In early October, a farmer was killed by two thieves in Paul Roux, a South African village in the Free State province. Brendin Horner, 21 years old, was tied to a pole, beaten and stabbed. Although the murder was a heinous one, it is one of many in a country that counts about 20,000 per year, the fifth-highest murder rate in the world.
But the issue was, very simply, that Horner happened to be white and his attackers were black. Exasperatingly, that was enough to unleash yet another of the explosions of racial tensions that have been repeating in a cycle since the end of apartheid, now 26 years ago. Nevertheless, there was no trace of a racial motive for this murder, which seems to have been linked to cattle theft.
On October 6, hundreds of white farmers besieged the court of the city of Senekal, where the first hearing of the trial against the two thieves was being held, with the intention of lynching them. At a second hearing, on October 16, they nearly clashed with black protesters from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the left-wing pan-Africanist party, who showed up en masse “to protect democracy and the Constitution from violence.”
The EFF rejects the narrative of some groups of white farmers who believe they are victims of an ongoing genocide. “We are here to fight and die against apartheid. Because South Africa still has apartheid,” said Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, as he rallied the protesters. On the same day, their opponents sang the anthem of apartheid.
Even a very brief web research on South African organizations shows that many of them are divided between black and white groups. Among others, AfriForum is defending the interests of Afrikaners, the descendants of the European settlers (mainly Dutch), and it’s already clear, for instance, whom the Black Farmers Association is working to defend.
AfriForum is among the main promoters of the idea that whites are an intentional target of violence, which they claim is taking place to force whites to leave their lands (of which they own 70% across the country) in order to favor their redistribution by the government to blacks, who own only 5%. The white population represents only 9% of the 58 million South Africans.
However, according to police statistics, there were only 49 murders of white farmers last year, much less than 1% of the national total.
Yet, the rhetoric of genocide has long managed to find allies overseas. 2018 was particularly fruitful in this regard. In March of that year, Peter Dutton, Australia’s Interior Minister, proposed issuing expedited humanitarian visas to South African white farmers who are “victims of persecution” and in need of help from a “civilized country.”
A few months later, it was Donald Trump who upped the ante. Following an interview with AfriForum’s number two on Fox News, the U.S. president tweeted that he had asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers.”
Trump and Dutton were ignorant of some facts. Even assuming the highest possible rate of homicides on farms, which would be 133 people per 100,000 inhabitants, as reported in a session of the South African Parliament, and which would include both black and white victims, the proportion of white farmers who are victims is always below 1%, and this was also the case between 2016 and 2018.
According to the South African Institute for Security Studies, the most authoritative source in the country in terms of crime statistics, blacks are victims of murder much more than whites, in any context. In addition, the historic intention of Mandela’s post-apartheid government in 1994 to redistribute at least 30% of the land to blacks has only been implemented up to 8%.
Little needs to be said about Trump. Regarding Dutton, however, he may have been expressing some of the oldest animus that had reigned in his country, the one that inspired Australia’s own apartheid regime with the Aboriginal Act (1897) in the state of Queensland. The fact that both he and Trump echoed the “white narrative” shows that even today, this is still something that strikes a chord from Senekal to the global scale.
“We would be naive to assume that race relations in farming communities have been harmonious since the advent of democracy. [However,] contrary to the irresponsible claims of some lobby groups, killings on farms are not ethnic cleansing. They are not genocidal. They are acts of criminality and must be treated as such,” wrote South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in an open letter about Horner’s murder, trying to quell the growing tensions.
While, on one hand, the search for international support by AfriForum (and not only) is bringing attention to the enormous problem of violence in the country, on the other hand, the only thing it has managed to achieve is finding escape routes across the border. In the last decade, thousands of Afrikaner farmers have emigrated in several waves, after drawing the sympathy of the US and Australia, Canada, Congo, Zimbabwe and Zambia, which have encouraged immigration for rural development purposes.
In the words of Khanyi Magubane, a South African journalist and political commentator, as reported by the New York Times, the white farmers “don’t see the bigger picture of dysfunctionality in South Africa. Everybody is being targeted, everybody is being robbed.”