Farming the Sotho frontier

Pieter Vermooten farms on the Lesotho border near Ficksburg in the eastern Free State and suffers increasingly crippling losses from theft – but specifically stock theft as control along the Lesotho/South Africa border in the area continues to disintegrate.
Issue Date 27 April 2007

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Pieter Vermooten farms on the Lesotho border near Ficksburg in the eastern Free State and suffers increasingly crippling losses from theft – but specifically stock theft as control along the Lesotho/South Africa border in the area continues to disintegrate.

It is not an isolated problem, but a scenario that characterises the entire amorphous frontier between the Free State and Lesotho, despite this being a well-debated topic for years between organised agriculture and government. Mike Burgess reports.

The Free State’s boundaries include approximately 500km of internationally recognised border with the Kingdom of Lesotho. Since 1994, and in particular after 2000, however, South African border control has disintegrated dramatically – reflected in a surge of cross-border crime, specifically stock theft.

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This was particularly true for the period between 31 March 2002 and 1 April 2003 when the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was withdrawn and then later redeployed along the border to bring the situation under control. Since then, the presence of the SANDF has again been gradually scaled down, with complete withdrawal being completed in January 2007.

Instability on the is nothing new, being forged by war during the 1800s, but according to many the situation has deteriorated in recent years to such a degree that the abuses commercial farmers now suffer aretantamount to human rights violations. Kobus Breytenbach, Zastron farmer and chairperson of Free State Agriculture’s law and order committee, explains that the state has a constitutional obligation to protect commercial farmers – its citizens – and their property along the Lesotho border. In fact in many places now there is no border at all, as the border fence has been dismantled, leaving either no sign of a former border at all or only historic and natural borders such as the Kornetspruit (in the southern Free State) and the Caledon river (in the northern areas) as the only signs that any division between Lesotho and South Africa ever existed.

On a trip late last year along the border with Kobus in the Zastron district, SANDF soldiers came rushing out of the underbrush to check who we were and what we were doing there. I was impressed, as the border seemed patrolled after all, but later learned that the SANDF had no rights to arrest anybody and that they had to radio the South African Police Service (SAPS) in Zastron almost 30km away to effect arrests. Furthermore, despite the SANDF’s presence near the border that day, at the actual border individuals could be seen brazenly crossing the frontier through makeshift thoroughfares, while simultaneously Sotho herders could clearly be seen grazing their stock in South Africa, indicative of the apparent tokenism of the SANDF’s presence.

With the recently disbanded commandos also lost to this troublesome border, control has been left to the South SAPS Area Crime Combating Units (ACCU). The policing of the border is currently “utterly insufficient” according to Kobus, who says that only 74 members of the ACCU are currently directly responsible for the patrolling of the border (an increase to 132 has been assured by the SAPS). He says that 489 permanent members at police stations and 138 police reservists in districts along the border are responsible for law and order within these districts, and cannot be expected to be responsible for the border itself.

Kobus says that stock theft along the border is increasing, and reports of large losses of stock are common – with for example a border farmer in the Hobhouse district having 500 sheep stolen since last November. A ccording to Pieter Vermooten, who farms along the border near Ficksburg, the SAPS’s current contribution to security is clearly reflected by the current state of chaos along his farm boundary. “The SAPS have never patrolled my border – they drive along the tar road instead, miles away from the border,” he says.

Where does such a security nightmare leave the average commercial farmer in the area?
Cross-border anarchy Pieter’s family has been living on the farm Sekonyela – an approximately 1 000ha stock, crop and fruit farm, with cattle, sheep, wheat, maize, beans and peaches – since the 1920s, and he admits that farming here has always been characterised by theft to a degree, but nothing could have prepared him for the escalation he has faced since 1994. “Slaughtering for the pot, most farmers can handle, but the emptying of kraals of sheep is a different story,” he says. In the past two years he has had over 600 sheep stolen, and a few weeks before I visited him he lost 35 pregnant ewes and three cows. His greatest loss of cattle at one time was 30.

“I want to farm, that’s why I am here, I don’t want war with Lesotho across the river,” explains Pieter, “but the criminals dictate reality now as if it is their property. It’s not only stock that is stolen but your fruit, your dry beans, maize, equipment, infrastructure (particularly wiring) and vehicles.” Pieter adds that in the past 10 years he has had two Nissan bakkies and two Toyota Hilux bakkies stolen from behind his house (the Toyotas were later recovered while one of the Nissans were recovered after five years).

Today, Pieter’s home is protected by four huge Boerboels which spend most of their time bouncing off the netting wire fence in uncontrollable rage, while an Anatolian Shepherd dog roams around the house. “I removed the Anatolian dog as a pup from the sheep out of fear that it would be stolen,” Pieter says. He says the most frustrating part of the entire scenario is that “you can’t do anything– if you can just do something then it would be OK, but it feels as if everybody has rights except you, it’s an absolute nightmare.“ He explains that even when apprehended, thieves are quickly out on bail, and once stock is across the border it is very difficult to retrieve. Another major threat from across the Caledon River is illegal grazing – including the associated spread of disease from Lesotho stock – and the burning of grass associated with it. From a lookout point on Pieter’s farm we could see the Caledon snaking through the dry grass and beyond Lesotho and the town of Maputsoe. “There, you see those cattle, they are from Lesotho,” Pieter suddenly says, pointing towards a cluster of cattle on his side of the Caledon before continuing to explain the constant threat of illegal grazing and the more dangerous associated fires – started by Sotho farmers – to ensure winter grazing for their stock. “They are going to burn us again this year. It’s the same old story, we will be spending days putting out their fires,” he says despondently before we leave.

A crime catch-22
“The continual losses are now beginning to tell financially – you just can’t continue to take such losses and survive,” says Pieter. With the continual threat of theft, attempting to prevent it can be as expensive as the direct losses from it, he explains. For example, he kraals his stock at night at increased effort and expense in terms of labour – detrimental for the condition of any stock – and has recently electrified these kraals. However electric fencing has proved to be a poor deterrent for determined thieves. “They simply lift the entire fence up,” he says.
He has also attempted bringing in guards at substantial cost, but they have often proved to be unmotivated to work, presumably out of fear of reprisals, and often don’t patrol the farm as instructed – the only way to combat the continual infiltrations. Furthermore, despite the entire farm being difficult to manage, certain areas of his property are specifically risky, such as the approximately 100ha along the Caledon and another 150ha a little further away, which have become essentially unproductive. No border fence exists along the Caledon here any more and to make matters worse, once the border fence was dismantled, his farm fencing also began to disappear. Attempting to erect fencing to reclaim this ground is useless, though. “You fix it today and tomorrow it’s gone,” he says.
Without a border fence, Pieter’s stock is not only susceptible to theft but could wander into Lesotho, while the scenario suits Sotho farmers who have easy access to his land. The loss of this land is clearly tantamount to a land invasion, as the only individuals getting agricultural value from it are Sotho farmers.

Pieter is not about to give up though, and insists that “you need to make a stand and when the stock comes across you have to confront them because if you give up on 250ha they will have the next 250ha too”. The border and all its problems have also had a negative impact on the value of his land. “Friends tell me to sell up, but who will buy my farm on the border?” he asks. “Potential buyers will know why I would want to leave, because I struggle to farm it.” So, in absence of protection from the state from preying foreign nationals, Pieter Vermooten will probably be the last of his family to farm Sekonyela. “My son wants to return, but we will first have to look if it is feasible.” As for a solution, he says it must be drastic. “The police must become a lot more effective, and as for the border they must do something physically about it, electrify it and introduce continual patrols,” says Pieter. In the meantime, the lone supportive voice for these farmers will continue to be Free State Agriculture’s law and order committee, which has recently decided to take possible legal action against the state. |fw

The historical formation of the Lesotho/Free State border

As early as the 1840s conflict between the Orange Free State (OFS) and Moshweshwe’s Sotho west of the Caledon River was commonplace. This conflict motivated British governor George Napier to suggest an “approximate boundary” to the west of the Caledon in 1843.
Conflict also involved Sekonyela’s Tlokwa, Taaibosch’s Kora and Moraka’s Rolong. Furthermore there was also tension amongst the Sotho themselves, with two of Moshweshwe’s sons determined to create their own semi-­autonomous principalities. Then in 1848 the British took control of the OFS area through the creation of the Orange River Sovereignty. The British resident Henry Warden then amended the Napier boundary by recognising the smaller African communities in the area as independent communities.
Conflict on the frontier however continued, characterised by stock theft and general unrest. In an attempt to curb this, forces under British leadership were twice defeated by the Sotho, motivating them to restore independence to the OFS in 1854. Soon after OFS independence, however, war broke out between the Sotho and the Free Staters. Negotiations then followed and at the first Convention of Aliwal North in 1858 the then Cape governor Sir George Grey persuaded the Orange Free Staters to ensure peace by surrendering a stretch of territory on the Sotho southwestern border. In 1864 a new Cape Governor, Sir Philip Wodehouse, cordoned off the border between Harrismith and Winburg, an act that did nothing to stop the conflict.
Then on 9 June 1865, President Brand, frustrated by the continual conflict, authorised a full-scale attack on the Sotho and drove them east of the Caledon River, a situation entrenched in the treaties of Mpharane and Thaba Bosiu (1866). Stock theft and unrest however continued on the frontier, and Cape governor Wodehouse then decided on decisive action and annexed Basutoland as British territory. The second Aliwal North convention (1869) agreed on peace and the British annexation of Basutoland on the basis of keeping all territory to the west of the Caledon and ‘’the retrocession of all territory lost in 1858’’, which included areas east of the Caledon. It is this border that became recognised as an international border between the OFS and Basutoland and later between South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho. Source: South Africa: A Modern History (second edition, TRH Davenport, 1978)