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: firstname.lastname@example.org )