The "brutal farmer" stereotype

Terence Corrigan says in a fractured society such as ours we should be careful how we report and write

Inaccurate reporting on crime harms us all

One of the most important and less salutary lessons that I have learned as a long-term observer of South African society has been just how deeply entrenched stereotypes can become and how they have reverberated throughout our politics. For the most part, we tend to know that this isn’t a good thing. Racist assumptions, after all, were intrinsic to so much of the suffering and wasted potential that dogs the country now. But, in some matters, stereotypes have a disturbing longevity and even legitimacy.

The recent fatal shooting of Aaron Mutavhatsidi, a tractor driver on a farm in Tarlton, Krugersdorp, is a case in point. A tragedy by any measure, the outrage that followed was as justified as it was predictable.

Unfortunately, also predictable was the manner in which the incident was presented to the public by the police and by much of the media. The shooting took place on the 6th of this month, but as this was a Saturday, the story only really gained momentum the following Monday. Initial comments from the police identified the alleged perpetrator as a ‘farmer’. The National Prosecuting Authority, to its credit, attempted to correct this, announcing on Monday afternoon that the suspect was in fact a security official.

Despite this, on Tuesday, numerous media reports – print and online – persisted in identifying the alleged perpetrator as a farmer. Only in Wednesday’s press did the known facts appear to have been reported accurately.

Quite rightly, Agri-SA president Dan Kriek warned of the damage that this sort of distortion could do. As he pointed out, it associated farmers with dreadful pathologies. It also feeds a long-standing stereotype and its associated narrative: that of the brutal, racist Boer and the casual violence with which he dominates his workers.

I first really came into contact with this back in the late 1990s. Newly employed by the SA Institute of Race Relations, I was sent along to a conference put on by the SA Human Rights Commission. We don’t quite do it like that anymore: the big, important line-up of speakers sharing their insights, the expansive guest lists, the multi-day progammes, the lunch buffets that catered for every taste (money being no object in pursuit of a just society). Mostly, though, it was a time of boundless confidence in the capacity of the new order to sweep away the demons of the old.

One of these, I was earnestly informed, was white farmers. Among the conference participants were a clutch of ‘land’ activists. The intensity of their passion was evident to all, and carried with it the zealot’s uncompromising certainty. Farmers were guilty of every manner of crime known to society, and probably a few unknown to it. Murder, torture, rape and theft. It was widespread throughout South Africa’s farming communities, an incestuous web of abuse and complicity.

The implication seemed clear: there was very little place for them in the new society. Indeed, when I suggested – in keeping with the heady atmosphere of the conference – that farmers could lay as much claim on human rights as any other South African, I was emphatically put in my place. ‘As far as I’m concerned, they have no human rights,’ one of their number told me.

Some time later, I found myself looking into the issue of rural crime again. ‘Farm attacks’ had come to loom large in the news, and I felt it would be an interesting and useful contribution to the public conversation to look at crimes committed against farmworkers. For information, I approached a number of NGOs, including the National Land Committee – at that time probably the most prominent voice demanding ‘radical’ agrarian reform, and a robust critic of the farming economy. I asked for any information they might have about crimes and violence committed on farmworkers by farmers or farm managers – statistical information would be preferable, but anything they could offer would be potentially useable.

Most provided no response, and what I was sent was thin and anecdotal – at best a handful of instances, and not all of them categorical evidence of farmers’ guilt. The lists of crimes and victims I had expected did not materialise. Neither, I’m afraid, did my article.

Shortly thereafter, the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) published a study on the conditions of farmworkers in KwaZulu-Natal. Based on first-hand, on-the-ground research, it made for interesting reading. Farmers and farmworkers had a generally satisfactory relationship with one another. Violence and abuse were negligible. The media coverage was nevertheless noteworthy. Former HSF director RW Johnson reflected on this in a Politicsweb article a few years ago:

“Our report also gained a certain amount of publicity on its own, the press fastening on our finding that farmer-farmworker relationships were actually pretty good. This was reported as if it were near-miraculous, despite the fact that it is probably true for most countries in the world. Given that a farmer is all alone on a large expanse of land in the middle of nowhere, it is difficult to see how the business of farming can continue unless he has reached some sort of reasonable modus vivendi with his (far more numerous) farmworkers.”

The survey was widely denounced. Not on firm empirical grounds, but on largely ideological ones: it hadn’t shown the prescribed picture. It was politically flawed (I think this phrase was actually used in one of the critiques), and was therefore unacceptable.

And it was around the same time that South Africa was shaken when in 1998 the resident of a smallholding, Nicholas Steyn, fired a shot to warn off a group of children on his property, killing a baby in the process after the bullet ricocheted. His action was – at a charitable description – reckless and the resulting anger justified, compounded by the less-than-stellar police response. But politicians, activists and journalists repeatedly described him as a farmer (sometimes deploying the moniker ‘farmer Nicholas Steyn’), although he was no such thing. Attempts by agricultural organisations to point this out were not especially effective, and today, a Google search leaves the firm impression that he was a farmer.

All of this spoke volumes. What as at play was not an evidence-based argument, but an ideological narrative, one in which considerable political capital had been invested. The concept of the ‘farmer’ has been deployed as a signifier of depravity and an expression of abuse in the South African countryside. (I wonder if any other occupational group has had the dubious honour of attracting, or being targeted by, a political chant: “Kill the farmer, kill the boer”?) Their supposed propensity for brutality is a commonly vented trope – even when, as in the Tarlton shooting, it is unfounded.

In reality, there is little hard evidence to support this narrative. There are certainly instances in which farmers have behaved criminally. Each one is to be condemned, and each is grist to the mill of the farming community’s detractors. But, by all appearances, these are individuated cases, and hardly constitute a trend. Pathologies will be found within any large, heterogeneous group of people – as is the case for, say, police officers, trade unionists, ministers of religion, or schoolteachers.

And there is a price to be paid for this. In an already angry and violent society, stigmatisation and stereotyping have the potential to ramp up tensions. This is something we cannot afford. To damn all farmers with the crimes of a few is to degrade further the already fragile bonds of trust and respect that are essential to a functioning society.  

Those of us who work with information and communication have a particular responsibility, not to avoid hard issues, but to ensure that they are accurately and factually reflected. We owe it to ourselves and to our wounded society to hold up a mirror (to use an old cliché), and not a doctored photo. Nothing of value is achieved when falsehoods come to dominate our understanding.

But perhaps in that vein, the time has come to acknowledge the need to collect better data on farm-based crime: crimes directed at farmers, crimes directed at farmworkers, crime and violence perpetrated among farm-dwellers, and suffered at the hands of assailants from outside the farm community. This would provide us with actual evidence of the scale and nature of these problems – the first and most necessary step to dealing with them. That is, of course, if we do indeed wish to deal with them.

Meanwhile, in the Tarlton case, the alleged perpetrator is currently facing murder charges, and was granted bail of R10 000 earlier this week. The law must take its course and an appropriate sentence meted out if he is found guilty. Justice, society and the victim’s loved ones deserve no less.

Terence Corrigan is a Policy Fellow at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom