Farm murders: TAU SA's analysis

In submission to SAHRC hearings Chris van Zyl says violence used is often massively disproportional to alleged "motive" of attack



Violent crimes against farm dwellers, and in particular such crimes committed against farmers and their families, is a relative recent phenomena since unionisation in 1910. Prior to 1986, very little recorded evidence of noteworthy occurrence of violent crimes on farms and agricultural smallholdings exists. The prominence thereof, is obvious since the middle eighties and continues to this day.

The content of this submission is based on the following:

Professional experiences as a SADF / SANDF member 1966 - 2002. The following appointments in particular demanded a direct involvement in Rural Safety:

Senior Staff Officer Command Communication, Eastern Transvaal Command, 1 January 1987 - 31 December 1992.

General officer Commanding Western Province Command, 1 February 1997 - 18 November 1999, General Officer Commanding Regional Joint Task Force West, 20 November 1999 - 31 July 2003. In both the capacities the undersigned acted first as co-chairperson of the Western Cape Provincial Operational Coordinating Committee and for the latter part as GOC RJTF West, not only as co-chairperson for the Western Cape POCOC, but also for the Northern Cape POCOC.

Experience as senior management member of TAU SA, specialising in Rural Safety, August 2003 to date. In this capacity the undersigned represented TAU SA on the National Priority Committee for Rural Safety.

Aim. This submission aims to highlight violent crimes against farm dwellers, also referred to as "Farm Attacks" and to offer evidence which will illuminate the development thereof to the present day.


The occurrence of violent crime against farm dwellers rose to levels causing concern in the latter half of the eighties. At that stage the liberation struggle in the Republic of South Africa well within the country's borders, followed a pattern similar to what was experienced in the erstwhile Rhodesia and SWA / Namibia where very little, if any, distinction between military targets and so-called "soft targets" was made.

Whereas attacks by insurgents armed with small arms occurred, the indiscriminate use of land mines on dirt roads frequented by farmers also became evident claiming the lives of innocent farm workers. In fact, the first victim who died as a result of a land mine explosion, was Jas Balie (25), a black tractor driver who was killed on 27 November 1985, one day after the first landmine exploded in South Africa on 26 November 1985 during which Edward Meluba who was a passenger in the vehicle, died a few days later.

In tracing evidential indicators as to what triggered and elevated farmers to the level where they were regarded as legitimate targets, two specific broadcasts by Radio Freedom dated respectively 26 February 1986 and 28 October 1986 were traced. These stated:

"Umkhonto we Sizwe is a revolutionary army and it is not about to embark on mayhem against whites, civilians, against children, but we are going to step up our attacks against enemy personnel. We are referring to the members of the police forces, to the members of the SADF, to those in the administration terrorising and harassing our people, to those farmers and other people who are part of the defence force of our country, of the military, para-military and reserves."

"........ farmers were not simply being targeted for their involvement in SADF structures but for racial and ideological reasons as well".

(James Myburgh, Politics web, 20 September 2011)


The unabated and escalating violence against farm dwellers continued beyond 1994 and available statistics indicate that there was a steady increase in both attacks and fatalities.  This unacceptable state of affairs resulted in an urgent request by the then South African Agricultural Union in 1997 that government should address the situation as a matter of urgency.

In October 1997, a comprehensive Rural Safety Strategy was jointly produced by the SA Police Service and the SA National Defence Force. This strategy utilised the resources of both departments, supported by the capabilities and capacities of other stake holders which were jointly integrated in joint operational structures which were responsible for the planning and execution of operations. The capacity available in the Commando system of the SANDF, augmented by SAPS resources, was primarily utilised to create a nation-wide presence in rural areas. The mere fact that Commando members were predominantly local residents who knew the area and who served on a voluntary basis without expecting compensation, was a huge advantage.

The late President Mandela convened a national summit in October 1998 during which the issue of rural safety in general, but the occurrence of violent crimes against farm dwellers in particular, was discussed. This impetus impacted positively on the execution of the Rural Safety Strategy which was already in operation and resulted in the refinement of the system.

In the period immediately following the summit, it became apparent that the continuation of the problem necessitated the establishment of a National Priority Committee for Rural Safety. Both the SAPS and the SANDF were represented on this committee by senior officials whilst organised agriculture was also co-opted and thereafter regularly attended Priority Committee meetings.

In April 2001, President Mbeki appointed a Committee of Inquiry, chaired by Advocate C.F. du Plessis and consisting of seven academics and researchers, to investigate farm attacks. Before the report was made public on 31 July 2003, President Mbeki announced the closing down of the Commandos on 14 February 2003.

The President's announcement indicated furthermore that a new SAPS Sector Policing system would seamlessly be introduced to ensure the continuation of service delivery. Much emphasis was placed on the recruitment of sufficient reservists to replace the loss of human resources which was previously available from the ranks of the Commandos.

The findings of the Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks were made public on 31 July 2003.

As a result of President Mbeki's announcement, the military withdrew in a phased process from the internal security situation and in time the SAPS also took over the border protection duties of the SANDF. Whereas the Sector Policing system was well designed and implemented in an increasing number of metropolitan, peri-urban- and rural areas, to date the effective implementation thereof in agricultural areas leaves much to be desired.

During this process, valuable know-how and experience was lost with the disbandment of the commando system, as these persons in general did not continue serving under the SAPS command system by becoming reservists, due to the procedural requirements to be integrated into the SAPS. Very little progress was made with the recruitment of reservists which gradually led to a loss of interest.


The proliferation of information (much thereof unsubstantiated) especially in social media reflected a wide variety of interpretations of exactly what constitutes a "farm attack". For the purposes of this submission, the definition as utilised by the 2001 Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks, as well as the updated definition approved by the National priority Committee on Rural Safety is utilised for statistical purposes.

The 2001 definition is:

"Attacks on farms and smallholdings refer to acts aimed at the person of residents, workers and visitors to farms and smallholdings, whether with the intent to murder, rape, rob or inflict bodily harm. In addition, all actions aimed at disrupting farming activities as a commercial concern, whether for motives related to ideology, labour disputes, land issues, revenge, grievances, racist concerns or intimidation, should be included. Cases related to domestic violence, drunkenness, or resulting from commonplace social interaction between people are excluded from this definition"

The later definition is:

"Acts of violence against farms and smallholdings are those acts aimed at any person or persons living on, working at or visiting farms or smallholdings with the intent to either murder, rape, rob or otherwise inflict bodily harm or to intimidate.

For statistical purposes the following crimes are listed as specific acts which constitute violence against farms and smallholdings:

Direct acts against the person / victim(s)


Attempted murder


Assault GBH


Armed robbery (including vehicle hijackings)

Indirect acts



Malicious damage to property

The monitoring of these acts of violence resulted from discussions between Government and Organised Agriculture and the recognition by Government that this type of violence poses a specific crime threat which requires specific attention.

Cases related to domestic violence, drunkenness or commonplace social interaction between people on farms and smallholdings are excluded from this definition. (Such cases have to be attended to by the police as part of normal policing)

It is important to determine as accurately as possible the motive behind these acts of violence.  Special attention should be paid to determine whether those are aimed at disrupting the commercial activities on a farm or smallholding for purposes related to political, ideological or racist considerations, or whether labour and land disputes, revenge or any other reason are involved.

Note: In the absence of formal definitions of what constitutes a "farm" and what a "smallholding", the  so-called Thursday Committee (a sub-committee of the Priority Committee  on Rural Safety which meets on Thursdays to evaluate all reports of violence against farms and smallholdings) is totally dependent on the information provided by the Provincial, area and station offices to determine whether the premises on which an act was perpetrated are to be classified as either a farm or a smallholding.  This distinction is also necessary for the separation of statistics pertaining to acts of violence against farms and smallholdings."

These definitions are applied as the standard to determine what qualifies as a ‘farm attack" as reflected within the TAU SA data base and what is to be excluded.


The TAU SA data base was established after statistics specifically pertaining to farm attacks in the SAPS National Commissioner's annual report, was omitted in 2006 / 2007 and thereafter. TAU SA is dependent on the reports from its structures in the various provinces, media reports as well as other data bases in the social media to compile its own statistics. The publication of the book "Land of Sorrows" in 2011 was also jointly utilised by TAU SA and Solidarity to invite the public to report cases of farm attacks not reflected in the publication.

New cases of confirmed incidents were included in a second edition published in 2012. Whilst it is acknowledged that not all cases of violent crimes on farms are included, the cases reflected therein represent a conservative confirmed record of crimes meeting the definition and subsequently confirmed. It is also submitted that the number of non-fatal attacks in particular, should be regarded as extremely conservative because not all cases of attempted murder, assault to do grievous bodily harm, rape and common assault are reported in the media unless the injuries were considered to be extremely serious or the victim was a well-known personality.

A total of 1734 murders and 3341 attacks since January 1990 to 15 September 2014 are reflected in the TAU SA data base. It should also be noted that after a peak in reported murders during 2004 (115) the situation has stabilised at a still-unacceptable level of an average of 62 murders annually.

The statistical record for Farm Attacks from January 1990 to 15 September 2014 is reflected in Appendix A.


The requirement to determine the status and occupation of victims led TAU SA to undertake an analysis of those murdered. Considering the apparent perception that TAU SA is primarily interested in the lot of victims from European (white) origin, the broad classification of "race" was included to enable a proper interpretation of the results.

The analysis of murdered victims is reflected in Appendix B.

Based on this analysis and other available statistics, Dr Johan Burger from the Institute for Security Studies concluded the following comparative ratios based on the universal practice to base such ratios on the 100,000 base line for 2012 / 2013:

National murder average in the general population  31,1

SAPS members murdered: 54,0

Farmers murdered: 132,8


Based on the available statistics, the priority target areas are the following:

 Gauteng Province - Murders 382 / Attacks 698 / Total 1080

 Mpumalanga Province - Murders 239 / Attacks 646 / Total 885

Northwest Province - Murders 251 / Attacks 573 / Total 824

Limpopo - Murders 184 / Attacks 391 / Total 575

It is equally noticeable that in comparison the high levels of violent crime on farms and agricultural smallholdings in the Northern provinces, the situation in the Western- and Northern Cape Provinces is comparatively less violent.

It is equally noticeable that in the targeted provinces, a comparison between the occurrences of farm attacks over a three year period reflects a pattern which may indicate that as wide a geographical area as possible is evidently covered in order to deliberately create a perception within the farming community that a much bigger target area is threatened. An example of this is reflected in a map plot of Gauteng Province indicating the incidents (attacks and murders) of the last three years in Appendix C.

It is equally noticeable that farming areas where an effective safety- and security capability exists either in the form of a security company or a farm watch, are avoided by criminals and the prevalence of violent crime is noticeably lower compared to other areas.


A number of other crimes committed on farms and agricultural small holdings relevant to the current situation are vastly underreported primarily because such complaints are not regarded as serious by the SAPS. These include the following:

Arson (even though it is included in the current definition and causes extremely serious and wide-spread danger to life and damage to livestock, crops and property)

Malicious Damage to Property


Illegal hunting.

Stray dogs.

The fact that these issues, which could be underlying causes for conflict which may result in more serious consequences, are often either ignored, rejected or underestimated by the authorities (including the police) as to the damage which could be caused by unanticipated outcomes. It has repeatedly been stated that the inhuman or harsh treatment of farm workers could well be the cause of retribution against the farmer. This motive has not been validated and therefore demands due consideration and correction.


"What is your experience in relation to violence committed against farm owners as well as against farm workers?"

The TAU SA analysis of its data base confirms that irrespective of race in comparison to farmers, far less farm workers are victims of violent crimes. What also needs to be recorded is the abnormal high level of brutality during attacks, which is a major concern.

In a significant number instances, the perpetrator is known to the victim.

Repeated accusations in the past forthcoming from ministerial level as well as from state departments, made mention of a variety of crimes ranging from murder to illegal evictions committed against farm workers. Despite repeated efforts to substantiate such accusations, very little factual confirmation was forthcoming. Isolated cases are highlighted to deliberately create the perception that such practices are widespread.

"Would you estimate that a large number of violent incidents are racially motivated, or criminally motivated, or both?"

Very little, if any, evidence exists of whites being the perpetrators of farm attacks. In the same breath, the vast majority of victims are white whilst the overwhelming number of those committing the crimes are black. The obvious racial composition of the two groups conveys a message in itself which leaves very little space for other arguments other than in the case of farm attacks that racial bias (which could be interpreted as hatred) is prevalent. This is furthermore supported by reported racist utterances by the criminals addressing their victims as "white pig", "white bitch" and "dog", etc.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that in the Summary of the Report, the Committee of Inquiry found that the degree of violence and cruelty present during farm attacks was exceedingly high and most state advocates attributed this extreme violence to racial hatred. There is no recent evidence contradicting this finding. (Page 428)

The level of physical abuse (including confirmed cases of deliberate torture) counters the popular statement that the motive for the crime is common assault, robbery or theft. In most cases, there is little resemblance of an acceptable relationship between the level of violence used against the victims and the superficial motive for the crime. A formal request to the National Priority Committee on Rural Safety to include the possibility of "muti" or the role of "traditional healers" (which played a role in the Marikana incident) in the investigation of serious violent crime produced no results other than an uncomfortable silence after the request was tabled.

 A case in point is the recent murder of Mr and Mrs Lens of the farm Elim in the Groenvlei district. Both unarmed victims were killed "execution style" by being shot in the back of the head at close range. A summarised report of the incident (Groenvlei CAS 2/09/2014) is attached as Appendix D. What is disturbing, is the fact that the late Mr Lens formally reported a threat by a farm dweller to kill him during an earlier altercation to the police but no action whatsoever was taken. (Should it be required, an affidavit of an eye witness on the scene shortly after the crime was committed, can be obtained and submitted.) Similar detail is available in the book "Land of Sorrows" - a copy of which could be provided on request.

It cannot be argued that the perceived motives for violent crimes on farms and smallholdings are not related to the robbery / theft of firearms, cash or other valuables, but irrespective of the application of the 2011 Rural Safety Strategy and the (theoretical) priority thereof, little seems to have changed and the level of brutal assault and murder remains at the post 2004 average. At the same time, the number of farmers is declining.

The extreme level of unemployment causes the unemployed to regard the farm dweller as an easy target due to remoteness and distance from immediate support in the case of being attacked.

The comment begs to be made that during the duration of the 2010 Soccer World Cup a dramatic drop in violent crimes on farms and smallholdings were recorded and not a single murder took place during the six week period before and after the event. No sooner had the last foreign visitors left, when the familiar pattern of farm attacks resumed.

"What is your experience relating to living conditions and labour practices employed on farms?"

Within the ranks of organised agriculture, the conformation with legal requirements pertaining to labour and providing proper housing, is generally accepted and applied. A recent statement by the Department of Labour confirmed that the vast majority of commercial farmers comply with the letter of the law.

It should be borne in mind that no standard exists to define "proper housing" on farms. Such structures are constructed at the cost to the farmer. In this regard the cumulative implications of ESTA, and the fact that many farm dwellers are in fact no longer in the employ of the farmer, but remain entitled to the houses which were occupied during their service. Additional houses therefore require to be constructed when new workers are employed.

The agricultural sector is currently the only sector of the national economy where continued security of tenure is legally enforced. Not only does this create strained relations between the landowner and people not in his employ, but it gradually erodes the property to which he is entitled.

Compared to other job seekers and employees, farm workers are far better off than many people doomed to a sub-standard RDP house far removed from the workplace which in itself creates additional expenditure in the form of transport costs.

"In your experience, do private security firms adhere to constitutional principles in effecting their mandate?"

With the exception of large commercial agricultural enterprises who can afford the services of security companies, the vast majority of farmers in rural areas are unable to do so. This is primarily due to the fact that the time and distance factor in outlying areas in relation to the potential number of clients considerably adds to the cost of service when compared to the same in high density urban areas. This situation is exacerbated due to the significant number of absent- and part-time farmers who have little concern for the safety and well-being of the wider community within which their properties are located.

There are however a number of companies active in providing safety and security services to the farming community. Such enterprises are legally bound to be accredited to PSIRA and as such subject to regular inspections and control measures. In this regard they have no option than to be legally compliant.

"In your experience, has the service delivery offered by the South African Police Service improved since the last hearing was held by the Commission in 2008?"

Based on the continued levels of violent crime as reflected in the database of TAU SA, the nett effect of service delivery has not improved. In this regard the question whether SAPS members at station level realise that violent crimes on farms (irrespective of who the victims might be) should be treated as a priority, could well be raised. Too many reports are forthcoming of SAPS members either being unwilling to register complaints or to respond to such complaints within an acceptable time and manner.

Furthermore it seems as if too many priority crimes (rural safety, rhino poaching, precious metals, non-ferrous metals, ATM bombings, cash in transit, elections, etc.) and insufficient resources to address the challenges and obligations result in no priority being treated like a priority.

Delays experienced with the SAPS Reservist Policy contributed to the creation of a void which had a detrimental effect on rural safety (and probably on other areas of policing as well). The lack of funds results in a shortage of critical equipment such as firearms, radios, bullet proof vests, handcuffs, torches, etc. as well as functional training in disciplines required within the rural safety environment. The latter applies in particular to the protection of crime scenes before forensic evidence has been collected.

A major communication challenge exists between farmers and SAPS members unable to communicate effectively and clearly (especially in emergencies) with each other when they are both used to mother tongues not understood by the other. The assumption that all are fluent in a common language is removed from reality. No progress in this regard has been made.

Rather than regarding Farm Watches as beneficial to the maintenance of law and order, especially as far as farm safety is concerned, there is a perceived and unnecessary suspicion amongst some officials which prevents co-operation, creates friction and thus neutralises efficiency.

A belief exists within the farming community that pre-emptive action based on crime intelligence, which could have prevented murder and serious injury, does not exist, irrespective of the community's willingness to report situations which could escalate to violent crime. In fact, it is seriously questioned whether the police are capable of generating timely intelligence aimed at crime prevention in all aspects related to crime on farms.

The original focus of prioritising and preventing farm attacks was lost within the wider spectrum of "rural crime" occurring within the bigger rural community and which could include many transgressions of the law not specifically contained in the initial and subsequent definition of a "farm attack". Resources, already unable to cope with policing the rural area at large is therefore further watered down having to attend to social crimes which are not regarded as having "priority" status.

The distance from the nearest SAPS station in rural areas to the scene of the incident, is generally significant and is a major constraint to react to a reported incidence. Furthermore, poor maintenance of gravel roads, affects the time to respond as well as availability of serviceable vehicles.

"What strategies could be implemented to improve the effectiveness of rural safety plans and overall sector policing strategies?"

Clear and unambiguous political condemnation of farm attacks by the President and cabinet ministers, in the same vein as similar condemnations of SAPS members murdered in the execution of their duties is urgently and consistently required. Their obvious silence in this regard could be interpreted as non-verbal approval thereof thus resulting in a continuation of murder and mutilation. In the minds of some, the 1986 declaration of farmers as "legitimate targets" may still be in force.

The protection of isolated and vulnerable farmers and farm dwellers and the rural economy in general should be regarded as a national- and strategic imperative to ensure food security.

In essence the recognition of farm related violent crimes and the application of deliberate actions as contained in the Rural Safety Strategy will go a long way to improve the current situation.

The current situation could be improved by the following additional considerations:

Redefining the issue of "Rural Safety" to ensure alignment with the original intention of focussing on farm attacks and agriculture-related crime.

Ensuring that sufficient resources (both of the human and logistical kind) are allocated to servicing the core of the priority.

A higher degree of sensitivity regarding the "land issue" which is causing tremendous uncertainty in certain quarters is required. Irrespective of formal policy developments, ideological utterances from political and extra-parliamentary groups which implies totally unacceptable repercussions perceptually based on restitution, security of tenure, etc. could create an explosive situation should land- and farm occupations and threats against legal land- and property owners materialise in the absence of statutory protection of law-abiding citizens.

The introduction of a decentralised crime intelligence capability to service and support the Rural Crime functionaries.

Closer cooperation between the SAPS, security companies, organised agriculture and farm watches.

Greater emphasis on the combatting of so-called less serious crimes such as arson, malicious damage to property, trespassing and illegal hunting whilst at the same time being supportive of landowners protecting their property and livelihood against these crimes.

The necessity to rely on security measures specifically catering for isolated and vulnerable people beyond the rapid response of the nearest police presence, require due consideration of the possibility to subsidise the acquisitioning of related alarm- and security systems as well as appropriate firearms suitable for self-defence against criminals often armed with semi-automatic weapons.

Whilst this input is provided from an agriculture perspective, the need for public policing of both formal- and informal settlements in rural areas should also be emphasised. In many cases criminally orientated and unemployed persons create a potential criminal presence which could spill over to farms and agricultural holdings.

Increased visibility of crime prevention authorities through all hours of the day. This necessitates that arrangements and structures to be in place to allow local inhabitants to participate in these actions thus enhancing capacity.

At national level, government needs to ensure policies are in place to allow society, which includes the agricultural sector, to flourish economically thus creating an environment for increased employment.


The silence of official sources of public standing and the half-hearted implementation of the Rural Safety Strategy reinforces the perception within the farming community that they continue to be regarded as "legitimate targets" undeserving of due consideration and proper protection. In doing so, the "Us" and "Them" attitude resulting from the liberation struggle is still prevalent. Not a single denouncement from a national ministerial level can be recalled. Surely, 20 years down the line after the 1994 watershed, the critically important role of the farming community in the South African economy deserves unqualified support.

The question may well be posed - If we accept that the 2003 Report on this matter, augmented by the 2008 Progress Report made sufficient provision for the combatting of farm attacks, and had the 2003 Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks been properly implemented, how many lives and suffering might have been saved? What we fail to address, we fail to solve and improve.



Issued by TAU SA, September 16 2014

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