The Mbeki government announced the phasing out of the commando system in 2003, to be replaced with more frequent and forceful police action, so as not to leave a security vacuum. Johan Burger, then at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), convincingly demonstrated in a 2014 submission to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) that – many years later – nothing had come of those promises. In effect, the government had systematically deprioritised farm attacks and murders. The SAPS only recently started to again keep statistics in this regard. This is an important factor in understanding the frustration of the farming community.

Attacks on farms, and murders of people owning or working on farms, occur regularly. For the 2016/17 reporting year, the general murder rate for South Africa was 34 per 100 000 of the population. According to the 2012 Victims of Crime Survey (quoted by Africa Check), 65% of murders were committed by people known to the victim and only 16.1% committed by “outsiders”. This means that the “outsider” murder rate is around 5.47 per 100 000 of the population.

Farm attacks and murders are almost always perpetrated by outsiders. Using this ratio, the corresponding murder rate for farmers can be calculated, and it comes in at 13.2 per 100 000 of the SA population (using 56 million as the total). This indicates that farm murders as a group are indeed higher than the average murder rate committed by outsiders. The murder rate of farmers is also higher than that of SAPS members. Gareth Newham recently pointed out that there is a “good correlation between the increase in murders and the increase in robberies” over the past years. That is because the perpetrators are usually armed and willing to use force. This is an important issue to bear in mind with regard to farm attacks and subsequent murders.

It is wrong – and dilutes the real issue – to racialise farm attacks and murders. Because the majority of farmers are still white, the number of white victims will be higher. In a 2003 SAPS report cited by Solidarity, at least 14% of victims in farm murders were black. Even AfriForum concluded in 2015 that there is no proof that farm attacks and murders are motivated specifically by race or politics.

AfriForum does, however, make the point that farm attacks and murders have a distinct character: they are characterised by extreme brutality. In his 2002 book, Midlands, journalist Jonny Steinberg also speaks about “inflicting a painful death as the primary motive”. Other reasons cited for the unique nature of farm murders are the unique and important role of farmers in food production and food security, and farmers’ vulnerability resulting from their geographical isolation. The organisation further stated as a crime with a unique character, farm attacks require a unique counterstrategy.

This, has, however, not emerged from any SAPS plans.

In 2015, the SAHRC released a strongly-worded report on farm murders. It states that the increase of farm murders and the violent nature of these killings are unacceptable, and a clear violation of fundamental human rights. The impact these killings have on the farming community, the economy, and food security of South Africa is underestimated and concrete steps need to be taken by all concerned to ensure the fundamental relevance of farms as the food basket of the country. The perception that farms are easy targets, and that the lives of the farming community are worthless, needs to be combated vigorously.

The report also strongly criticises the ineffectiveness of the SAPS in combating farm attacks and murders, noting that “there is an obvious gap currently in the SAPS’s ability to effectively police rural communities”. The Commission’s report, now more than two years old, is still a timely reminder of the seriousness of farm attacks and murders.  And yet it seems as if government has not grasped this. There have been calls for special police units to combat and investigate farm attacks and murders – but there is no sign of such units being established, even though this is recommended in the National Development Plan (NDP), and the law enables the National and Provincial Commissioners with powers to create them.

This lack of action and strategy by the SAPS equally applies to the gang-related killings on the Cape Flats or the political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal.

In conclusion: all murders should concern all South Africans. If a group of people wish to protest against murders against members of that group, they have the constitutional right to do so – whether they be lawyers, politicians or inhabitants of the Cape Flats. Such protests should not be racialised or politicised, and if there are some individuals who use these protests as a way to make a political statement, this should not detract from the legitimacy of the protest. The government and the SAPS should take measures to protect all who live in South Africa, and when there are clear indications that a specific group is suffering, unique strategies should be employed and special measures should be taken.

By Theuns Eloff: Executive Director
1 November 2017

*This article includes excerpts from Theuns Eloff’s recently-published book, “Turning Point”

First published on Huffington Post