How legitimate are white fears?

Lucy Holborn says feelings of persecution by some Afrikaners not supported by the facts

The truth behind white fear is not black and white

Reports of a white South African farming family seeking asylum in the US have once again sparked debate about crime against white South Africans. According to one report this family is not alone, and among many applications to a number of developed countries, 129 South Africans have already been granted asylum status in the US alone (see here).

Afriforum has described the situation on farms as a ‘crisis that has left many with no alternative'. Others would dismiss this reportedly growing trend as the result of paranoid (and racist) whites wanting to leave because they want no part in a black-governed South Africa. The truth is not as clear cut as either would have us believe.

We should not dismiss so-called ‘white fear' simply because we think it has racist roots. The feelings farmers have may be very real. Put yourself in the shoes of a white farmer on an isolated farm that has been the victim of a number of crimes. As is the case with many crimes in South Africa, the police fail to catch the criminals involved.

At the same time a number of groups are making you feel victimised. There are statements by Julius Malema and others about shooting white farmers and white land being expropriated. Add to that the voices from the right, telling you that this is part of organised discrimination (or genocide, as some would have it) against white Afrikaners, and you might start to believe that your life is at risk and you should leave the country.

The feelings and perceptions of white South Africans leaving because of fear and supposed discrimination might be real, but whether those perceptions are supported by fact is an important question.

There is no evidence to suggest that farm attacks, or crime with white victims in general, is motivated by race. In fact, there is research to suggest quite the opposite. Data compiled by Agri SA and the police and published by the Institute in 2003 found that 89% of farm attacks were motivated by robbery, while only 2% were motivated by race. This data is admittedly now relatively old (and the police no longer collect such data), but there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that this pattern has changed dramatically.

Afrikaner groups might argue that the song ‘Shoot the Boer' and other inflammatory statements by politicians have worsened the situation, but Afriforum themselves admitted during the ‘Shoot the Boer' court case that they were not claiming that there was a direct link between farm killings and the song, but simply that it was ‘offensive and hurtful' to Afrikaners and therefore constituted hate speech.

It is true that the ANC betrayed its claimed non-racialism by lending its support to a song which was quite clearly offensive and inappropriate in post-apartheid South Africa, but this does not provide evidence, as some would claim, of organised discrimination (and extermination) of the Afrikaans minority by the ruling party.

Groups such as Afriforum have argued that the way the police and other authorities have dealt with (or failed to deal with) farm attacks is evidence of, at worst participation in, and at best tacit approval of, the targeting of white Afrikaners. This would be true only if the handling of cases involving white victims was different to the rest of cases dealt with by the police.

Once again the evidence shows that this is not the case. South Africans of all races and backgrounds share in the experience of a police force that is sadly often unable or ill-equipped to effectively solve crime and convict criminals. Only 5% of so-called trio crimes reported (carjackings, and business and house robberies) result in convictions.

These are crimes that probably occur predominantly in middle-class areas where arguably the most resources (both public and private) are directed to fighting crime, suggesting that areas where resources may be more stretched, including rural communities, but also including poorer urban areas such as townships and informal settlements, may have even lower conviction rates for some crimes.

Admittedly the disbanding of the commando units has not helped rural security, but many other specialised units have also been disbanded to the detriment of crime fighting across the country. Put simply, Afrikaner farmers are not the sole victims of our often ineffective criminal justice system. It seems not to have occurred to those fleeing in fear of crime that their fear is shared by a great many other South Africans, white and black. The only difference, perhaps, is that those leaving are fortunate enough to have the means to leave if they choose to do so.

One response to this argument might be that the sort of crime members of the white community are victims of is unique in its brutality and violence, and that that is evidence of a racial motive. It is true that many of the farm attacks reported in the media are particularly violent in nature, often involving murder, a fact that could suggest more than a simple motive of robbery. But once again this chooses to ignore the experiences of other South Africans.

Every day there are 44 murders, 278 aggravated robberies, and 544 assaults reported to the police. The majority of these violent crimes are not happening on farms, and the majority of the victims of these crimes are probably black because of the racial profile of our population (although the police no longer record the race of victims). Our society is a violent one. Strikes are characterised by violence, so-called service delivery protests are violent, xenophobia manifests itself in violence, and political rivalry sometimes ends in violence. The fact that farm attacks are often violent is part of this norm, not the exception.

The final claim made by those seeking asylum on grounds of discrimination is that policies and legislation such as affirmative action and black economic empowerment are an attempt to exclude whites from the economy. While the claim that such policies are racially discriminative may hold ground - there are both moral and practical arguments against using race on its own as a measure of disadvantage - the facts show that whites are actually doing quite well.

The matric pass rate was 79% for whites compared with 63% for African pupils in 2010; 59% of 20-24 year-old whites are enrolled in higher education compared with just 14% of Africans in the same age group; the unemployment rate among whites is 6% compared with 29% among Africans; white per capita income is seven times higher than that of Africans; 71% of whites are covered by medical aid compared with only 10% of Africans; and 65% of the highest living standards group (LSM 10) are white compared with 19% African. These gaps are slowly narrowing, but the data paints a picture of a white population with still many more opportunities and advantages than the vast majority of their black compatriots.

We cannot wish away white fear, since it exists and is real, but equally those claiming to represent white Afrikaners cannot legitimately maintain that whites are the victims of a campaign of organised racial attacks or that they are worse off. To do so only heightens that fear and can damage race relations in rural communities.

Lucy Holborn is research manager at the South African Institute of Race Relations

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