Why murders on SA farms evoke knee-jerk racism


Are white South African farmers and their workers safe on their farms in a crime-ridden country? Statistics show the murder rate of farmers is higher than the national average. What role does race play? In the picture, farmers at an anti-crime demonstration in Cape Town, October 30, 2017

A FARMER murdered while working his land is a shocking scene. Yet many people rejected this week’s countrywide protests, called Black Monday, by farmers against the plague of such killings in South Africa. It was said they were privileged white Afrikaners concerned only about themselves who maltreated their black workers. The protesting farmers, dressed in black, blocked highways with hundreds of vehicles. But while this image is ominous, its underbelly may bring hope.

The Black First Land First group, which is itself racist, urged South Africans not to support the protests, claiming white farms are “zones of violence for black people.” Sadly, there are indeed many racial incidents. Last week, two Afrikaans farmers were sentenced to many years in jail for forcing a black man into a coffin and threatening to set it alight. But the overall reality is more complex, containing good and bad.

The protests began in Cape Town with a group called “Enough is Enough” after Joubert Conradie was murdered on a Stellenbosch farm. In a video which went viral, farm manager Chris Loubser said if he were a magician, “the whole City of Cape Town would’ve been surrounded by tractors.” Afrikaner-dominated lobby group AfriForum backed the protest. A convoy of hundreds of vehicles arrived at Cape Town Stadium on Monday; farmers also gathered at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and elsewhere.

Following last week’s release of annual crime statistics for the country, consternation over deteriorating farm safety was voiced by various organisations, although farm crimes were not specifically mentioned in the figures. The national murder rate was 34 per 100 000 people in the 2015/2016 period. MP Piet Groenewald of the Freedom Front Plus party said in Parliament in April that the farm murder rate was 133 per 100 000, based on estimates by crime analyst Dr Johan Burger at the Institute for Security Studies. Burger, however, saw the figure only as a vague indicator affected by how one defines farm murders. Others estimate a lower rate, but all agree there is a serious problem.

Burger bemoans racialisation and politicisation of the killings: “The reality is that our farming communities are under siege.” Farm attacks are not just about white farmers, he says: “Every year there are far more black workers killed than white farmers.” This may reflect the larger number of workers compared to farmers, but it’s not about race.

Events in this country quickly become racialised in knee-jerk fashion. White farmers protesting are seen as protecting their interests while resisting transformation in post-apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately, that accusation contains some truth. Certain farmers are also saying there is a “white-genocide.” Worryingly, some protestors carried the old South African flag, and others sang Die Stem, apartheid South Africa’s national anthem. AfriForum, however, insists it told people to wear black but “did not call on them to bring flags or call for any political affiliations.”

In the mid-1900s there were numerous Jewish farmers. For example, the 30-mile strip between Ogies and Leslie (Leandra) in Mpumalanga province consisted almost entirely of Jewish farmers. Almost all have left, having sold their farms to Afrikaners. If they were still there, would they have joined the protests? Would there be an anti-Semitic backlash?

Last week’s Sunday Times front-page headline blared: “Gangster Republic!” Most people understood the meaning without even reading the article: The country has become a hotbed of criminality, violent and non-violent, under President Jacob Zuma. South Africans from all groups and economic strata are affected, and are gatvol. Could white farmers, with all their imperfections, trigger a wider protest? It would be ironic for mass civil action to emerge from conservative white farmers. But from whatever source, it must be encouraged: it could represent a tipping point.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Could Israel-Palestine peace rest on personal stories?

Disturbing the Peace 2


CAN individual Palestinians and Israelis get past their violent history and see each other as people? A documentary screened in the past two weeks in Johannesburg and Cape Town shows attempts at this by a group calling itself Combatants for Peace. It has tiny echoes of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, in which Israelis and Palestinians tell their personal stories to each other face to face, not sparing the pain.

Called “Disturbing the Peace”, the film, directed by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young and feted by international film critics in the New York Times and elsewhere, was released last year and portrays real people and events, using archival and re-created material, describing the group’s genesis and formal establishment in 2005.

In the film, an Israeli soldier in an elite commando unit, Chen Alon, is ordered to deny passage at a checkpoint to a Palestinian father desperate to take sick children to hospital. Alon, a father himself, is appalled. Other Israelis are as well.

Another protagonist, Palestinian woman Shifa al-Qudsi, decides to become a suicide bomber to kill Israelis, but is arrested before carrying out the mission. She spends six years in an Israeli jail, where she encounters a guard whose brother was killed in a Palestinian suicide attack. She is horrified. The film is peppered with grisly scenes of Israeli buses blown up by suicide bombers and Palestinian families grieving as they watch their homes being demolished by Israeli bulldozers.

In one of the most potent scenes, a Palestinian man and woman watch on television the bodies of dead Israelis strewn on the ground after a Jerusalem bus bombing. The woman expresses sadness. The man is perplexed: “They are the oppressors! This is our struggle”. She retorts that Israeli mothers losing children suffer like Palestinian mothers.

Through a hush-hush message, the small Israeli group is invited to meet similar-minded Palestinians in the territories, secretly. They enter a room and are seated on a row of chairs facing several Palestinians. Both sides begin, tensely, telling their personal stories. The Israelis had friends and relatives killed in terrorist attacks; the Palestinians have lost friends and relatives, been held in Israeli prisons, and had homes demolished. It is an incredibly moving moment.

Through the formation of Combatants for Peace, the Israelis declare they will continue serving in the army defending Israel, but will refuse service in the occupied territories; the Palestinians renounce violence. Both sides call for a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Israelis in the group are despised by some other Israelis as leftist radicals. At a Tel Aviv rally, a man swears at a demonstrator: “You piece of shit! You are traitors! Go and live with them!”

The film’s weakness, yet paradoxically also its strength, is its focus solely on Israelis’ and Palestinians’ human side, not the macro-reality. Can a solution emerge from this level? Or are they naïve? Does a tiny group like this have relevance amidst the harsh reality of a century-old conflict in a region engulfed in turmoil, with terrorist group Hamas still vowing to eliminate Israel, and Iran, Russia and the United States embroiled with their own interests? And with the most right wing government in Israel’s history, still building settlements.

One vignette shows the group addressed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu through a specially recorded video, encouraging them to pursue their dream, as South Africans did.

In the last decade, the political centre supporting the two-state solution and opposing the occupation has withered in South Africa, leaving moderate Israeli-oriented Jews without a political home. Extremes such as BDS and the Jewish right-wing are dominant. This film contributes to a more hopeful approach which says people on the other side are human beings, not just killers. Cynics may roll their eyes and call it naïve, yet everything else has failed to solve the conflict.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • Screening of Disturbing the Peace in Cape Town and Johannesburg arranged by South African branch of pro-peace organisation SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation)

What happens when sins of the past come out of the closet?

Timol brother

Reaching closure: Nearly five decades after anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol plunged to his death from the tenth floor of police headquarters, an inquest has determined he was pushed by police rather than jumped. His brother Mohamed Timol (above) praised the judgment (photo: Gulshan Khan)

A LONG, dirty thread links the sadistic killers of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol and South African President Jacob Zuma to sex offenders who thought they would get away with it as time passed. But people cannot control how they will be remembered in history.

In 1971, Timol died in police custody after jumping or being pushed through the tenth-floor window of John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg. It was so long ago that many young South Africans today don’t even know his name. The policemen who tortured him have since died or are too old to recall the facts, and were never brought to book. Yet his family, believing he was pushed through the window rather than jumped, pursued the issue tirelessly, demanding a new investigation. It determined last week that Timol was pushed. His tormentors will be remembered as murderers, not policemen.

Zuma is widely considered a criminal using his position to steal from state coffers, today and in the past. He avoids prosecution by manipulating the judiciary with endless stalling tactics, hoping the incidents will fade in the public memory. But the Supreme Court of Appeal this week leapt back time-wise, declaring he should be charged on 783 fraud and corruption counts for his actions during the arms deal in 2002. Charges were dropped in 2009 during his presidential election campaign, after he asserted that the timing of the charges aimed to damage his election prospects – the so-called “spy-tapes” saga.

A similar dirty thread links him to villains of another type – sex pests. His alleged rape of a 31-year-old family friend came to court in 2005. He claimed the act was “consensual,” and rallied his supporters to back him. He thought it had faded in peoples’ memory and continued with his political ambitions, but it has been resurrected in broadcaster Redi Tlhabi’s new book ‘Khwezi’ about his rape accuser Fezekile Kuzwayo. Chances are, Zuma will go down in history not only as a corrupt thief, but also a sexual criminal.

Other villains on that sexual thread include Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and South African billionaire Sidney Frankel. They also thought the passing of time would make the grisly events fade, and they would get away free.

Weinstein was publically accused in the last two weeks by women in the Hollywood film world of sexual molestation over many years, exploiting his powerful position. He had such sway that giving him sex could make or break an actress’s career. His accusers include famous actress Gwyneth Paltrow and others. Weinstein, who has resigned from the company he founded, is learning that despite time passing, old skeletons may come back to haunt.

SA Jewish billionaire Sidney Frankel sexually abused children at the Arcadia Jewish Children’s Home and other places in the 1970s and 1980s. In the many years afterwards, he thought life had moved on and he wouldn’t be fingered. But last year, eight accusers claiming he assaulted them as children brought a civil claim against him. He endured public disgrace, but died earlier this year before being sentenced. His name will go down as a paedophile. His case caused Johannesburg’s High Court to declare Section 18 of the Criminal Procedure Act unconstitutional, effectively removing the 20-year prescription bar on sexual offences. Other well-known sexual predators who have been exposed include tennis star Bob Hewitt, and television’s man of clean “family values”, Bill Cosby.

Politics moves on after time with new leaders. But sexual abuse is not repairable: The abuser moves on, but victims remain traumatised.

“What goes around, comes around,” says the cliché. Sometimes the wheel does turn, and old skeletons come back to haunt. Will Zuma, in time, pay for his crimes too?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )