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Farm murders and farm attacks in South Africa: a 2009 update.


No crime is without effects, be these physical, emotional or economic, and these generally range from superficial irritation to serious trauma. Unfortunately most South African families have been subjected to this in one form or another. No doubt the very nature of crime reflects escalation from the initial petty nature thereof to the ultimate irreversible serious physical or mental injury or loss of life.

Whatever the consequence, no victim neither next-of-kin nor friends and neighbours, remain unaffected and this applies across the total spectrum of victims irrespective of their vocation or sector of the economy within which they are/were active.

Prior to 1994, the farming community in South Africa was targeted by revolutionary forces using whatever means available. Consequently the use of land mines and the safe refuge to be found in neighbouring states set the stage for what was to come. Whilst the 'liberation struggle' may have de jure ended, the de facto effect is far from that. To a large extent the legacy of indiscriminate violence against victims of farm attacks, the use of physical and psychological force and the perceived security of safe havens either across international borders or in metropolitan areas far removed from the location of the crime, still apply. The mere fact that farm attacks have received very little condemnation from politicians, has created a strong perception that government neither had the will nor the serious intention to counter the targeting of the farming community.

Farm murders are, however, unique due to the fact that loss of life does not imply that productivity remains unaffected. To the contrary, within the ranks of organised agriculture it has been estimated that the murder of one farmer could result in as much as an eight years' passage of time until pre-crime levels of productivity could be reestablished. It was also reported that in some cases the brutal killing of a farmer may result in the loss of up to 50 job opportunities. (1)

Inevitably, within the dwindling ranks of productive farmers, the impact of murders reflects most negatively on the country's ability to maintain the universal strategic asset of ensuring food security. Within the context of South Africa's attraction to foreign refugees and job seekers, both legal and illegal, and the grave situation regarding poverty and famine in the region, the ability to provide in its own food requirements as well as those of neighbouring states in view of the gradual reduction in productivity and production, requires special consideration.


Towards the end of 1997, former president Mandela, responded to inputs by organised agriculture and initiated what was to become the Rural Safety Plan which comprised joint action by the South African Police Service (SAPS), the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and farmers themselves. This initiative also led to the subsequent establishment of a National Priority Committee on Rural Safety which was closely affiliated with the National Operational Coordinating Committee (NOCOC) and which met regularly to consider and recommend counter-crime measures which would improve the safety of farm dwellers in agricultural areas. Similar structures were established on provincial levels where Provincial Operational Coordinating Committees (POCOC's) were established.

One of the most important results of the establishment of the Priority Committee was the maintenance of a data base which statistically reflected the occurrence of all violent crimes which met with the approved definition of 'farm attacks'. It was therefore relatively easy to keep track of successes and to compare magisterial districts and provinces to determine obvious priority areas.

During the course of 2003/2004, the Minister of Safety and Security introduced a moratorium on crime statistics and members of the National Priority Committee on Rural Safety were repeatedly warned that figures tabled were purely 'operational' in nature and not yet confirmed. Until such time as the national commissioner released the verified annual statistics, the 'operational' versions thereof were restricted to internal SAPS use only.

It is also worthwhile to note that crime statistics released by the national police commissioner in his annual report which specifically reflected tendencies pertaining to farm attacks, ceased with the 2006/2007 report when a 24.8 per cent increase in violent crime on farms and smallholdings, in comparison with the previous year, were reported. No such statistics were forthcoming in subsequent reports and in fact it seems as if the integrity of reports reflecting crimes conforming to the definition of 'farm attacks' is currently in doubt.

Consequently the availability of statistics became more problematic and stakeholders were becoming increasingly dependent on other sources of information. Sadly, no single source of public information could be depended upon to provide trustworthy statistics and a totally new data base had to be developed. In this process it was found that internet sites which purported to reflect accurate statistics in fact duplicated many incidents due to small spelling variations in names, and also included crimes which actually took place in towns and cities. Some sources reported murder figures exceeding 3 500 victims since 1991, whilst others varied considerably.

With limited means, TAU, verified reported figures on the internet and in the media (see Table 1). While no claim is made that the statistics are accurate and complete, at least they reflect confirmed cases. The true situation can in fact only be worse.

            GAUTENG          NORTH WEST         LIMPOPO

YEAR    Attacks  Murders  Attacks  Murders  Attacks  Murders

1993      31       20       24        11      10        3

1994      10        8       10         4       1        1

1995       9       10       18        13       6        6

1996       6        2        7         5      10        7

1997      14       10       22         8       9        8

1998      37       17        9         5      19        8

1999      31       14       10         5      18       11

2000      14        8       11         4      22       13

2001      19       11       21        16       5        3

2002      16       12       21        11      15       12

2003      23       12       17         9      20       10

2004      18       32       17        10       9        9

2005      20       18        4         3      26       10

2006      14        9        9         3      14        4

2007      22       11       12         6      16        7

2008      93       35       25        10      10        1

2009      54       24       19         5      12        6

TOTALS   431      253      256       128     222      119


         Attacks  Murders  Attacks  Murders  Attacks  Murders

1993       22       14        3        6        0        0

1994       18        7        5        3        0        0

1995       31       10        7        9        0        0

1996       15        8        7        6        0        0

1997       22       10       15       10        1        1

1998       26       16       23       23        6        9

1999       19       12       21       13        1        0

2000       22       14       50       18        3        2

2001       26       14        8        3        3        6

2002       20       14       86       31        9       10

2003       23        8       10       19       15        6

2004       27       10       10       30        2        1

2005       10        3        9       14        3        2

2006       15        3        4        3        1        0

2007       12        7       15       22        2        0

2008       21       11        9        5        7        5

2009       23        5        4        3        1        2

TOTALS    352      166      286      218       54       44


         Attacks  Murders  Attacks  Murders  Attacks  Murders

1993        1        1        0        0       13        0

1994        1        1        0        0        4        3

1995        0        0        0        0        5        0

1996        1        1        2        4        2        2

1997        6        0        1        0       11        7

1998       11        8        4        3       15        7

1999        5        7        0        0        2        0

2000        5        8        0        0        5        4

2001       12       13        2        1        8        6

2002       10       14        1        1       10        7

2003       13        1        1        1       22       15

2004        4        3        5        6       13       11

2005        2        1        1        1        4        3

2006        6        4        0        0       16       16

2007        1        1        1        1       11        6

2008        5        3        2        1        8        7

2009        4        5        3        3        7        2

TOTALS     87       71       23       22      156       96

What is even more alarming is the fact that the reported figures do not represent a holistic picture of how the farming community is affected by crime. While it should be said that not all victims report crimes to the SAPS mainly because the SAPS reaction is unpredictable, it is equally true that police stations in some areas are reluctant to report the true state of affairs in fear of being branded 'incompetent'. What has been obvious in recent times is that irrespective of wide-ranging veld fires, none of these were investigated as cases of possible arson - even when arson is included in the 'farm attack' definition. Comparative research some years ago in the Muldersdrift/Magaliesburg area showed that on average, one murder in fact represented 12-13 different attacks which did not necessarily result in the death of victims. During the same period, the official SAPS figures in fact reflected only 40 per cent of cases logged by the local security company which also uses the official definition, in the same geographical area. (2)

Indeed, the dictum that states "what cannot be measured, cannot be managed" is applicable.

To put the South African experience in perspective, more than one comparison may be appropriate.

-- Without accurate statistics, it is nonetheless quite clear that since 1991 more South African farm dwellers were murdered than the totals in Kenya, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Mozambique, Angola and Namibia (South-West Africa) during the years of wars of independence.

-- Although with almost twice the number of killings as in South Africa, the conflict in Northern Ireland over the same time span (see Table 2), is quite significant. When it is realised that the Northern Ireland conflict is generally described as a case study deserving international consideration, the same cannot be said of the situation in South Africa. South African farm attack victims are predominantly farm dwellers or their visitors while those killed during the Northern Ireland conflict were in fact representative of four different groups of victims which comprised: (3)


Year     Total     Year    Total

1974      216      1993      59

1975      247      1994      27

1976      297      1995      51

1977      112      1996      35

1978       81      1997      60

1979      113      1998      96

1980       76      1999      63

1981      101      2000      69

1982       97      2001      73

1983       77      2002     106

1984       64      2003      81

1985       54      2004     112

1986       61      2005      55

1987       93      2006      42

1988       93      2007      61

1989       62      2008      76

TOTAL   1 844      TOTAL  1 066

-- Loyalist activists.

-- Nationalist activists.

-- Government representatives (inclusive of police and military personnel).

-- Innocent bystanders.

-- During 2008/2009 it was reported that 107 members out of a total of 148 350 police officers (excluding civilians) were killed in South Africa. (4) This compares with 78 farm dwellers murdered during the 2008 calendar year when the total number of commercial farmers (excluding dependents) was considered to be 37 000.


In all probability the most worrying aspect of farm murders in the post-1994 South Africa is the apparent lack of motive. While official response usually refers to 'normal crime' as the primary motive for attacks, the brutality thereof does not reflect 'normal' criminal behaviour.

It is evident that the victims of farm attacks are in particular subjected to physical and mental abuse. Serious threats, torture and bodily dismemberment are synonymous with many such attacks. To make matters worse, several incidents have been reported where it was quite obvious that the attackers in fact waited for considerable periods of time inside the homesteads for the victims to return before initiating the attack. Should 'normal crime' be the primary motive for the incidents, the question may well be posed why the criminals did not take advantage of the absence of the residents and took whatever would provide income within the criminal economy?

In the same vein, it was repeatedly indicated that the perpetrators were in fact not local people and in many cases it was obvious that they travelled a considerable distance to commit a specific crime. This immediately causes doubt as to the true motive if the attackers were willing to risk the possibility of discovery while waiting.

It should furthermore be considered that the investigative capacity of the SAPS, especially in rural areas, has been eroded. It can therefore be assumed that bearing in mind the overload of cases to be investigated, detectives may prefer to restrict their efforts to the minimum required to prove a prima facie case in court. Should the theft of a cellular phone or a television set be sufficient to achieve that requirement, then so be it.

What is of greater concern is the obvious inability within many SAPS stations to properly investigate farm attacks resulting in murder or assault to commit grievous bodily harm. The fact that a private investigator succeeded in solving the attack during which Pieter van den Berg was murdered and his wife Madeleine was locked up in a closet while the homestead was set alight, is a case in point. Within 24 hours the private investigator tracked a cell phone number which led to the arrest of the criminals involved in the attack. The cell phone number which was tracked was obtained from a SAPS docket where it was filed without any follow-up since the crime occurred. (5)

However, other factors indicate the high level of sophistication of farm attacks. Repeatedly 'military precision' is used to describe many deliberate attacks on unsuspecting victims. When information forthcoming from the SAPS indicates that criminals operate in groups of up to 13 individuals; that the target area is effectively reconnoitered prior to the crime; the manner in which Afrika Kriminele Sosiale Kode Analiste (AKSKA) (6) describes the marking of routes; and the recent sophistication in using very small and unobtrusive indicators in this regard are considered, there can be little doubt that criminals are indeed involved in a crime which is professionally planned and executed. Whether this is in line with 'normal crime', is seriously doubted.

Motives ranging from hard intimidation against a background of land claims to ethnic cleansing have been bandied around, but the lack of factual and credible evidence makes it impossible to make an informed judgment in this regard. The fact of the matter remains that a specific sector of the South African economy is obviously targeted to a greater extent than any other sector, including the safety and security sectors.


The current state of affairs in the region, especially in Zimbabwe; the relaxation of border control and selective immigration measures; the collapse of serviceable fences to control human and animal movement between countries; the creation of a security void in rural areas; and the possible concentration of available resources for the 2010 World Cup, are all contributing to a situation within which the crime prevention ability of the state will informally be delegated to local communities to police their own areas.

4.1 Borderline control

The withdrawal of military forces from the domestic arena has not only led to the closing down of commando units, but also to the SAPS taking over the responsibility of borderline control. From the outset it was clear that the SAPS did not have the human resources to ensure the deployment of the same force levels which was feasible for the SANDF. This resulted in infantry companies consisting of approximately 130 members being replaced by much smaller groups of police officials--in some cases less than ten. Obviously this state of affairs does not ensure the same level of security. It could not even ensure the maintenance of physical demarcation of international borders and fences have fallen into neglect making it very easy to enter and leave the country at will.

No available source could knowingly indicate the number of foreign nationals residing and working in the South Africa, but the number is thought to easily exceed the five million mark. While many such individuals could be considered to be legitimate asylum seekers or Zimbabweans who enjoy special status, the fact remains that many of them are unable to ensure formal employment. This reality in some cases leaves very little option but to engage in criminal activity, and the effect of this was displayed in the assessment of a security advisor involved in rural safety when it was reported that 80 per cent of violent crimes (including farm attacks) to the north of Bela-Bela could be ascribed to Zimbabwean citizens residing in South Africa. The situation on the South African/Lesotho border has resulted in Free State Agriculture opting for legal action against the state for not instituting effective measures to prevent trans-border crime, especially stock theft. The free movement of animals and plant material across international borders which were previously properly demarcated by appropriate foot-and-mouth disease fences has become the norm. In itself this creates a severe threat for the domestic herd to be exposed to serious diseases which not only threaten livestock and crops, but also the health of human beings.

4.2 Labour relations

The continuing and often unfounded accusations by organised labour, especially the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in the North West Province, and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to depict farmers as transgressors of human rights, are contributing to strained relationships. This fabricated perception, especially in cases where the true transgressors are in fact not farmers at all, may well be more than sufficient motivation for criminal retaliation of some sort. As it is, investigation has already indicated that in cases where a farmer was murdered and the property transferred to a new owner, employees are more often than not replaced by new individuals trusted by their employer. In a country such as South Africa where unemployment is generally perceived to be a contributing factor to the current high levels of crime, a response to the same by creating even higher unemployment figures, is in fact establishing a viscous spiral.

4.3 Land reform

Whereas the principle of correcting the abuse of power to alienate people of land rightfully in their possession without compensation is supported, the extent of individuals and communities claiming large tracts of land has escalated dramatically. In practice it was repeatedly found that many claims were totally unsubstantiated, but that did not prevent claimants to stage protest meetings and threaten to invade property. The mere fact that such activity was contemplated in rural areas traditionally perceived to be relatively crime free and peaceful, was a rude wake-up call. But more than that, it contributed to the real or perceived divide between the white farming community and the rest of the black population. The mere fact that farmers were singled out under ESTA (Extension of Security of Tenure Act, Act 62 of 1997) to provide land to employees in order to create security of tenure in rural areas, is indicative of the unique circumstances applicable to farmers. No other employer, including state departments are subject to similar legislation. The fact that farm land, in many cases inherited by successive generations of farmers who usually attach a strong emotional bond with the land of their forbears, is central to such policies and claims, contributes in no small manner to increased vulnerability of the farming community. This is usually exploited by criminal factions.

4.4 SAPS service delivery

Reference has already been made to the questionable investigative ability and capacity of the SAPS in rural areas. Added to this, is the inability to ensure sound communication and response when the SAPS presence or intervention is required. The fact that smaller police stations are poorly staffed, are under-resourced and that officials are in many cases not able to communicate fluently with members of the public, has contributed in no small way to the development of strained relationships and consequently also a lack of trust between the SAPS and the farming community. With foreign football supporters scheduled to attend the World Cup matches mainly in metropolitan areas during 2010, it could well be expected that available SAPS resources in rural areas will be drained and concentrated in centres where matches are to take place as well as obvious tourist destinations over the same period. In the absence of an effective sector policing system, this may well result in a displacement of crime whilst a security void exists at a time when available statistics indicate an increasing tendency in farm attack fatalities.

4.5 Agriculture sustainability and profitability

Both sustainability and profitability are crucial economic issues currently under pressure due to high input costs and low product prices. The longer response times of security agencies in rural areas forces farmers to install and maintain security measures designed to give early warning or prevent access to homesteads, and also to contract the services of a private security company. These additional costs and expenses cannot be included in product prices and thus have to be financed from dwindling cash reserves. The ability of maintaining a productive commercial agriculture sector to ensure food security is therefore under threat.

4.6 Race relations

The report of the last formal investigation into farm murders (Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks) was tabled by the committee on 31 July 2003. (7) It includes a specific reference to the fact that whilst no evidence was forthcoming to indicate political motives behind farm attacks, public prosecutors were of the opinion that the extraordinary levels of violence and torture could be ascribed to racial hatred. Should this be the case, and no counter argument currently exists in the public domain to dispute this finding, farm attacks are causes of growing mistrust, suspicion and consequently also of strained racial relationships.


For the time being, it must be assumed that rural crime will continue to affect the farming community and that the annual tally of murder victims and traumatised family members, neighbours and friends, will remain at unacceptably high levels. This will imply that the profitability of the criminal economy is flourishing and/or that the authorities will be unable to implement efficient crime prevention strategies. Should this be the case, the onus to make provision for a safe and secure environment within which farm dwellers can go about their daily chores, will rest heavily on farming communities, amongst others, themselves. Inevitably it will require the establishment of some form of voluntary organisations capable of effectively cooperating within the legal framework with the SAPS and the private security industry.

An analysis of current reality indicates a variety of security-related options available to farmers:

-- Individual farmers have volunteered their services as SAPS reservists. When commandos were closed down, the undertaking that sector policing would replace the void left by the commandos and that members of the latter voluntary organisation could easily be transferred to the SAPS as reservists, was made. The lack of logistical resources, training and the moratorium on recruitment, has a negative impact on sector policing being developed as an effective replacement option for the defunct commando system that served the farming community for many years.

-- Entrepreneurial enterprise has resulted in local farmers associations having acquired registered and accredited security companies, and collectively the services of such companies are utilised to provide security services at a reduced rate to the shareholders. Security services to other clients in the area are provided at commercial rates.

-- Certain security companies have identified the need for a security service specifically designed to serve agricultural interests. Unlike the average company, provision is thus made for rural reaction when emergencies arise, access control on roads and protection of livestock. This requires an effective communication system and the active involvement of clients to commit themselves to patrol-, first aid-, fire fighting- and reaction duties.

-- The establishment of farm watches, solely staffed by volunteers in the area, have offered a feasible option in such areas where SAPS response would obviously take too long or is considered to be unreliable. Farmers, who were actively involved in the commandos, are obviously preferable candidates due to their exposure to formal training and practical experience. In many cases, such informal structures consist entirely of ex-commando members who have been operating as a platoon or reaction force prior to the disbandment of the commandos. The nature of living- and working conditions in agricultural areas far removed from metropolitan areas or towns, demand specific requirements to ensure proper functioning:

-- An effective communication system which will be functional even when power outages occur which could affect normal cellular-, landline- or internet communication.

-- A standardised reference system identifying roads, junctions, homesteads and natural reference points.

-- Pre-planned procedures to be followed during times of emergencies.

-- Contingency plans for the most probable scenarios which are anticipated.

-- Access to legal advisors/representatives.

-- Access to legitimate firearms capable of neutralising assault rifles used by criminals.

-- The maintenance of an effective first aid-, trauma counselling- and fire fighting capability.

Irrespective of structures designed to provide security services to protect lives and property, an important responsibility rests with rural dwellers not to respond in a careless manner to strangers, suspicious or irregular noises or alarms. It is equally important to ensure that the minimum security precautions be taken to prevent access to homesteads. Alarm systems (including dogs both outside and inside homes), security lights, proper fencing and gates, burglar bars and security gates on all outside doors, should be considered.

However, much more important than physical security measures is the need not to react without proper consideration to strange noises without the ability to first confirm identity without unnecessary exposure to potential danger. Too many victims have been killed when they neglected to take basic precautions. Many cases have been recorded where criminals purposely staged some kind of distraction to entice the victims to leave the security of the homestead only to be killed or violently incapacitated.

Recent feed-back from individual police officials also draws the attention to another serious development. It is becoming apparent that criminals armed with firearms do not hesitate to open fire without any warning whatsoever. This reality creates an important legal dilemma. When landowners are faced with strangers on their property unable to identify themselves at hours beyond when visitors could normally be expected, and when it is known that criminals prefer to shoot without warning, what constitutes proper legitimate response by farmers or their family members? This is especially against the background of the police minister and the national police commissioner urging police members to shoot to kill when the possibility of danger and threats against their own lives exist. In the outlying areas where rapid security response is not dependable, the question of what a reasonable person would do under similar circumstance, comes to mind. Surely the criminal justice system should make provision for this unnatural reality when farmers react to potential threats.


The gradual reduction of South Africa's pool of experienced farmers (not being properly augmented by new entrants from tertiary institutions), coupled to the loss of agricultural land due to restitution and desertification and also as a result of water pollution, paints a dark picture insofar as food security (the ability to produce sufficient food for domestic use) and food safety (the ability to provide healthy and whole-some food) are concerned. Many threats refer to the dangerous consequences when people laying claim to land are left without hope, but the potential of a populace subjected to famine is considerably more far-reaching and catastrophic.

The lack of effective communication and understanding between the public and the SAPS is creating a widening gap between service providers and clients. This state of affairs is detrimentally exacerbated by repeated reports of SAPS members involved in crime as well as the fact that SAPS uniforms and blue lights are used in criminal activities. This contribution to crime in general is a major problem which affects the credibility of the county's primary crime-fighting capability.

Irrespective of the aims of government, the perceived lack of security in agricultural areas and the consequent dangers it poses to farmers, their families and employees, are threatening social stability and racial relationships. Inevitably this will create polarisation between farmers and their employees, rural dwellers and the SAPS, farm dwellers and urbanites, primary producers and consumers, different political groupings and ultimately between racial- and cultural groups. More than ever, it is necessary for politicians and senior officials to send a clear message that South Africa's farming community is indeed a national asset which cannot be subjected to continuous threat.

Individually the abovementioned developments will have very serious consequences, but a combination thereof, could be fatal. Thus, it is in the interest of all concerned that government, the SAPS, farm dwellers and society who represent consumers at large, recognise the seriousness of the developing situation, acknowledges it publicly and that all available resources are made available to ensure a safe life and existence for all.


(1.) The Witness (Pietermaritzburg), 26 October 2007.

(2.) Conserve Security Pty (Ltd), 2006

(3.) Dillon, M, The Dirty War: Covert Strategies and Tactics Used in Political Conflicts, Routledge, New York, 1999.

(4.) Republic of South Africa, SAPS, Roll of Honour, and SAPS Annual Reports 2006/07, 2007/08, 2008/09, (

(5.) M-Net, Carte Blanche, 11 October 2009.

(6.) See:

(7.) Republic of South Africa, Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks, 2003, p 459.

* Article written by Maj Gen (ret) Chris van Zyl, Deputy General Manager, TAU SA.
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Author:Zyl, Maj Gen (ret) Chris van
Publication:Institute for Strategic Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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