The murder of 21-year old Free State farm manager Brendin Horner and its aftermath has again catapulted into the limelight a relatively small but highly productive and economically vital segment of our population – white farmers. The protests of this tightknit community over this and countless other farm attacks and murders coincided with new developments around legislation aimed at allowing their farms to be expropriated without compensation.
It’s been an emotional week or two for South Africa’s farmers. Their countless pleas to government to act to protect farmers, their families and workers, have fallen on deaf ears. The crimes that afflict them are no different to any other violent crimes affecting all South Africans, they are told.
The farmers argue the opposite. They believe these are special crimes deserving special attention from the police; that there is a common modus operandi, a pattern involved, even orchestration. And they have a point to a degree. While there is no evidence of orchestration of farm attacks today, no other violent crimes in South Africa today originated from a deliberate and orchestrated campaign since the 1970s by the ANC, as part of the liberation struggle, to vilify farmers and to start killing them after the mid-1980s.
A bloody history
With a call to “seize the land!”, Oliver Tambo in 1984 positioned farmers as being responsible for “the most merciless brutalisation of our people, especially women and children”. The cadres of the ANC were constantly urged to terrorise and kill farmers and chase them off their land from that point onwards. Two years later, in another January 8 Statement delivered by Tambo, the ANC’s supporters were urged to “rise up against the blood-sucking white soldier-farmers and to address the central task of the landless masses seizing the land which rightfully belongs to them”. That has by and large been the narrative ever since, and thus the groundwork was laid for a bloody campaign, the consequences of which, one could argue, continues to this day.
Anyone wanting to get a handle on the scourge of farm murders today, should read this article.
Apart from the ANC’s occasional use of landmines on farm roads back then – which indiscriminately killed mostly women, children and black farm workers – the characteristics of and modus operandi in these attacks differed very little from the current attacks: isolated farms, mostly elderly victims, theft of firearms, and often accompanied by brutal torture and mutilation of victims.
Once that genie was out the bottle it was never going to go back in again. Just as other ANC campaigns like the payment boycotts, or making townships ungovernable would come back in various forms after 1994 to haunt the ANC. Even after 1994 the doctrine of forcing white farmers off the land remained. ANC leaders like Peter Mokaba, Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema sang songs on public platforms like “kill the farmer, kill the Boer” and warned farmers they would be aggressively forced off their farms by any means. The fact that these farmers tended to Africa’s biggest breadbasket seemed not to matter to them.
Statistics gathered over some three decades between 1991 and today by the old SA Agricultural Union, Transvaal Agricultural Union and the SA Police Service show that around 2,400 people were killed in over 15,000 farm attacks. These numbers and the extreme brutality and torture of victims used in most of the attacks, plus frequently reported racial hate speech used by the attackers, and the general pattern and modus operandi of the attacks, set these crimes apart. They do not support the line punted by the government, Police Minister Bheki Cele and even this past week by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
According to them, abhorrent as these farm murders are, they are just ordinary crimes that are no different from other violent crimes including the murders of many black South Africans in the townships and do not deserve special attention. But the murders of black South Africans in townships seldom if ever seem to involve home invasions accompanied by the brutal torture and mutilation of victims, nor are they perpetrated by one race group towards another; most are caused in drunken pub brawls, street robberies, domestic violence, or gang-related activities. Clearly there are distinct differences.
When Malema later fell out with ANC leaders and formed his own party, the EFF, he made this campaign a central tenet of his new party, ratcheting up the vilification of farmers and the aggression towards them several notches. As the radical populist offspring of the ANC, Malema’s EFF increasingly started setting a radical political agenda which the ANC would eventually be likely to follow in some form, also in respect of a more radical land redistribution policy. Two factors led to this: fear of losing ground to the ever-growing, increasingly popular EFF, and the internal factional politics of the ANC.
When in 2017 the ANC faction aligned to Jacob Zuma (with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as their candidate for president) realised they might lose power to the faction backing Cyril Ramaphosa, they brought into play a number of policy clauses as a platform for strengthening their base and as insurance to win back power at a later stage. These included among others radical economic transformation (RET), land expropriation without compensation (EWC), and nationalising the SA Reserve Bank (SARB).
The Zuma-aligned faction – more recently also referred to as the ‘RET faction’ – was hoping it could, with such radical policies, generate the same kind of support as the EFF or at least maintain its base; alternatively, if it lost to Ramaphosa, it could hold him and his allies to account at a later stage for possibly not implementing these policies adopted by the ANC in 2017, and thus have grounds for Ramaphosa’s removal and winning back their power in the ANC.
The fact that the Ramaphosa-led ANC and government have been adopting some elements of these more radical positions at times, shows that power is still balanced on a precariously slim margin between the two factions, and that the popularity of the EFF continues to haunt the ANC. As that balance shifts slightly at times, the messaging usually changes accordingly.
But the Ramaphosa faction has also managed to hold its ground for now and repelled the attack on the SARB. And recently this faction gained the upper hand at a special ANC NEC meeting, allowing Ramaphosa to fire off his anti-corruption canons with a series of arrests, which is ongoing. But in respect of land expropriation, the political waters are murkier, the issues more complicated and there are strong emotional factors that could allow the Zuma faction to gain ground, while the EFF is a complicating factor.
While Ramaphosa’s language around this issue has become more ambiguous of late, he and his allies have nonetheless always attached stringent preconditions to land expropriation that are not shared by the RET faction. The new expropriation bill seems to suggest this is still the case.
Just as the events in Senekal were about to start playing out, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Land Reform announced that a new land expropriation bill had been submitted to Parliament and was gazetted on 9 October. The bill is to replace the current Expropriation Act of 1975 which was deemed inconsistent with the Constitution in its current form. It makes provision for expropriation with and without compensation and determines when this should apply.
Unlike what many expected, determinations on compensation will be made by the courts and not a minister. This could defuse some of the tensions around expropriation without compensation (EWC), as may the release of 700,000 hectares of state land for leasehold to black farmers. But some of this land has already been occupied informally and could present problems.
Meanwhile, public hearings are about to start on the concurrent process of amending Section 25 of the Constitution to allow for EWC in the Constitution. It remains to be seen what shape and form the amendment will take – expected next year – and whether it will necessitate yet another new expropriation law to be drafted alongside it.
While EWC naturally is a highly contentious issue in the farming community, it has become a central flashpoint on all sides of the debate surrounding it. The ANC has always had a land redistribution policy, backed up by sufficient legislation post-1994 to implement it. But it failed to do so for a variety of well-known reasons, none of them good.
Against this background, after Horner’s murder, the farmers’ frustrations turned to anger directed at a government and a criminal justice system they perceive to have failed them horribly.
When two suspects in the Horner murder were brought to court in the town of Senekal, a large number of farmers had gathered on the outskirts in peaceful protest, holding white crosses and placards calling for an end to the murders. Many were kneeling in prayer. At the urging of one man – who is currently on trial – a small group broke away and caused mayhem at the magistrate’s court where they tried to get to the suspects and damaged state property.
This latter development is what the media – and later the politicians – focused on. Not on the majority of farmers who remained orderly and peaceful and did not participate in this act of hooliganism in Senekal. Nor did the media inform their readers and viewers that for more than a year farmers and sympathising groups had been staging regular peaceful protests around the country asking for an end to farm murders, all without incident. When they finally were granted a meeting with Police Minister Bheki Cele, he arrogantly and rudely dismissed them.
The pitiful media coverage – without much if any attempt to analyse properly and impartially and provide context – focused only on the violence, reigniting the stereotypical and clichéd narrative of racist and aggressive white farmers. On Friday, when the suspects made their second court appearance and both the farmers, organised by Afriforum and other groups, and the EFF congregated in Senekal, the same stereotypes were again presented. The general notion put forward was that while the farmers have legitimate grievances, they are troublemakers who are just posturing with their protests.
If these media had gone to the trouble of watching dozens of YouTube and other social media posts and interviews with farmers and people representing organisations like Afriforum and various agricultural organisations, they would have seen a very different picture. By far most of these organisations, farmers and their supporters condemned the violence of that small group in Senekal whom they labelled ‘far-right mavericks’; they urged farmers to protest peacefully and not to respond to provocation from the EFF; and they did not want unruly elements to detract from their message, namely that this is a serious problem and they need the government to intervene. These farmers, it seems, seek cooperation and not confrontation.
Of course, the EFF opportunistically saw a golden opportunity for its own brand of publicity. With no intention of being part of any attempt to find a solution, it called on its followers to go to Senekal to counter the gathering of farmers during the second court appearance of the suspects, and to “attack”. EFF supporters arrived in Senekal in large numbers brandishing poles, golf clubs and other weapons, even firearms according to some reports (go check the videos and media pictures). The majority of farmers, in contrast, were peacefully gathered outside the town.
The impacts of these developments resonate in some way or another with a much broader segment of Afrikaners and white South Africans, as well as with black South Africans. At the first Senekal protest small numbers of black farmers and black farm workers had joined the white farmers. In various interviews these past few months – and this past week – black farmers had come out in support of their white counterparts. These facts are conveniently ignored by both the ANC and the EFF. Most farmers and most black South Africans are moderates and reasonable and want to see orderly solutions to a major problem.
The land issue is an important and emotional one for South Africans black and white. Land was always central to the Afrikaners’ quest for freedom – first when they fled British colonial rule and established their Boer republics, later when they fought an overwhelming invading British army in the Second Anglo Boer War, and even later when Afrikaner nationalism led to the rise of the apartheid state.
At the same time, black South Africans have suffered centuries of injustices and dispossession, and for them too land is symbolic of their dignity and freedom. But these complicated issues will not be solved by a government that won’t even acknowledge a big part of the problem and shirks its responsibility. It won’t be solved by simply legislating away white ownership of the land. Nor will it be solved by misrepresenting the facts and context involved. And most definitely it will not be solved by the provocative, aggressive and opportunistic actions of the likes of the EFF.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist.