distance from police and other emergency services.

According to Meintjies, there are approximately 900,000 workers in the agricultural sector, each of which has five to six dependents. This means at least five million people are dependent on the industry.

The Citizen’s journalist Nica Richards and photographer Jacques Nelles recently spent several days visiting farms and plots north of Pretoria, said to be the worst-hit area in the worst-hit province for farm crime.

Click here to read our selection of articles on farm murders in our special feature today.

What they found were families living in constant fear, who are all too familiar with the pain of losing friends, family and acquaintances to farm attacks. They found families living behind bars, who lock themselves up after 5pm every afternoon, and jump at the slightest sound, their firearms always at the ready.

Most concerning of all though, is that farm attacks and murders are indeed a real threat to food security, as younger people turn away from the way of life because it is too dangerous and traumatic.

This means youngsters of all races, black and white, are simply no longer willing to risk their lives working the land, because while the “white genocide” and “land or death” brigades bicker and play politics, real people are dying.

Securing farms has become far too expensive for the average farmer to afford, and this translates to more farmers simply abandoning the profession. This, in turn, will eventually indeed lead to food insecurity.

Another concerning matter is how both sides of the brigade are willing to incite their followers to break the law, and use violence to have their way.

This came to a head on Tuesday, when hundreds of violent farmers attempted to take the law into their own hands and accost two suspects in a farm murder in the Free State.

They clearly have lost faith in the justice system, but their actions do not bode well for South Africans who love nothing more than a bit of whataboutism.

The footage of the farmers storming a court house and attacking police vehicles means they have lost a significant portion of the moral high ground in the eyes of many non-white South Africans who have been on the receiving end of a rubber bullet during violent protests.

This incident will further increase the racial tension in the country and will most certainly not help to take the land debate, nor the farm murder debate forward – something The Citizen attempted when embarking on the features you find on our website today.

Unfortunately, political opposites will use this event to promote their own narratives at the expense of the other, and it has already begun. Farm murders will now again become a topic centred around race, instead of a rural South African problem – and part of a much wider socio-economic debate.

So, the next time a white person stands accused of a crime against a black person, don’t be surprised to see the firebrands encouraging their followers to attack police, and take the law into their own hands. Police will have little choice but to deal with them with the same kid gloves they used to handle those farmers in Senekal.

That is unless they really want to set off the pressure cooker which are the tired and angry communities, dealing with horrid amounts of crime and violence in their communities daily, yet often have to face rubber bullets, teargas, and even live ammunition, if they dare vent their anger much less violently than was seen at the courthouse in Senekal.

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