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The N1 is South Africa’s grand trunk road. It runs north from Cape Town and the Paarl vineyards, clean across the country, past the flyovers and interchanges of Johannesburg and Pretoria, until it ends at Beitbridge, the border crossing on the Limpopo.
Here, a darker Africa begins: Robert Mugabe’s ruined Zimbabwe, the towns squalid and shattered, the countryside desolate and overgrown. Many of its famished and tattered blacks seek to escape at Beitbridge, swimming the river, or paying the waiting omalume, “uncles”, the people traffickers, to smuggle them past the border patrols to a new life in South Africa.
For almost all of its 1,200 miles of polished tarmac and plump service stations, the N1 offers evidence that post-apartheid South Africa has avoided the bloodshed and collapse that have haunted its neighbours. In a continent awash with troubles, its prosperity and stability draw not just illegals from across the Limpopo, but even French-speakers from Niger and the distant Sahara.
A tiny half-mile section of the N1, though, past Mokopane in Limpopo Province, chills the heart. It is overlooked by a large white cross that lies on a green hillside. Look closer, and the cross is seen to be made up of scores of small white crosses planted in neat lines. And then the eye is drawn to what seem to be bursts of snowdrops on the kopjes, the two small hills that lie on each side of the cross. These, too, are little white crosses, swirling on the slope.
The Afrikaners, the native whites of South Africa, have a flair for setting monuments to their rugged history in such sweeps of landscape. The crosses are their handiwork — or, more specifically, that of the “Boers”, or “farmers”. They seem to commemorate some distant epic, a trek with ox wagons, a battle with Zulus or the British.
But Mokopane is not to do with the past. The word “Plaasmoorde” is hand-lettered on the slope. It means “farm murders”. Over 1,700 of South Africa’s commercial farmers and their families, mostly white and Afrikaans, but including a substantial number of English speakers, have been killed since the end of apartheid in 1994.
The ages of the victims vary — from infants to people in their eighties. The attackers usually operate in gangs of three to eight. Extreme violence, including rape, torture and physical mutilation, is often involved. Sometimes nothing is stolen, leading to claims that the attackers are motivated by racism and a desire for revenge.
Mokopane, then, deals with the present, and, in the most brutal way, with a future in which the rural Boers, for more than 300 years the white tribe of Africa, fear they face extinction.
The world has more than an inkling of what has happened in Zimbabwe. Over the past six years, to the accompaniment of farm invasions, beatings, livestock maiming and now mass hunger, Mugabe has seized more than nine-tenths of his country’s white-owned commercial farms. He is about to complete the ethnic cleansing of rural Zimbabwe.
What is happening in South Africa is less known and is, in most respects, different. In Zimbabwe it is government policy, instigated by the president, and seen through by party thugs. South Africa, in which the bulk of commercial farmland remains in white hands, has model policies of land restitution and reform — validation by land claims courts, compensation at market value, incentives for black empowerment and land ownership — whose principles are accepted by most landowners.
The process of restitution is intended to be scrupulously fair, untouched by the rancour that built up over the long years of baaskap, white supremacy. Whites moved from areas designated as black “homelands” by the apartheid regime are entitled to claim on the same basis as displaced blacks, though the latter — are far more numerous. Valuations are by independent assessors. Progress has been slow, though the white farmers have little reason to complain. A decade after apartheid, less than 5% of commercial farmland is in black hands, though the government has set a target of redistributing 30% of white-owned land to blacks by 2014.
For all the legislation and goodwill, there is horror. Zimbabwe’s white farmers were expelled, and uncompensated. Very few were murdered.
It is true, sadly, that South Africa suffers from a general epidemic of violence, and farmers cannot expect to be immune in a country where 18,793 people were murdered in the year to March 2005, the great majority of them urban blacks.
But the farmers’ numbers are small, and their vulnerability high: 10 times higher than for the population at large, or so it is claimed, making them the most at-risk profession in the non-military world. Go to the farmlands, and it shows.
The last town on the N1 before Musina and the Zimbabwe border is Makhado. It was named, until recently, after Louis Trichardt, the Boer Voortrekker, who reached the foot of the Soutpansberg mountains here in 1836, on his way north to escape the British at the Cape.Tollbooths mark the approach of the town. A gravel road leads from the tarmac. After some distance, a gate and a long rutted track mark the entrance to a farm set well back from the road.
It is owned by Ernest Breytenbach. He has 120 cattle on 5,700 acres, with a simple house built round an Aga brought in by wagon in the 1920s.
His father, André, was killed when he got out of his “bakkie” (pick-up truck) at the gate in August 1998. It was a bad month on the farms: 66 people were murdered — four of them set on fire. In another attack, the farmer had been bound and beaten, but nothing was taken from the house and his firearm was still on the wardrobe.
“They were waiting for my dad to get back from dropping off his workers,” Breytenbach says. “He was shot in the stomach. They made off with his bakkie and dumped him. When we found him, they’d taken the spotlights off the bakkie. They put them by his face, like eyes, and they put the licence plates at his head and his feet. I don’t know why they did it. Maybe it was to say, ‘Look what we did,’ to get on the front page.”
Breytenbach blames the ruling ANC, President Thabo Mbeki’s African National Congress, for continuing incidents on the farm. “I see people hunting with dogs or collecting firewood on my land,” he says. “I ask my people if they know them. It’s always ‘No’ because they have to answer to them. I have a lot of game theft. They make snares from my fence wire. I think it’s ANC intimidation. They want us out.”
His father was the first to be murdered at Louis Trichardt. Many attacks have followed. Werner and Brigitte Wiedeck live close by, in a pin-neat house with garden gnomes in the conservatory and doilies on the armchairs. They have been robbed eight times in three years. Twice they were beaten. The worst was last April.
“They put a gun to my husband’s head and tied him up, and gagged me with a scarf,” says Brigitte. “Then they started beating me with a steel pole. They already had all our money, but they kept demanding more. I was choking on my own blood. I feigned dead and they went.
“I got free and I cut Werner loose. I was very lucky. The doctors were fighting for three days for my life. I had serious skull fractures. I needed nine steel plates. I lost my right eye.” The police, she says, took two hours to drive the few miles from town. “No one checked for bullets, for fingerprints, for tracks in the bush. They did more or less nothing.”
Dolores de Agrella runs Adam’s Apple, a roadside inn on the way into town. “There was a whole spate of attacks in June 2004,” she says. “We were robbed twice: videos, TVs, even a pot of oxtail I was making for Father’s Day lunch. We were cleaned out, so I thought we were safe. One evening, the dog barked, and a figure appeared in my room. He pulled my jaw down and put a gun in my mouth, and pulled the trigger. Without a word. Just like that. But it didn’t go off. Then he started trying to pull me down. I started kicking and screaming and grappling with him. He was a puny little thing. As fast as he’d arrived, he was gone. I’m only alive because he had the wrong calibre bullet in the gun.” The aftermath, she says, was terrible. “The pit of my stomach was churning and churning. My life-saver was a pepper spray. I’d sit clutching it the whole time like a TV remote.
“If we got a good offer, I’d be straight off. It’s harder for the Afrikaners, though. This is their heritage. Their fathers and grandfathers were born on their farms. It’s different for them.”
One of those is Celia Guillaume. She was the first woman in Africa to become a licensed big-game hunter. She has ranged across southern Africa in her bakkie, an independent and once fearless soul who grew up with the locals. She built a house on her father’s land, looking out across the Soutpansberg, green and alpine in the rain, with thatched rondavels (circular buildings) in a miniature village she built for conferences.
She grows flowers and nuts on her 500 acres, and has a seed export business. “I was 100% self-sufficient,” she says. “I grew maize and coffee, soya beans, chickens, butter, milk. I shot a bushbuck every month. I loved it. I didn’t mind being alone. Now, I won’t come here on my own. I don’t like being here at night, even if I have people staying.”
Her four attackers came one morning last year. “I’m sure it was an inside job,” she says. “I was packed to go to Zambia the next day, and I had a lot of foreign currency. They knew I was alone. They hit me with guns, and stripped me, and tied me up and gagged me. They had everything they wanted right away. Everything in my safe, my guns, everything with a plug on it — TV, stereo — all my CDs, the keys to my bakkie. But they stayed on for hours. I thought they were going to kill me. My father comes up to see me at 5pm every evening, and I thought, ‘Please, God, don’t let Daddy find me dead like this.’ Then they went off in the bakkie, and I managed to free myself. But it’s still there. They f*** up your future, and they also steal your yesterdays.”
She has no confidence in the police. “We can’t depend on them,” she says. “The farmers were here first. They washed my blood, they found my bakkie. When the police finally came, they fingerprinted everything, videoed it, took still pictures — and all of it has disappeared.
“We knew who’d done it soon enough. Local people know. They came from 40 kilometres away. They were caught with my personal possessions on them and in their homes. The dossier was opened for attempted murder and armed robbery. But because it all went missing, they were charged with possession of stolen property and got a slap on the wrist. They’re already out. If I did pursue it, they might kill me next time. They’ve rung me to say, ‘We know you haven’t got a gun now, we had six months inside because of you, we’re going to get you.’”
Mimie du Toit runs a game farm that caters for hunters, mainly Scandinavian and Spanish. Her husband was killed when the steering column on his vehicle broke on a hunting trip. Her father, Ben Keyter, farmed cattle 30 miles away. He was murdered in January 2005.
“They asked my mom for water,” she says. “She opened the door and they pushed in. Two of them pulled my dad outside. They made my mom watch while they killed him with a spade. They said, ‘Look, you can’t help him.’ Then they hit my mom very bad. She had blood all on one side, and they threw the deepfreeze on top of her and left her for dead. Then she got a stroke. Now she’s in Pretoria for speech therapy.” Her father was 79. He was killed for his cell phone and his 780 rand (£70) monthly pension. Three arrests were made. “It was the farmers who got them,” she says. “The police did nothing.”
Her father’s farm has to go. “I’m busy selling it,” she says. “I have to, to pay for my mom’s treatment. But I’m going to stay here. I don’t have an electric fence. I trust in the Lord. He will help me. “I was very bitter at first. That passed with losing my husband. I realised it doesn’t matter how you die. And I have my three children. “But I will say this: if I killed one of them, you’d hear it all over the world. But if they kill my dad, no one hears anything, not even here.”
There are other stories, one after another. Herman de Jager’s father, Pieter, was shot as years of work came to fruition. The family had cleared the bush from their land, by hand and tractor, and planted 7,800 macadamia nut trees — Pieter de Jager had hand-grafted each one himself.
“That morning, we finished the drip irrigation system,” de Jager says. “We said, ‘Now we’re ready to farm.’ I was away from the house. My mother got me on the cell, she said it’s a farm attack. I found my father under a tree. He died in my arms.”
Billy Meyer, a small-scale farmer, was shot dead through the head at 7.30pm on a Saturday as he sat in his house with his baby. Farmers tracked his killers for 60 kilometres towards the border with Zimbabwe but did not catch them. His near neighbours Gillie and Sophia Fick have a prosperous spread of 17,000 acres. “It’s only God’s will that we’re still here,” they say. At 5.45am, Gillie got into his bakkie to drive out to the fields. There were four attackers. Two of them pointed guns at his head. They pulled him out of the truck and forced him to the ground.
Then they started breaking in the windows and burglar bars with a pickaxe.
“I heard the glass go,” says Sophia. “I took my pistol and fired three shots out through the curtains. I wasn’t worried for my husband. I thought he was already dead. Then I pushed the panic alarm. The siren went off. They fired some shots and drove off in our bakkie. They dumped it at the tarmac road, where they had cars waiting.”
“The farmers put up a roadblock and caught some of them,” says Gillie. “We got a helicopter from friends and we spotted another in thick bush and caught him. The police were hopeless. They didn’t even take fingerprints from my bakkie, though the four of them were in it.”
Their farmhouse, like others, is surrounded by a high electric fence. “But there’s no way you can stop them,” Gillie says. “They dug a hole under it. They use aerosol cooking oil or fly killer to deal with the dogs. They smash burglar bars. I’ve put concrete foundations round the fence. Next time, they’re going to have to dig a deeper hole.”
“Kill the farmer! Kill the Boer!” was a slogan of ANC guerrillas in apartheid days. A presidential commission into the attacks examined claims that the ANC remains involved, and that the assaults are part of a deliberate campaign. No evidence has been found. No pattern has emerged.
Some attackers are locals. Some are Zimbabwean. Some drive 200 miles to the farms from the Jo’burg townships. Some are revenge attacks by disaffected employees. Some are motivated by money — attacks the night before payday, when there is cash in the farmhouse. In others, valuables are ignored and nothing is taken. The government is manifestly innocent — of inspiring the attacks, but ministers are more open to charges of neglect. South Africa is a mining and industrial giant.
It is the wealthiest country in Africa. Agriculture accounts for only 3.4% of the economy, though it employs 30% of the labour force. That makes it easier to ignore. The Cape winelands and golf courses, the Garden Route along the coast to Durban, the Kruger national park — the tourist gems that attract visitors by the thousands — are tucked away from the worst areas of violence.
“Rural insecurity gets swept under the carpet,” says Chris van Zyl, who is responsible for security in the TAU (Transvaal Agriculture Union). “It’s stock theft and livestock maiming, too, and harvest theft, fields stripped of maize, orchards of fruit. As a career, farming is blighted. When a farmer dies, the chances are there’s no family member willing to take over the farm.”
His colleague Gideon Meining, a farmer, is a case in point. His one son is a businessman. The other is in London, one of as many as 1.4m South Africans thought to be living in Britain.
Black as well as white farmers are targeted. “We’ve black members who’ve lost so much cattle and sheep, they say they can’t continue with livestock,” says Kobus Visser, spokesman for another big farmers’ union. “But they have less chance of being murdered.”
The record of livestock thefts from April to September 2005 show that 30,000 cattle and 49,000 sheep were stolen. In the same period, the Krugersdorp rural area reported 29 farm attacks, eight murders, six farmers shot, 22 beaten and one raped, 45 break-ins and 12 armed robberies.
“We recorded 97 farm attacks in this small area last year, with 14 murders,” says Trevor Roberts, who runs the private Conserv security services near Muldersdrift, just northwest of Jo’burg. “This year is worse. We’ve had 28 attacks in less than two months, with three murders. If it was all criminality, they’d do it when people are away,” Roberts says. “But they don’t. They wait for people to come home, and sometimes they torture them and kill them.”
The attackers who shot Peter Binggeli, one of Roberts’s clients, on his farm, waited until the family was home at 11:30pm. Binggeli was shot three times and beaten with an iron bar. He owes his life to his wife. She ran into the bush. The attackers failed to find her and fled, fearing she had called for help. Eiderdowns stolen from a wendy house on the farm were found behind rocks. It was clear the attackers had lain there for days observing the Binggelis before they struck.
The elderly are often targeted. Nearby, Paul Hart grew up on the farm where his parents, John and Sylvia, lived for 43 years. It is called Swing-gate Farm after a lane in Berkhamsted. “Mum and Dad came out from Hertfordshire in 1949. Dad had £46. This place was bare veld.”
The house they built is thatched, the gardens shaded by the trees they planted. A finely restored Jaguar XK140 and a yellow E-type in the garage hint at John Hart’s business. “Dad was a mechanical engineer,” says Hart. “Mum was the farmer — rabbits, asparagus, Jersey cattle, market gardening and dairy. We children would help pack the food to take off to market. They didn’t want to retire to the city. They wanted to stay here. Dad was 88 and Mum was 83. But they were still — fit. Dad swam every day. He restored his cars. He was a perfectionist. He played golf and classical guitar. He took precautions.”
A high electric fence runs round the house and gardens. John Hart checked it every day at 5pm. The windows and doors are guarded by thick burglar bars. He had a .38 revolver.
At some time between 12.30 and 2.30pm on November 18 last year, he was outside the fence by the cattle sheds when he was battered to death. Sylvia was in the house. The gate in the fence was opened, and the attackers got into the house. They seem to have first beaten her for the key to the upstairs safe. Then, although by now they had John Hart’s .38, they beat her to death with one of her husband’s golf clubs.
Africa had been kind to the Harts. “Not long before they died, Mum gave Dad a big kiss,” says Hart’s sister, Lesley. “And she said, ‘Thank you for bringing me to Africa. I’ve had a marvellous life.’” Her brother says he understands the motives for robbery. “When there’s no work, a man has to feed his family,” he says. “We’re soft targets. Close to town, near highways, nice open farmland, fairly well off. I can accept the crime. But not the violence that goes with it. They had the key to the safe. They had a revolver. Why bludgeon an 83-year-old lady to death? I don’t think robbery was the main motive. The gardener hasn’t been since before the murder. Something Dad said upset him. I think this was a revenge attack.”
The police, he says, are hopelessly under-resourced. “The local police station is only three kilometres away, but it’s two-thirds under strength in manpower. It has so few vehicles that sometimes policemen have to use their own.”
He has put the farm on the market. He and his sister only visit now with their private security guard, Godknows Malulaka, and his shotgun. Though they are still British citizens, like other victims, the British government has shown little interest in their fate.
President Mbeki has said that whites have a “psychosis” of “fear about their survival in a sea of black savages”. He has said, remarkably, that they are “addicted” to their fear. Farmers blame government indifference. “Protection isn’t improving,” says van Zyl. “It’s getting worse.”
“We had our commandos, authorised volunteers who’d served in the army, in country districts,” says Meining. “They gave real security. But the government has disbanded most of them, so we try to look after ourselves with Farm Watch, our own self-defence groups.”
Police are short of manpower and training. Accusations of incompetence — failing to fingerprint, to take blood samples, basic police skills — are widespread. Kiewiet Ferreira, of the Agri SA farmers’ union, spoke last month of the “helplessness and frustration” among farmers, black and white, at the “apparent unwillingness and ignorance” of some police officers.
“It’s common knowledge among prosecutors and the public that cases are not properly investigated,” says Reino Mostert, control prosecutor at Makhado. “Experts should be first at a murder scene. They’re not. The local uniformed men get there and wander round, and the evidence deteriorates. The unnecessary violence is what worries me. I’ve discussed this with fellow prosecutors, and I can tell you, there are no attacks like this on black farmers. I know these people who’ve been killed. Like Ben Keyter, a lovely old man, defenceless, killed like a dog.”
It is, of course, to South Africa’s credit that it has become more difficult to get a conviction. In apartheid days, confessions were wrung from suspects easily enough. But Mostert himself knows the near-collapse of law and order. “I was woken up by breaking glass at 4am,” he says.
“I shouted, ‘Get me my pistol — I’m going to kill them.’ I hoped that would see them off. But it didn’t. They got in and they were taking the DVD and TV by the time I’d got a rifle. I had my wife and kids there. I swear I’d have shot them dead. But then they made off. I fired some shots after them.”
The prosecutor, it should be added, lives across the street from the courthouse and police station. Makhado boasts a high-security prison too — the most modern in the country. It houses 3,800 hardened criminals. The prison choir performed with Jo’burg’s symphony orchestra in February. It says much for the new South Africa.
So, alas, does what followed last month. The wardens went on strike. The inmates rioted and set one of the blocks on fire. No police or troops were at hand to secure the perimeter. The prison authorities asked Farm Watch for help. As flames and smoke drifted across the night, every 20 yards a bakkie was drawn up at the wire, and a Boer, unmistakable in rugger shorts and a khaki shirt, stood guard until the army arrived.
Zimbabwe’s cull of farmers can be repeated by default, as well as by design. There are signs of growing haste and impatience in land reform. New possibilities of legalised expropriation were opened on March 1. The deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, spoke at a recent conference in Pretoria. “We’ve got lessons to learn from Zimbabwe,” she said. “How to do it fast. We need a bit of oomph. So, we might want some skills exchange between us and Zimbabwe.” The remark was made with a smile, it was reported, and “to muted laughter”.
The farmers in her audience might be forgiven for not getting the joke.
(Posted on April 3, 2006)