Why the SAIRR is wrong about farm attacks

James Myburgh says available evidence suggests farmers are indeed "uniquely vulnerable"

Over the past fifteen years it has been taken as a given that commercial farmers have subjected to extremely high levels of violent and often murderous attack in South Africa. Many intellectuals and human rights organisations have however been anxious to underplay the import of this problem: The underlying concern apparently being that farmers might end up being regarded as ‘victims' rather than as 'perpetrators'. The line generally taken has been that there is no evidence that these attacks are in any way racially or politically motivated.

However, the question has now been raised whether farm attacks are such a unique problem at all. On Friday the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), a well-respected research organisation, issued a press statement - titled "Farmers not uniquely vulnerable to armed attack" - which claimed that the "number of farm attacks per 100 000 farmers and their families is comparable to the number of criminal attacks per 100 000 people in the general population."

This claim has been widely reported on and could, if left unchallenged, end up being accepted as fact given the pre-existing biases of many in the media. The question needs to be asked: do the Institute's claims hold up to scrutiny?

The SAIRR analysis was based upon farm attack figures compiled by the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU SA). The Institute used this data as the SAPS have not released farm attack figures since the 2006/2007 reporting period.

In 2011 TAU SA counted 85 farm attacks. Based on this figure the Institute calculated that "in 2011 the number of attacks per 100 000 farmers and farmworkers in the formal sector was 16.8. If it is assumed that farmworkers are not targeted and that attacks are aimed at commercial farmers and their families only, the rate of attack was 45.8 per 100 000 (assuming three dependants each)."

The Institute argued that although "It is difficult to benchmark farm attacks against other types of crimes... the rates calculated above are broadly comparable to rates per 100 000 people for other serious crimes among the general population. For example, in 2011 South Africa had a murder rate of 31.9 per 100 000 people. In that year the house robbery rate was 33.4 per 100 000. The total aggravated robbery rate was 203 per 100 000."

On request the Institute provided Politicsweb with the data on which it based its analysis. It reached the 45.8 per 100 000 figure by taking the number of commercial farmers in South Africa (46 400) and quadrupling the figure to 185 600 (on the assumption that each farmer has three dependents). The formula used was (85/185 600)X100 000 = 45.8 farm attacks per 100 000 people.

There are number of obvious flaws in the Institute's methodology.

Firstly, it assumes that the average household size of a commercial farmer is four. This seems unlikely given that the average age of a commercial farmer is, according to Agri SA, 62 years. If one assumed the average household size of a commercial farmer was, for example, 2.6 the "rate of attack" would be 70.5 per hundred thousand (holding the Institute's other assumptions constant).

Secondly, the Institute's analysis effectively assumes that a single individual is victimised in each farm attack. In reality a single farm attack may involve several different crimes (murder, attempted murder, robbery, assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm etc.) and more than one victim.

Thirdly, TAU SA's figures for farm attacks include attacks on smallholdings (which do not necessarily fall under the 46 400 figure) as well as farms. This assumption, unlike the previous two, would tend to inflate the "rate of attack". Offsetting this is the fact that Agri SA estimates that there are actually only 37,000 commercial farmers at present.

Finally, and most importantly, the TAU SA farm attack data is not comprehensive and does not claim to be. TAU SA's data is collected from press reports and informal reporting networks. Their data on farm murders is pretty solid but there is significant under-counting of farm attacks. This can be seen by comparing TAU's SA's figures with those of the SAPS before the latter stopped publishing their data. See Graph 1 below.

Note: SAPS data from April to March the following year. TAU SA's (via the SAIRR) from January to December.

In 2006/2007 the SAPS recorded 794 farm attacks as opposed to the 81 TAU SA recorded in 2006. It is unlikely that this level of under-counting has changed over the past few years. This can be illustrated by comparing TAU SA's figures for farm attacks in KwaZulu-Natal with those collected by the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu). In 2011 TAU SA recorded 3 farm attacks in the province, Kwanalu 36. See Graph 2.

Sources: TAU SA figures (via the SAIRR); Koos Marais, KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union

All this goes to show that the Institute's conclusions are based on incomplete data and some dubious assumptions, and they should not be regarded as reliable. The question raised by the Institute remains however: Are farmers less or more vulnerable to armed attack than other South Africans?

One alternative approach is to compare the farmer murder rate with the national murder rate. Drawing on TAU SA's more complete statistics on confirmed farm murders Johan Burger of the Institute of Security Studies wrote that of the 50 victims in 2011 32 were farmers, 14 were direct family, three were workers and one was a visitor. He noted: "According to Statistics South Africa's Census of Commercial Agriculture, there were 32,375 farmers (i.e. people farming either full-time or part-time) in South Africa in 2007. Therefore, the murder of 32 farmers (exclusive of their families and workers) in 2011 provides a ratio of 98.9 killings per 100,000." This is three times the national murder rate.

One problem with this comparison is that most murders fall under the category of 'social fabric crimes' i.e. cases where someone is stabbed by an associate in a drunken brawl or a man beats his wife to death in a rage. A like-for-like comparison would be between the rate of farmer murders with the national rate of South Africans killed during robberies and other such crimes. In their report on the 2011/2012 crime statistics the SAPS state that 16% of murders are committed during the commissioning of other crimes. A back of the envelope calculation puts the national rate for this kind of murder then at just under 5 killings per 100 000 people.

An alternative approach to answering the question raised by the Institute would be to compare the rate of farm attacks (per 100 000 farms) with the rate of house robberies (per 100 000 households) using official SAPS data for both. The advantage of this approach is that it limits the assumptions that have to be made; uses data from the same source (the SAPS); and compares like-with-like.

There is however a limited period during which this comparison is possible. The SAPS only started collecting and publishing house robbery data in 2002/2003, and they stopped publishing "farm attack" data in 2007.

A further problem is that the headline SAPS data on farm attacks includes attacks on smallholdings. The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks (July 2003) did however publish a breakdown of SAPS figures for 2001 which differentiated between attacks on farms and attacks on small holdings. See below.

Source: The Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Farm Attacks, July 2003

It is thus possible to compare the rate of farm attacks in 2001 at least with the rate of house robberies in 2002/2003. See the Table 2.

Table 2: Comparison of rate of household robberies (2002/2003) with rate of farm attacks by province (2001):


Households 2002 ‘000

House robberies 2002/03

House robberies per 100 000 households



Farm attacks


Attacks per 100 000 farms

Rate of farm attacks 2001/ Rate of house robberies 2002/3


2 683








2 073















E Cape

1 484







W Cape

1 166







N Cape








N West









1 081
















11 015







Note: These farm attack figures exclude attacks on smallholdings

On average then a farm was over fifteen times more likely to be attacked in 2001 than a household was likely to be robbed in 2002/2003. This however obscures wide variations by province. The lowest ratio of the rate of farm attacks to the rate of house robberies was in Gauteng (4.7/1) and the highest in Mpumalanga (111.4/1). The ratios in many provinces were probably, in reality, even greater given that many of those farm attack incidents (on farms and small holdings) would also have been counted as house robberies in the SAPS figures.

I do not have the breakdown for the figures for attacks on farms versus smallholdings for subsequent years. However, assuming that the proportions remained constant the rate of farm attacks compared to the rate of house robberies (per 100 000 units) would be as follows:

Assumption: 60% of recorded "farm attacks" are attacks on farms (not small holdings)

According to these estimates then the "rate of attack" on farms in South Africa has been over ten times the "rate of attack" on households. In the more rural provinces this ratio would be considerably greater. It is unlikely that this ratio has narrowed too much over the past five years. This can be seen by analysing the "rate of attack" in KwaZulu-Natal using the Kwanulu data referenced above. See Graph below.

The data collected by Kwanalu on attacks and murders on commercial farms in the province is all confirmed. However, it is a minimum not a maximum figure. It suggests however that the "rate of attack" on farms in the province was, at least, around seven times higher than the rate of attack on households in the province.

In conclusion then, the Institute based its analysis on some questionable assumptions and - more critically - highly incomplete data on the number of farm attacks. Simply correcting for the latter would effectively debunk the conclusions of its analysis. As the SAPS no longer publish data on farm attacks it is not possible to do a proper comparison between the rate of farm attacks and the rate of household robberies in 2011. It is clear however from both the historic data and the limited current data that farmers have been, and still are, uniquely vulnerable to armed and often murderous attack.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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