JOHANNESBURG - The brutal killing of AWB leader Eugene Terre'Blanche has once again highlighted the murderous phenomenon of farm attacks in South Africa. According to SAPS statistics there were 9,378 farm attacks, resulting in 1,437 killings, between 1994 and mid-2007 (at which point the police stopped publishing statistics.) These figures are staggering given that there are an estimated 40,000 commercial farmers in South Africa, down from 60,000 several years ago.
The question previously raised about these killings is whether there is some kind of malign political motive behind them. This concern has recently been sent into hyper drive by ANCYL President Julius Malema's singing of ‘shoot the boer' and the ANC's complacent defence of his right to do so.
But as the Mail & Guardian noted this week the phenomenon, despite being intermittently written about for the past decade, is not well understood. Part of the problem, perhaps, is the way in which it is often assumed that the ‘criminal' element of a killing (theft or robbery) automatically cancels out any possible political or racial motive.
On the face of it, this opposition seems to me to be misconceived. At the extreme: the persecution of prosperous minorities - whether in Germany or Uganda or Zimbabwe - almost always went hand-in-hand with the theft of their property. (Such annihilation processes are driven forwarded by a furious churn of motives - including resentment, greed, hatred and, ultimately, fear of justice and revenge.)
A proper study of the phenomenon of farm attacks would have to dissect the relationship (if any) between the criminal and political. The motives of the perpetrators would need to be teased out and analysed, as well as their political histories or lack thereof.
As far as I am aware this has never been convincingly done. Last year, however, the Daily Dispatch published a brilliant piece of investigative journalism into the phenomenon of attacks on Somali immigrants. This provides a fascinating insight into how prejudice, criminality and government indifference can combine with deadly results.
In his investigation Thaduxolo Jika conducted a series of prison interviews with Andile Tunzana - a criminal responsible for the murder of at least four Somali immigrants in the Eastern Cape. Tunzana explained why he had killed as follows: "We knew they had a lot of money in their shops and had no guns to fight back. We shot those who tried to resist and then looked for money. No one cared for them in the township because they are grigambas."
He added: "I did not care much about robbing any other person who looks like me because I know that they might be struggling to survive. The Somalis were just other foreign people with money and no one cared about them."
From Jika's report it is clear that Tunzana's actions were driven by a combination of criminal, opportunistic and racial motives. Somali shopkeepers were targeted not just because they had money to steal (the criminal), but because they were seen as soft and morally acceptable targets. The fact that the local community was indifferent to their fate made it easier to get away with these crimes.
It seems likely that many of the murders of (often old) white farmers by criminals would be driven by a similar combination of motives. Farmers are isolated and vulnerable. They also possess valuable goods (often guns) which makes them worth targeting. For many young criminal psychopaths this is probably reason enough to attack these targets. The key question is though whether farmers are seen as legitimate targets in the same way that Somali shopkeepers were?
It is in this context that the culpability of the ANC needs to be evaluated. At the very best the ruling party is guilty of malign neglect on such crime. Part of the reason why this epidemic has run unchecked for so long is that the ANC has done little to turn farmers from soft targets into hard targets. Indeed, their interventions (such as disbanding the commandos and pushing whites out of the police force) have tended to run in the opposite direction.
It is also difficult to see how Malema's rhetoric could not but provide a kind of moral green light to those thinking about targeting farmers. It is not just the singing of ‘shoot the boer' that is menacing. In an address to a Black Management Forum conference in October 2009 he stated, to the laughter of delegates, "At the negotiations pre-1994, they [the whites] said to us that for them to agree we must accept the willing buyer-willing seller idea. But now we must say we can't buy the land from you because you stole it from us." Is it really a crime, in other words, to take back ‘stolen' property?
The real problem is that Malema did not invent the song, or this propaganda. He is simply articulating - in a crude, reckless and self-destructive way - deep underlying pathologies within the ANC. As he recently noted he's been singing ‘shoot the boer' ever since joining the ANC, aged nine. No-one complained before. So why all the fuss now?