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Truths for Trump on South African farmers



The farm attack I remember most poignantly was the one in which an elderly man was beaten about the head and body, forced to hand over money and guns to his attackers and tied up beside his wife.

Farm workers in South AfricaIt wasn't a particularly brutal attack; unlike others I'd reported on, he hadn't had a kettle of boiling water poured down his throat, nor had his wife been gang raped, urinated on and shot dead by her attackers. He'd managed to escape with nothing more than deep wounds to his head and arms and an unwavering sense of humour: he'd scored two bottles of whiskey out of the ordeal. 'I bet the police sergeants a bottle each they wouldn't catch these criminals,' he sighed, holding the bloodstained club that had been used against him. Unsurprisingly, they never did.

It was the mid-1990s, and I was living on a farm halfway between Johannesburg and Nelspruit and working as a regional newspaper and radio correspondent. Attacks and murders were part of my daily beat. Murder rates in post-apartheid South Africa were high, not least in the townships, to which many black South Africans were still confined and where life had always been cheap (especially when the apartheid-era security forces came knocking). Democracy had brought with it riches for the expanding political elite, ongoing prosperity for most white South Africans, and unrelenting poverty for those who had suffered most under apartheid.

My interview with the farmer — an Italian migrant who'd lived in South Africa for almost 40 years — was memorable because I'd taken my two small children along (they often accompanied me on my rounds), and his wife had fed them Smarties and taken great pleasure in their Italianesque names. It was such a beautiful day I'd written about it in my diary afterwards: 'We clattered past the cows, who had come home for milking, and a farm labourer grinned broadly at us and waved. As we made our way back to the main road, we silently absorbed the beauty of this land. I marvelled once again how wonderful it was to be alive.'

Such was the complexity and dysfunction of this newly democratic country: the farmer's wife clucked about my children despite her recent ordeal; and I was filled with gratitude for this place amid the unbearable violence that was being inflicted upon it.

By the time I left my homeland at the end of 2001 (for the same reason most South Africans leave: sky-high levels of gratuitously violent crime and sexual assault), President Nelson Mandela had deplored the 'cold blooded killings that have been taking place on the farms in the past few years', the number of which had risen to 140 (for the 2001-02 period according to AgriSA, the most reputable source of information on this issue). Many of the victims were black labourers; the majority were whites.

In the 17 years since, farm murders have dropped dramatically. Statistics — notoriously difficult to obtain — show that in 2017-18 there were 561 farm attacks and 'just' 47 farm murders. At face value, this is a triumph in the fight against violent crime, and a resounding riposte to people like President Donald Trump and our own Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott, who have seized on the issue in order to sow racial hatred among their own constituents.


"While maligned groups such as Rohingya refugees desperately need world leaders to lobby on their behalf, Dutton, Abbot and Trump are using instead the plight of a small group of whites in order to foment support for their own racist agendas."


But this dog whistle politics polarises more than just the left and right of politics: it conflates violent crime with racism and, in so doing, excuses — or at the very least diminishes — one at the expense of the other.

To be sure, the facts suggest that genocide is not being committed against white South African famers. The CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, Frans Cronje, says his organisation has conducted off-the-record interviews with senior police officers who've attended among the worst of farm killing scenes and 'they were certain that no political motive existed for the killings'. (It should be noted that the IRR has attracted criticism for its alleged conservative stance.)

It is shameful, therefore, that while maligned groups such as Rohingya refugees desperately need world leaders to lobby on their behalf, Dutton, Abbot and Trump are using instead the plight of a small group of whites in order to foment support for their own racist agendas.

But violence against farmers (including black farmers and the black employees of white farmers) is an occurrence which doesn't deserve to be dismissed along with the dirty bathwater generated by toxic right-wing politics. In bending over backwards to prove we're not racists by minimising the attacks on white farmers, we forget the bigger picture: people are being subjected to hideous violence, and South Africa's food producers are being slain at alarming rate. Who in their right mind would herald the murder of 'only' 47 farmers annually in a country of 56 million a success?

Though white farmers aren't being subjected to mass annihilation, they can be forgiven for feeling they're targets. To begin with, the sheer depravity of farm murders triggers alarm and raises suspicion about their motives. In one widely reported case, a man was killed, his wife gang-raped and shot dead, the family dog's stomach sliced open and their 12-year-old son drowned in a bath of boiling water.

Further alarming already nervous farmers is the inciting of political dissent by radical elements, the freedom song 'Kill the Boer, kill the farmer' — which has long been the mantra of former ANC firebrand and now Commander-in-Chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema — takes on an even more sinister tone in the wake of these attacks. In 2011 the country's high court ruled the song amounted to hate speech; when asked recently on Twitter if it was true he'd offered to help organise the murder of white farmers, Malema (an influential agitator with a wide following) answered, 'Maybe. Maybe not.'

Most pressingly, white farmers' tenuous position can't be separated from the call by President Cyril Ramaphosa for constitutional land reform. Such change is essential in an African country where most land is owned by whites, but the botched implementation of such reform in neighbouring Zimbabwe cautions against ill-considered land grabs.

And then there is the question of these people's sense of belonging in a place their ancestors came to generations ago. Whites have lived in South Africa since the Dutch arrived in 1652 (far longer than white Australians have lived on this continent); they are as integral to the African fabric as are the Indians who arrived as indentured labourers and the Malays who were dragged there as slaves. As Ramaphosa said recently, 'The future of the Afrikaner is intrinsically linked to the prosperity of the country as a whole. Afrikaners are by name and definition Africans.'

One could say the violence they and their white, English-speaking compatriots are now experiencing is but a taste of what black South Africans and their forebears were forced to endure under apartheid (and which they suffer still). But such atrocities don't cancel each other out. As Cronje says, it's a destructive exercise to turn 'the crisis of farm murders into a competition about who in society is more or less likely to be attacked ... The common fear of violent crime should unite rather than divide South Africans.'

In calling for unity, people like Ramaphosa and Cronje are attempting to narrow the gap between white and black victims and so create a solidarity based on shared risk and suffering. Surely, as observers, we are capable of bridging this gap too, by condemning the incidence of farm attacks while simultaneously rejecting racist attempts to hold them up as some gruesome mascot.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, South Africa, farmers



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Existing comments

In 1994, after the collapse of apartheid, the South African government committed to redistribute 30% of white-owned agricultural lands to black farmers. However it seems that only about 10% has been transferred. But are current government policies all about redressing wrongs? Take the case of Johan Steenkamp who legally purchased vacant land in Limpopo province 21 years ago—after apartheid when Nelson Mandela was President. He had planned to turn it into a game reserve but says, “We were forced by a court to allow Coal for Africa to do drilling tests under our land and they found substantial deposits and ever since they have wanted us off our land cheaply. This attempted seizure of our farm is not about a noble attempt to redistribute the land to the poor of Africa but it is all about the government getting their hands on the minerals.” Unlike Africa, Australia’s policy in PNG of “Papua for the Papuans” meant that 97% of land was still in the hands of traditional owners when Independence was granted in 1975. Since then, crooked politicians have been in bed with Asian logging companies to rape and pillage PNG forests with little benefit to the traditional landowners.

Ross Howard | 29 August 2018  

I was very disturbed to hear that Peter Dutton was intending to allow white farmers to migrate to Australia because they feared persecution in South Africa and Zimbabwe. I am equally disturbed by the Governments insensitivity to the plight of the Rohingya and other minority groups currently the subject of brutal repression in Myanmar. Sadly I have to agree with Catherine that our track record under the current Government is deeply disturbing to say the least . There has always been an element of racism in our society. My wife, my children and at times, I myself, have been victims of this scourge because of my decision thirty five years ago this week , to marry an Asian lady. Interestingly, years ago whilst in the Philippines, I was the subject of racism myself . Luckily for me, I understand the local dialect, so I was able to embarrass the culprit in front of his own people. Still the incident alerted me to the unpleasant experience that many non whites must feel here in Australia. "Dog whistling" must be stamped out where ever it occurs.

Gavin O'Brien | 31 August 2018  

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