Farm Killings in South Africa

Nechama Brodie, Farm Killings in South Africa (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2022)

AMONG some white South Africans there is a belief that a genocide (volksmoord) is being perpetrated against them and showing up as an epidemic of murders on farms. These attacks, it is claimed, are politically and racially inspired and this idea receives considerable sympathy from right-wing populist, white supremacist organisations globally. The journalist and academic Nechama Brodie debunks this misleading narrative without avoiding the appalling levels of violent and often brutal crime afflicting South Africa as a whole.

She has a great deal to say about crime statistics and how to interpret them, and concludes that farm murder, a euphemism for the killing of white farmers by black criminals, constitutes only a minuscule fraction of South African crime. Nor is the main motive political or racial but theft, particularly of guns which have high utility and resale value (half a dozen goats, apparently, for a 9mm handgun) and of stock.

Far from orchestrated, farm attacks are often bungled and amateur. What is true is that whether or not fatal, they are often attended by gratuitous (and what Brodie terms grotesque) violence sometimes for minimal gain. Since many of the victims are elderly, this seems counter-intuitive; except that it is not unreasonably assumed that old white males are heavily armed ex-servicemen. This book also makes the valuable point that pervasive security systems have personalised crime ‒ success now requires proximity to a victim.

There have been aberrations. The Azanian People’s Liberation Army carried out a racially inspired campaign in the early 1990s and Brodie goes into considerable detail about murders in the Verkeerdevlei area of the Free State. Even here, it is probable that there were personal issues between farmers and workers.

Brodie points out that South African farms have by definition throughout history been places of violence: land dispossession, exploitative practices such as labour tenancy (the Weenen area is well covered), brutality, and prison farms and convict labour. She begins her book remembering the reportage of Henry Nxumalo and Ruth First around the potato farms of Bethal in the eastern Transvaal after World War II. Well into the 1980s rural South Africa was still a site of forced removal and dispossession bound to incite violent resistance. Farms along the borders, international and bantustan, were turned into buffer zones designed to repel incursion. And as Brodie argues, the violence engendered by centuries of rural history was unlikely to switch off abruptly in the 1990s. She writes tellingly of the ‘violent geographies of the past’ (103).

The evidence put forward in this book accentuates the fact that farm killing is not even a specific official category, but rather a product of perception ‒ albeit one of powerful imagery. Yet the murder of a black worker does not constitute a farm killing in the popular imagination. Both in absolute and proportionate terms the majority of murder victims in South Africa are not white; figures that fail to bear out the theory that there is a sustained, systematic campaign to drive farmers off the land.

This is a fear-based narrative yet dogmatically asserted in some quarters, prominent megaphones being the singer Steve Hofmeyr and the late propagandist Adriana Stuijt, assisted by the fact that farm attacks are the best covered crime in South Africa despite their relative rarity. The bigger story of the quotidian and structural violence experienced by millions of South Africans is largely ignored.

Much has been made of the struggle song Dubul’ ibhunu (Kill the farmer). Certain politicians backed by some academics have defended its singing as traditional. It certainly does nothing for post-apartheid harmony and is pure provocation, a lyric of political theatre. But there is absolutely no evidence according to Brodie that it has led to a single murder.

By way of conclusion Brodie examines the belief shared with many Americans that guns protect the innocent. South Africa’s homicide rate, farm murders included, proves that more guns make everyone a great deal less safe. She writes of the ‘morbid, puerile and illogical fascination with guns’ (197). Its tragic consequences lead to a staggering thirty deaths a day nationally.

Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld