The Caledon River has served as an ineffective natural border between South Africa and Lesotho since a border fence along its banks disintegrated post-1994. But since the South African National Defence Force withdrew from the border in early 2007, the South African Police Service – minus the support of the by then dissolved commandos – have struggled to control cross-border crime. Mike Burgess investigates how crime is eroding agricultural production in the border district of Ficksburg, how innocent blood is shed and why organised agriculture is dragging the state to court.
On the evening of 9 May 2008, a gang of six heavily armed men from Lesotho swooped onto the Moll family farm of Stolberg to ransack the house, murder well-known dairy farmer Jacques Moll (64), wound his wife Genene and attempt to execute their son Xavier before wounding fellow farmer Nic van den Berg.
It seems undeniable that Jacques Moll’s death is linked to the South African Police Service (SAPS’s) inability to control cross-border crime – a state of affairs Xavier says is simply unacceptable. “There are things that must be pointed out like the bad patrolling of the border,” he charges. “When there are problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo, they send troops out, but here, when there’s unrest, theft and farm murders, nothing happens.”
Anarchy in the Free State
When Free State Agriculture (FSA) took the state to court for allegedly failing in its constitutional obligation to protect farmers and their property along the Lesotho border, it even attracted the support of legendary human rights lawyer Advocate George Bizos, who represented Nelson Mandela in both the treason and Rivonia trials in the 1960s.FSA’s draft application is now finalised, and will probably have been submitted to the High Court by the time you read this. But while FSA unsuccessfully tried to engage government departments out of court, farmers have faced increasing anarchy, theft, illegal grazing, arson, murder and more.
Although he recognises the efforts of certain police officials, Xavier believes that many are simply incompetent – this was clearly illustrated to him when he was unable to contact the SAPS after his father’s murder. “The evening of my father’s murder I tried to phone the Ficksburg police station on all the numbers I had – there was no answer,” he recalls. “Even on 10111 no-one answered. I think if you are appointed to a position you are there for a reason.” Xavier remembers a time when the Moll family hardly locked their home. Today he has electric fencing and 24-hour guards to stop serious crime, 90% of which he believes originates from across the Caledon.
“Lesotho nationals know they can commit crime here and then cross the border to Lesotho and nothing can be done to them,” he says.
In fact, five members of the gang that murdered his father have been arrested on charges of possession of illegal firearms in Lesotho, but to face murder charges here, they will have to be extradited – a process bound in red tape.
Murder at the Vermooten’s farm
But the Molls aren’t the exception. About 25km away, I had visited Pieter Vermooten (58) on his 1 000ha border farm, Sekonyela, weeks before he was murdered in 2007. He had described how rampant theft, illegal grazing and arson were affecting him. Weeks later, on 26 June, he was shot dead in his own home by one of several overall-clad men allegedly from Lesotho.
In the wake of his father’s murder, Hennie Vermooten returned to build a life on the family farm. Today little seems to have changed on Sekonyela – besides the fact that Hennie’s father is gone. He explains that no arrests have been made in connection with his father’s murder, and that theft on Sekonyela has escalated with 350 sheep, 50 cattle and 30 calves having been stolen in the past year. He tells of thieves stealing submersible pumps and stripping maize cobs with unrestrained arrogance. “They come and pick peaches in front of my house!” he fumes. “They have no respect for your privacy.”
Small wonder, then, that Hennie has lost faith in SAPS’s ability to protect him and his property. “It’s not my way to blacken the name of the police, but things are not happening the way they should. They come in with their bakkies, let you sign a form and go back to the tar road (R26). The tar road is not the border.”
Hennie has adapted to and even accepted misdemeanours like illegal grazing. “You get to a stage were you are not defensive. You accept that at the end of the day, your blood pressure rises and nothing happens. There is a sort of unwritten agreement that they graze on my side of the river and they don’t burn my veld,” he says.
Hennie’s resigned frustration is shared by many more farmers in the district, such as the employees of one of the biggest agricultural enterprises, Sandstone Estates (Pty) Ltd (SSE), Hennie’s neighbours.
Crime paralyses major farming venture
SSE, bordering the Caledon, produces crops on 2 500ha and has the potential to almost double this. It’s also known for restoring and preserving steam locomotives and machinery.
On the sprawling estate, I met manager Peter Webb and ex-policeman/private security specialist Jordaan Marais who since 2003 has employed dozens of guards to protect SSE’s assets.
He shows me pages of documented cases of cross-border crime including illegal grazing, arson, trespassing, armed robbery and rampant theft, along with letters SSE had written to the King of Lesotho, the South African Government and SAPS about the critical security situation.
Needless to say, the situation has not changed. As Webb and Marais drive me down to the Caledon, the road is blocked by boulders rolled onto it by trespassers. When we eventually reach the Caledon, cattle are hurriedly herded across the shallow river while young men mock us from the safety of their country.
“Cattle come over the river – we catch them daily in our wheat and they do thousands of rand worth of damage,” Webb explains. Along the Caledon’s bank we eventually find the remains of the old border fence – a few sawn-off droppers and disintegrating chunks of concrete. On the dirt road to the plateau overlooking the Caledon, Marais points out where he and his guards were attacked by men hurling stones.
Further on, I’m shown the impact of illegal grazing. There are old empty farm homes and others demolished – useless for habitation because of chronic theft and intimidation.
On we drive to a ruin that used to be the dairy, a pile of bricks that was once a packhouse and wheat lands that used to be peach orchards – ventures made unprofitable by theft. “What about the police?” I ask. Marais explains, “The cops in Fouriesburg (Borderline Control Police, a SAPS unit responsible for patrolling the border in the Ficksburg district) are supposed to be working on the border itself, but they’re never here, never on the border itself.”
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Prayer saves a life during farm attack
When Xavier Moll drove to his family’s farm Stolberg on 9 May 2008 to tell his parents about the birth of his niece, he was welcomed by killers. “When I saw the garage was open and there were things lying on the floor, I realised there was a problem,” he recalls. “I stopped, and as I tried to put the bakkie in reverse, one of them put a revolver against my head and said ‘Get out!’ He took hold of me behind the neck and walked up the stairs with me and then I saw my father’s body for the first time. He pushed me down onto my father with the revolver. He said, ‘Do you know him? Look how he looks – you are also going to look like this!’ I stood up and said, ‘My God, my father!’ Then, when I looked up the stairs, I saw the others running out.”
Xavier’s mother had been beaten and was bleeding profusely. When the killers had run out to Xavier, she had crawled to a bedroom. Xavier was then taken into the main bedroom and told to lie on the ground. He began to pray, “Lord, in Jesus’s name, I pray that if they pull the trigger, the bullet doesn’t go off.” Then a chrome 38 Special with a wooden handle was pushed into his face and the trigger pulled. “I saw how the hammer went up and then came down and the revolver went click – it didn’t go off and the Lord had spared my life.”
Confused, the attacker left the room, but was soon back with the others. Xavier was forced to strip to his underwear, his hands were tied with a metal clothes hanger and he was bundled into the shower. Again, he began to pray.
Then an order was given via a two-way radio to shoot him, but his would-be assassin was shaken. “He looked at me, looked at his friend, looked at me again and said, ‘I can’t shoot him, he keeps on saying Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ. Come let’s leave him with the children in the bedroom.” Within minutes the gang had sped off in Xavier’s bakkie.
Thieves are colour-blind
Inland from the Caledon, the SAPS’s failures threaten the viability of an emerging farming enterprise. Isaac Khuto, a Grain SA Developing Grain Producer finalist for 2008, produces mainly maize and wheat on 130ha, and runs 40 beef cows and 135 sheep on his farm Diyatalana and hired land. When I asked Isaac about how cross-border crime affects emerging farmers, he cut me off. “Oh, don’t talk, don’t even talk. We have a big problem with the border.
All the black farmers are struggling with crime in the Ficksburg area, because a thief eats and steals wherever he gets the chance. They don’t care if you’re black or white.”
He says he often loses sheep to thieves, including 57 in August and September 2008. It’s a real threat to the viability of his fledgling
enterprise – especially since his ripening maize is also systematically pilfered. As for his faith in the SAPS, Isaac just laughs. On one occasion, he shared information with the SAPS, but it was never acted upon, leaving him and his neighbour to pursue the thieves unsuccessfully.
He calls this suspicious behaviour, which he says indicates certain SAPS members may be involved in crime – not impossible, considering that in 2007/08 five SAPS officials were arrested for alleged involvement in, or assisting with, drug running in the Ficksburg district.
As for Isaac’s report, “To this day, the SAPS hasn’t come to ask what happened that day,” he says bitterly. “The police are involved.”
For more on Isaac’s farming enterprise, see our New Farmer section on pg 56.
The SAPS has its say
When I met SAPS communications officer Sergeant Majang Masupa in Ficksburg, she insisted that the SAPS is fighting crime as best it can. “We do have cross-border operations – we stop and search for dagga and all those things,” she assured me. “The Borderline Control Police patrol do professional police work.” Sergeant Masupa admits, however, that the amorphous Lesotho border is a problem, presenting dozens of press releases documenting cross-border crime and token SAPS successes. I get the sense that the SAPS knows it’s losing the battle against crime in Ficksburg, but in all fairness, as she explains, the SAPS can’t solve the major issue – the lack of a physical border. “We need a fence,” she says. “In Zone 8 (a certain section of the border) it’s easy to take stolen vehicles over the river. There is free movement. The issue must be discussed with the relevant departments. We did complain about it,” Sergeant Masupa says.