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Farms regarded as low-hanging fruit by attackers
Farm attacks on the increase in South Africa
The murder of a Dutch citizen on a farm in the Barberton area, Mpumalanga, last week has again placed a spotlight on the worrying phenomenon of murders of farmers and farm workers in South Africa.
The final crime figures for the years 2016 and 2017 (April 2016 to March 2017) haven’t yet been released by the South African Police Service (SAPS), but for the years 2015/16 the murder ratio was 34 per 100 000 people for the general population, 52:100 000 for police officers – and 97:100 000 for farmers, their families, farm workers and others residing on or visiting farms.
According to statistics from the Transvaalse Landbou Unie van Suid-Afrika (TLUSA) there has been an increase of 48% in farm murders over the past five years; in 2011/2012 farm attacks were at their lowest level in twenty years but have increased year on year since then to 71 in 2016.
It is therefore evident that the farming community is disproportionately targeted. Of the 71 murder victims of last year, according to the TLUSA, 50 were farmers themselves (49 white and 1 black). According to Dr Johan Burger of the Institute of Security Studies, on average about two-thirds of murder victims on farms are the farmers themselves. However, all genders and races are vulnerable to farm attacks – it is by no means restricted to white farmers only.
In March this year the phenomenon of farm murders was discussed for the first time in parliament’s National Assembly and acting police commissioner Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane, last year, told parliament’s police portfolio committee that the South African Police Service was prioritising farm murders. “Farm attacks need priority attention. Farmers and farm workers are being killed. To us this is an area that needs focus,” he said. Organised agriculture is in constant contact with SAPS on this matter.
Dr Johan Burger says that the police commissioner has been the first to give priority to the phenomenon and that indications are that the implementation of the rural safety strategy, thus far not particularly successful, is receiving renewed attention. It depends on two pillars: sector policing and police reservists. There aren’t enough police officers in rural areas and they need to be supported by police reservists. Since the commissioner’s pronouncement, there has been an increased intake and training of police reservists.
Farm attacks are often characterised by extreme violence. Rural attackers operate in groups roughly double the size of the groups of four to five house robbers in urban areas. The latter also have less time to commit their crime, while rural attackers, due to the isolation of farms and large distances in the South African countryside, can operate more at their leisure.
There is concern that attackers are becoming increasingly technologically advanced. Not only can they better organise and coordinate their attacks through cell phone technology, but there is increasing evidence of the use of cell phone signal jammers, not only in farm attacks but in other crimes like cash-in-transit robberies (attacks on guarded vans transporting cash between financial service points). Private possession of such jammers is illegal and highly disruptive of attempts by rural communities to organise rural protection and defence.
As for the motive for the attacks, speculation is rife. “It is time for a new study on the phenomenon since the thorough report from the committee of inquiry into farm attacks done in 2003,” says Dr Burger. This study specifically investigated whether revenge by farm workers (for ill treatment or labour disputes) was a dominant motive for the attacks, through interviews with farm attackers. It found that in only 2% of the cases were the attacker and victim known to each other beforehand. Whether that is still accurate, needs to be studied.
“Attackers also think of their own safety and regard the farmer as their biggest threat. However, when they have tied up the farmer, and he has given them all the information they wanted regarding the whereabouts of money and weapons, why do they still sometimes shoot him? And if it’s a question of fear of being identified later, why not then shoot everyone who saw them? These cases leave one with questions,” says Dr Burger.
“Political rhetoric has become considerably more hostile against land owners since the 2003 inquiry into farm attacks and there are indications that the rhetoric is contributing to a changing political climate,” continues Dr Burger. “One thing stands out like a pole above water: the main motive is robbery.”
For more information:
Dr Johan Burger
Institute for Security Studies
Tel: +27 12 346 9500
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