Two very different farmer reactions to recent episodes of farm violence


A few months ago while bumming around North West I stumbled upon a Pieter Koen gig in a district of game ranches called Koedoesrand.

It was nothing more, nothing less than a farmer’s hall in the bushveld somewhere between Swaartwater and Alldays, and it was an all-white affair – a radio message earlier in the day had made that clear. Everyone was in high spirits. Before I had finished my first brandy and Coke one of the district’s moving spirits pointed out some saplings and explained that several father-and-son teams had spent a day planting trees – an exercise intended to instil and entrench the determination to stay put on the land no matter what the future brought.

This same individual enthusiastically showed me the kindergarten the community had built for working mothers. I said something like “It’s good to see farmers appreciating the life-pressures of female farm labourers.” But I had misunderstood – the kindergarten was for white children only. The blacks, said the pillar of the community, could not afford the fees.

I believe most of those gathered in the Voortrekker Saal held similar views on racial integration, but towards the end of the night I met Wilhelm Coetsee and Gideon Swart, two self-confessed dwarstrekkers, who had formed a band and given it the shocking name Plaasmoord in order to talk to their community about racism as a contributing factor to farm violence.

It was heartening to know that they were tolerated and to think that their soulful music, so far removed from the ‘Meisie-meisie’ garbage blaring from the hall, was possibly touching hearts and minds in the isolated and racially-divided district. At this point Koedoesrand had not experienced a violent farm attack for years, a blessing the head of the farm watch put down to the fact that there were no urban settlements nearby and very few roads on which to make a getaway.

Tragedy struck last week, however, when Johan and Gloudine van Rensburg were shot on their farm near Tolwe. Johan was killed, Gloudine is still fighting for her life. I do not yet know the specifics of the case but, having just returned from Besters in KwaZulu-Natal where, in the same week, Willie and Sina Boshoff were brutally attacked on their farm by soccer-boot wearing youths, I’m struck by obvious differences in the way the two farming communities (and their representative organisations) have reacted.

Of course there are limits to the comparison because nobody died in Besters last week. On the other hand, there’s every suggestion that the Boshoffs’ attackers meant to kill, and that Willie’s life – he was being choked – was saved by a heroic shoulder charge from 76-year-old Sina.

The attackers stole four firearms and then – disturbingly, because it suggests advance knowledge of the way in which farmers react to distress calls – lay in wait at the gate with the stolen rifle. Needless to say the whole experience left the Besters farming community very shaken.

Google Willie and Sina Boshoff and a few articles about a farm attack come up, but look at the dates and you’ll see these are from 2009. There are no reports whatsoever dated 2012. The Boshoffs have been attacked twice on their farm, but only the first attack was reported. The recent attack, which was far more serious, was deliberately kept from the media.

Now Google Johan and Gloudine van Rensburg and you’ll be faced by a page of dramatic headlines, like ‘I’ll f*cking shoot them, says son’, and ‘Do farmers have to prepare for war?’ This last bit of jingoism was actually the header of a statement put out by TAU SA’s deputy president and Safety Committee chairperson Henry Geldenhuys on Thursday last week (21 June). It was, to my mind, a rather shameless, ill-advised bit of politicking.

Geldenhuys essentially linked the farm murder to ANCYL deputy president Ronald Lamola’s comments of the day before, to the effect that Africans need an act as forceful as war to get land back from white land owners. Lamola’s comments were disgracefully reckless, but Geldenhuys’ emotional riposte is almost as disturbing, because it demonstrates no understanding whatsoever of the very complicated (and precarious) context in which the ANCYL is currently walking and talking, having had its head literally chopped off by the party’s senior leadership in the run up to the all-important Mangaung conference.

The youth league is on the ropes, and it’s clearly decided it’s best fight-back option is to appeal to popular disgruntlement while at the same time stoking the coals under big-ticket political issues like land reform. If political dynamics were ocean currents, this fight between the current ruling elite and the country’s narrowly nationalistic youth would be the Agulhas – huge and very difficult to navigate, especially for minority groups in their little boats.

Rattling sabres as the boat proceeds to pitch and toss on these waves seems utterly pointless to me, and quite possibly a dangerous distraction from the real work at hand. Then again, is the Besters approach any better? As a journalist I feel compelled to say no, because the country desperately needs to study and talk about issues as complicated and painful as farm violence if we’re ever to come up with solutions. Instead of linking one family’s tragedy to a politician’s rhetoric, we ought to be seeking to understand the specifics of instances of all forms of farm violence, be it black on white, white on black, or black on black.

The Besters attack, for example, is potentially an entry point for a fascinating investigation into the impact of land reform on rural security. Besters is the site of one of the country’s major land reform projects. Academics and policy advisors have analysed the transfer model for years, but nobody can really tell you whether the changes in the district’s social dynamics have given rise to violent crime, or whether, in fact, the more equitable distribution of land has eased tensions.

But can the media be relied upon for the depth of analysis that’s needed? Farm attacks tend to be reported in sensationalist language on front pages, because they speak to the darkest imaginings of South Africa’s nervous middle-classes and therefore sell papers.

The Boshoff family, having been through both an attack (and the experience of being reported on) before, chose not to go through that process again. It’s also the policy of the Besters Farmers Association (BFA) to be circumspect in general when talking to the media, because the experience of being a land reform test case has repeatedly brought journalists into the area.

Journalists who, claim the BFA’s leaders, do more harm than good by failing to get to grips with the area’s complicated and precarious social ecology. They feel their problems won’t be solved in the media, but rather by the brokering of effective partnerships between commercial and emerging farmers, and between all farmers and the police and other provincial service providers.

Which strategy serves farmers better, the cover of silence or the howl of rage? I’ve made my bias fairly obvious, but in the coming week I’m hoping to put this question to Rory Pilisoff, author of The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, which explores how the communication strategies of Zimbabwe’s commercial farmers changed over a 40-year period, and whether these strategies ultimately served the farmers or contributed to their downfall.

Watch this space.