All Murders Should Concern All South Africans

If a group of people wishes to protest against murders against members of that group, they have the constitutional right to do so.
A protester waves a flag during a demonstration by South African farmers & farm workers at the Green Point stadium to protest against farm murders in the country, on 30 October, 2017, in Cape Town.
A protester waves a flag during a demonstration by South African farmers & farm workers at the Green Point stadium to protest against farm murders in the country, on 30 October, 2017, in Cape Town.
David Harrison/ AFP/Getty Images

The recent "Black Monday" protests have again highlighted how emotional the issues of farm attacks and farm murders are. There was both support for and criticism of the protests, the latter fuelled by some protesters making a political statement by waving the old South African flag.

Some historical background may be instructive. The Mandela government did a great deal to classify the phenomenon of farm attacks as a special category of crime, and to confront it. Among other initiatives, there was a national conference on the matter, a Rural Protection Plan, and committees established to implement the plan. This was done in the early 2000s, in cooperation with the established commando system, which most farmers were part of.

The Mbeki government announced the phasing out of the commando system in 2003, to be replaced with more frequent and forceful South African Police Service (SAPS) 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 percent of murders were committed by people known to the victim and only 16.1 percent 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 percent 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.

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.

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 that as a crime with a unique character, farm attacks require a unique counterstrategy.

This, however, has 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 the 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 applies equally to gang-related killings on the Cape Flats and 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.

Theuns Eloff is Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation. This article includes excerpts from his recently-published book, "Turning Point".