COVID-19 lockdown triggers rise in rural crime

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant national lockdown in South Africa have produced a plethora of negative socio-economic consequences. Amongst these is a wave of crime against the country’s farmers. Lloyd Phillips reports on this phenomenon and on how government’s consistent failures have made a difficult problem significantly worse.

COVID-19 lockdown triggers rise in rural crime
Stock thieves frequently show no compassion for the livestock they steal, cramming them into vehicles, and beating or maiming them into submission. Photo: The KwaZulu-Natal Stock Theft Unit/National Livestock Theft Prevention Forum
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It is the middle of a typically cold winter in the farming areas surrounding Ficksburg in the Free State.

Elsabe Botha (name changed), one of many local farmers, has had a particularly tough month: between theft and nine separate incidents of arson on her property in July 2020 alone, she calculates that she has lost 100ha of her mature maize crops.

But this is only one example of numerous similar crimes suffered by South African farmers in recent months.

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According to those in the know, the escalation of these property-related crimes on farms this year has largely been driven by the mounting negative socio-economic effects of the country’s COVID-19 national lockdown.

The leaders of various organised agriculture bodies generally share the perception that in the highly restrictive early days of the lockdown, which started on 26 March 2020, there was a noticeable decline in reports of rural crime. This is widely attributed to strongly enforced control on the movement of people in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.

However, as the lockdown became less restrictive in the second half of the year, business closures, job losses, the weakened economy, and widespread COVID-19 infections within the police and army all helped create conditions ripe for a dramatic escalation of both opportunistic and subsistence crimes.

Wide range of crime
Dr Jane Buys, safety risk analyst with Free State Agriculture, says that by mid-August, well over 1 000 economic crimes had been committed on farms in the province during the lockdown.

In addition to maize theft and arson, Buys has recorded reports of the theft of livestock and other crops; house break-ins and robberies; motor vehicle thefts; the theft of farm tools, implements and infrastructure; illegal hunting; and malicious damage to property.

According to an extract from Buys’s research, six farmers reported that during March and April they had lost between 10% and 50% of their maize crops due to theft.

The majority of farmers surveyed perceived that maize theft had been committed in an organised manner by groups of people. For financial reasons, amongst others, few farmers employ security guards to protect their croplands.

Two months after the implementation of the lockdown, Tommie Esterhuyse, chairperson of Agri SA’s Centre of Excellence for Rural Safety, publicly expressed his great concern at the sudden escalation in farm attacks, farm murders and economic crimes on farms countrywide. Farmers’ nerves, he said, were “on a knife’s edge” due to the surge in crime against farm dwellers and property.

In late June, he said: “The country currently finds itself in one of the most difficult economic situations, with the agriculture sector having to contend with an agriculture-unfriendly government and policy uncertainty. Uncertainty and escalating rural crimes are not conducive to creating an environment in which agriculture can perform and contribute towards economic development and growth.”

Agri SA cautioned the tense farming community to “act responsibly” and not take the law into its own hands, but rather to “hold the police accountable for performing their constitutional duty to protect all citizens”.

Aggrey Mahanjana, group managing director of the National Emergent Red Meat Producers’ Organisation (NERPO), has appealed for the “return of a skop en donner (kicking and beating) attitude by the police and [for] no mercy from the justice system” for stock thieves and other perpetrators of crimes on farms.

Mahanjana says that during lockdown, NERPO’s members, too, have reported being on the receiving end of many of the economic crimes highlighted by Buys.

He adds that the theft of sheep tops the list of reported stock theft incidents and that it is particularly “devastating when these sheep are stolen while heavily pregnant and carrying their maximum wool”.

“Stock thieves took advantage of the lockdown, but the biggest culprits are the women and men who sell the meat of stolen animals on urban sidewalks. It’s really frustrating that the thieves [are often] known to the police and communities, but there’s little they can do because South African law wants the thief to be physically seen in action [while committing a crime],” he says.

According to Willie Clack, chairperson of the National Livestock Theft Prevention Forum and vice-chairperson of the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation, livestock theft during Level 5 of the national lockdown was about 80% lower than over the same period in recent years.

As movement restrictions eased, it increased to the point that during Level 3 it was at an “unprecedented” level: about 15% above the average.

“Inequality is the largest driver of property crimes, and South Africa is the most unequal country [in the world]. The current economic crisis due to COVID-19 isn’t helping. A fact that must always be borne in mind is that [with] COVID-19 infecting police officers, we’ve seen the closure of police stations, stock theft units and other crime-fighting entities. The criminal justice system doesn’t have the resources to deal with the current crime wave,” explains Clack.

Francois Oberholzer, operations manager of Forestry South Africa, says that members of his organisation have reported the theft of standing timber in commercial plantations, ranging from the stealing of a few poles by individuals for domestic use to clear-felling of entire tree compartments by organised syndicates.

In addition, timber stock awaiting collection from roadsides or from depots has been stolen, logs have been ‘skimmed’ off transport trucks, and forestry equipment, especially chainsaws, has been taken.

“The theft of timber for building homes and for firewood has increased [in particular during lockdown], and it’s suspected that this is due to an increase in unemployment and poverty. [Wildlife] poaching has also increased on plantations due to the reduced movement of foresters and other staff during lockdown.”

According to Thandokwakhe Sibiya, strategic support executive of the South African Farmers’ Development Association, reports from the association’s members indicate that they have collectively lost about 1 800ha of standing sugar cane during the lockdown period to date.

“Stolen sugar cane has been used to brew home-made beer during the alcohol bans. Stolen sugar cane has also been sold in the streets and along the highways, because many people have lost their income and have resorted to theft to try to make ends meet.

“Another huge revenue loss for our farmers is the theft of irrigation infrastructure, which is very costly to reinstall or borrow. We’ve also had reports of arson in certain sugar cane-growing areas,” says Sibiya.

Violent service delivery protests
Rex Talmage, chairperson of the South African Cane Growers’ Association (SA Canegrowers), says that in addition to sugar cane theft, crop damage and reports of illegal hunting on sugar cane farms during lockdown, as well as violence from various service delivery protests, have negatively affected some of the organisation’s members.

“Unfortunately, these protests ended up in the burning of haulage trucks. This has
impacted the ability of [the sugar cane] business to continue providing employment in these areas. This behaviour is driven largely by desperation and frustration caused by unemployment; the COVID-19 [lockdown] restrictions; poor [government] service delivery, particularly in rural areas; poor governance by elected and traditional leaders; and a plethora of misinformation in both the written and social media, resulting in enhanced anxiety and frustration.”

Chris van Zyl, assistant manager of national agricultural union TAU SA, says his organisation’s members have also reported an escalation in a variety of economic crimes on their farms during the lockdown.

Van Zyl says he is unimpressed that Minister of Police Bheki Cele withdrew permission for private-sector farm watches to continue operating on public roads during the early levels of the lockdown. This made it easier for criminals to use these roads as access points to carry out their crimes on farms, he says.

Losing faith in the justice system
The interviewees all agree that putting a stop to rampant crime on farms can only be achieved through urgent, meaningful action by government, especially through effectively implementing all of the actions and goals of the much-vaunted National Rural Safety Strategy (NRSS), which has been paid mostly lip-service to date.

Buys says that the revised NRSS “is largely seen as a shelf, or nice-to-have, document” by government. Talmage says that SA Canegrowers’ requests to engage with municipalities on violent service delivery protests and their impact on local sugar cane operations “have proved fruitless”.

According to Sibiya, farm security in general needs to be addressed, “as it dampens the spirit of farmers and cripples farms financially”.

“There also has to be a focus on driving economic development in rural areas and on creating more economic opportunities that will make crime less lucrative [and less appealing],” he adds.

Clack believes that government’s tightly controlled crime statistics, and their regulated release, fail to accurately portray just how bad crime is in South Africa.

He would like to see crime victims being able to report their cases to independent and transparent structures so that the “insufficiency of the [current] criminal justice system can be made public”.

Mahanjana adds that criminals have become adept at taking advantage of the country’s legal system for their own benefit.

“There are cases where the police and magistrates are suspected to be working with criminals,” he says. Buys echoes this sentiment.

“The safety of farming communities cannot be left to farming communities themselves without the necessary support from government and police to ensure that such communities are protected and safe.”

Email Dr Jane Buys at [email protected]; Tommie Esterhuyse at [email protected]; Aggrey Mahanjana at [email protected]; Willie Clack at [email protected]; Francois Oberholzer at [email protected];
Thandokwakhe Sibiya at [email protected]; Rex Talmage at [email protected]; or Chris van Zyl at [email protected].

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