18 Oct 2002

Crime: Focus on farm attacks

So-called "farm attacks" have increased in South Africa, leaving the police and farming community increasingly at odds over the motives behind these incidents. Underlying the phenomenon - of murder and robbery on farms - was the legacy of South Africa's brutal apartheid years, said police expert on farm attacks Assistant Commissioner Johan Burger.

Police statistics illustrate the increasing number and violent nature of the attacks. In 1997, the total number of incidents was 433. By 1998 the number had increased to 769. It jumped to 813 in 1999 and to 906 in 2000. The latest figures, for 2001, have not been cleared for release by the government. However, IRIN has learnt that the national agricultural organisation, AgriSA, puts the number at about 1,000.

In 1997 there were 88 murders connected to farms attacks. By 1998 the figure had jumped to 142 and was at 144 in 1999. It stabilised at 144 murders in 2000. The figures for 2001 are believed to show a small increase over the 2000 statistics. "Yes there has been an increase, unfortunately," Burger acknowledged. But he dismissed claims that the attacks were perpetrated for political reasons. The motives were more often than not theft, not to chase white farmers off the land, said Burger. Burger said the farming community - which historically has been mostly white - was often suspicious of the police because they believed there was a more sinister motive behind the farm incidents, especially in light of recent developments in Zimbabwe.

Recent research has calculated the percentage of crimes committed on farms for purposes of revenge, or any reason other than criminal, at just 8 percent. "In more than 90 percent of cases we have studied - these were cases investigated on a factual basis with the intention of taking a case to court, so they were evidence driven investigations - the motive behind the attack was criminal," Burger said. "We have had no indication yet that there is any involvement of organised crime syndicates or politically organised groups [in farm attacks]," he added.

"There was an attack in the North West province where the attackers left a note with [political] slogans to try and mislead police during the investigation. The case was properly investigated and we found no connection to any political party or grouping. There have been no attacks with any confirmed involvement of any political group," Burger reiterated.

Criminal incidents on farms could not be divorced from the fact that crime levels throughout South Africa were "unacceptably high". "It's a very complex issue ... we all know that especially serious and violent crime levels are unacceptably high. We have had a marked success over the last two years in stabilising most of these serious crimes. We've succeeded in bringing down the murder rate by 40 percent since 1994. It's been decreasing on a yearly basis, rape, serious assault and even attempted murder have been stabilising over the last year or two," Burger noted. "But still, it's a high rate. So that is throughout the country, our unemployment rate is very high as you know. The official rate is at about 38 percent, unofficially people put it at a much higher rate. We have a huge socio-economic problem in this country, which we believe may contribute, as people are inclined to commit crime just to sustain themselves," he said.

Farms and smallholdings made for "softer targets" for criminals who were increasingly "confronted by people who are more alert and much better armed ... in urban areas". High walls, electrified fences and armed response private security firms have become standard security arrangements for many suburbanites in South Africa. "They [criminals] find much more resistance in urban areas, the police reaction time is much quicker in urban areas. They see farming areas as more vulnerable and attractive," Burger noted.

AgriSA's farm attacks expert Kobus Visser told IRIN that a commission of enquiry established by the government was due to issue a report on its findings in December. "They've been going now for about 18 months and it's quite a task to come up with a legitimate position on what the probable motives are for farm attacks. We see it as a very serious problem, it has a negative effect on the farming community. When a murder is committed it takes about 18 months before that farm is back in production and the workers employed on that farm can get salaries again," Visser said. Organised agriculture hoped the commission would be able to explain why attacks on farms increased while "normal crimes" decreased over the same period.

"The difference between this country and Zimbabwe is the fact that our government has clearly committed itself to a legal programme of land reform and has spoken out clearly against what has happened in Zimbabwe and their actions bare out their words," said Burger. (IRIN)

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