Farm murder blindness

Marie-Louise Antoni says Africa Check & Co. seem determined to downplay a horrific problem


In a country riven by crime and all shades of corruption, it is hard to believe some communities’ efforts to stand up for themselves would be discounted. What is certain is that no non-violent campaign has been subjected to the level of scrutiny, or even outright contempt, as that against farm murders.

Cases that can only be described as slaughter barely make the news. When they do, we stare numb and dumb at our screens and waggle fingers at the “right-wing”, which today includes any middle-of-the-road sort of people with whom we disagree. Incidents of white on black violence, or even verbal abuse and insult, are however immediately assumed to be racially motivated, with ensuing media coverage that runs on repeat.

At the end of last year, the Black Monday protests drew attention to this under-reported issue, but specious claims continue to be made about the reliability of farm murder statistics. Some insist the figures have been released by conservative types in bad faith and dishonestly. They are derided as the fabricated imaginings of genocide conspiracy theorists. And perhaps most appallingly – if we were to follow this thought to its logical conclusion – is that if the issue exists at all it is because farmers treat their workers poorly.

None of these arguments hold water, but sometimes stories are told so relentlessly we start to believe them. By slow-drip of repetition, these ideas begin to crystallise. It does not matter if these stories are right or just or true. What matters is they feel right, and so they begin to be told to the exclusion of all others.


Calculating accurate farm murder or attack rates is indeed complicated, but establishing trends is certainly not impossible. Part of the problem with doing any meaningful work on the issue is that statistics are extraordinarily hard to come by. It leaves one questioning the will of government to do anything about the problem at all.

It wasn’t always this way. Farm murders were declared a national security priority under President Nelson Mandela in 1997. At the time government not only acknowledged the problem, but also its severity. Joint task teams, a committee of inquiry, and rural protection plans – including the effective ‘commando’ system – were set up between the South African Police Service (SAPS), the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and agricultural organisations.

And so between 2001 and 2007 – an era when the SAPS still included farm attack and murder statistics in their annual reports – farm attacks fell by nearly 40%. But then in 2007, President Thabo Mbeki suddenly announced the disbandment of the commando system. He promised it would be replaced by a new system run by the SAPS, but more than a decade later this has still not happened.

The year of the announcement, farm attacks soared by around 25%. The minister of police’s response was to declare that these statistics would no longer be released. Only recently – and after considerable pressure – have the SAPS started disclosing these figures again. Experts however say that most of the data is used for operational purposes, and mostly still kept under wraps. 

On Genocide conspiracy theorists and farmworker abusers

Painting those concerned about farm murders as “white genocide” conspiracy theorists is an old trick. But the only people still peddling this story – at least with any real power to sway the debate – are politicians and media commentators who like to chip away at the credibility of an otherwise serious issue.

In 2003, the aforementioned committee of inquiry looked at more than three and a half thousand case dockets to determine whether there was a political motive behind these attacks. It found that in by far the majority of cases – nearly 90% – the main discernible motive was robbery. It is of course evident that after so many years, and with the current political climate, it would be time for new studies in this regard.

What is interesting to note however is that labour-related disputes accounted for only 1.6%, while political or racial motivations accounted for slightly more at 2%. The difference is so negligible it’s almost not worth mentioning – except of course that it is. It puts paid to the notion that farmers are being murdered because they treat their workers poorly, despite what government or opposition parties would have you believe.

Dr Johan Burger, formerly from the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) and oft-cited crime expert on this subject, told Politicsweb he remains convinced that by far the majority of farm attacks are motivated by criminal intent. He calls the debate about white genocide “only a distraction”, but believes political rhetoric and threats may “increasingly either lead to farm attacks, or be used to justify farm attacks”.

This sentiment is echoed by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). In November 2017, CEO Frans Cronje on News24 dismissed the idea of white genocide and said the organisation knows of “no formal strategy to terrorise farmers”. He however added that “a climate has indirectly been shaped in which terror-style attacks should be expected to occur”.

“Political rhetoric describing farmers as thieves, murderers, and rapists who should be removed from their farms, in an already violent and angry society, contributed to a situation where farmers are more, rather than less, likely to be attacked and killed,” he said.

The vulnerability of farmers to attack

One of the three most feared crimes in South Africa – sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘home invasion’ – is house robbery. Along with hijacking and business robbery, it forms part of what the SAPS call “trio” crimes.

Farm attacks are, for the most part, robberies which take place at residential premises (house robberies). When these attacks occur, the main motivation is usually robbery, but during their commission, other violent crimes – such as murder, assault or rape – often take place.

In October 2012, Politicsweb editor James Myburgh wrote an insightful piece on the subject. He explored the “rates of attack” on farms compared to other households and was able to demonstrate how vulnerable to attack South Africa’s farmers are.  

His research was extensive and the article should be read on its own for an in-depth perspective. He however found that, depending on the various reporting periods, farms were sometimes up to ten or fifteen times more likely to be attacked than other households.

His calculations ran up to 2012, but his findings are still relevant in more recent years. Take for instance the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (Kwanalu) collects data, in commercial farming areas alone, with the necessary variables to do these calculations. See below:


No. of households[1]

No. of robberies at residential premises[2]

Rate of attack

No. of farming units[3]

No. of farm murders[4]

No. of farm attacks[5]

Rate of attack


2 583 000








2 663 000








2 747 000








2 876 000







At first glance it would appear the number of farm attacks in the province are so small as to be comparatively inconsequential. But to understand the gravity of the problem one needs to account for population size, which is why crime statistics are expressed as rates per 100 000.

The formula for working out this rate is as follows:

Rate = (no. of attacks or murders/population) x 100 000.

By doing this calculation it is possible to show that farms are still up to eight (2013) and nearly nine (2015) times more likely to be attacked than other households.

Social fabric crimes

Myburgh’s approach of comparing “rates of attack” on households and farms was important, because farm attacks and murders are not what are known as “social fabric crimes”.

Africa Check’s Nechama Brodie wrote a guide to understanding South Africa’s crime statistics in 2013. She explained that social fabric crimes included crimes such as murder, attempted murder, sexual offences and certain kinds of assault, but in the “vast majority” of these cases the victims know the perpetrators. The organisation has previously stated that, in 2012 for example, around 65% of murder cases could be described as social fabric crimes, where the incidents are interpersonal and frequently occur because of difficult socio-economic circumstances. A comparatively small proportion – about 16% of victims – are murdered by people unknown to them, mainly during the commission of aggravated robbery.

Unlike farm attacks or household robberies, social fabric crimes are in addition mostly not planned or premeditated. Rather, they often occur in the heat of the moment – for example during an argument or while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

This does not make these crimes any less severe, or unimportant, or undeserving of attention. However, as Brodie pointed out, social fabric crimes do pose “a particular challenge” for the police who “may be able to respond to the aftermath but are not equipped to predict or prevent such crimes”.

She said the SAPS call these crimes “less-policeable”, while crimes like robbery are considered “more policeable”.

“[Crimes such as robbery] can be substantially reduced by effective policing strategies and tactics. This is because a relatively small number of semi-organised groups commit a vast majority of these crimes. Solid police intelligence bolstered by dedicated detective work can identify and bring these groups to justice thereby substantially reducing the levels of these crimes,” she said.

From these elucidations it is clear Africa Check well understand the difference between these crimes. They even point to solutions. So why then should they not apply to the atrocities taking place on South Africa’s farms?

On murder rates

After Black Monday, Africa Check’s Kate Wilkinson still maintained that calculating an accurate farm murder rate was “near impossible”. She said AfriForum were knowingly releasing inaccurate and discredited statistics. She however then said that farm murders may in fact be undercounted, but presented this information as evidence of flawed data, rather than a point of urgent concern.

She then linked to an interview she had done on Radio 702. During the insert – A Matter of Fact: Debunking AfriForum’s Farm Murder Stats – she spoke about the difference between numbers of murders and murder rates, saying that a “special calculation” needed to be done. She gave the police statistics of 74 farm murders for the 2016/2017 reporting period and said:

“But we know that there are definitely communities and police stations around the country where they record far higher than 74 murders per year. If we look at the top station, it’s actually in Nyanga in the Western Cape, and in that same year they recorded 281 murders at that one station. It was followed by Inanda in KwaZulu-Natal with 207 murders; Umlazi in KZN with 187; Delft in the Western Cape 183; and then number five in Khayelitsha in the Western Cape was 179.”

Wilkinson fell into the trap of confounding murder rates with numbers of murders, and did not give listeners any indication of population size. If she had, they would have understood the following:




Murders (2016/2017)

Rate per 100 000


Nyanga (Western Cape)

202 332




Inanda (KwaZulu-Natal)

325 565




Umlazi (KwaZulu-Natal)

294 451




Delft (Western Cape)

153 759




Khayelitsha (Western Cape)

154 362



In addition, and the issue of social fabric crimes aside, campaigns against farm murders do not impinge upon the rights of other communities – who are often victim to “similar or worse levels of crime” – to also protest.

Burger gave the example of Khayelitsha in 2012, which resulted in the appointing of a judicial commission of inquiry, or the Eldorado Park community protests against gang violence and drugs in 2013.

“Nobody questioned their right to do so,” he said. “To the contrary, they enjoyed wide-spread support.”

Equally, no-one objects to campaigns against the murder of women and children, even if the murder ratio for these vulnerable groups is substantially below that of adult males.

Still, yet another of Africa Check’s critiques is the issue of different farm murder rates put forward over the years.

“I have seen a number of different farm murder ratios during my time at Africa Check,” wrote Wilkinson, citing the figures of 97 and 133 and 156 per 100 000. The original figures had been calculated by Burger, who used the 2007 census of commercial agriculture that showed there were 32 375 commercial farmers in South Africa.

When asked to explain the variations, Burger said, “Compared to the national murder figures, the murder stats for farmers are obviously very small and therefore annual changes will necessarily show a much bigger annual fluctuation.”

“It should be obvious that with the varying number of murders for each year, the ratios will also vary,” he said. “There is nothing misleading or misinforming in these ratios, as far as the fluctuations are concerned.”

The table below illustrates[7]:


No. of Farm Murders


Rate per 100 000



32 375




32 375




32 375


Africa Check also insist that to calculate an accurate farm murder rate, one would need to know not only the number of people murdered on farms, but also the number of people who “work on, live on or visit farms and smallholdings”.

This exact calculation would indeed be difficult. However, the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU) has since 1990 collected their own data, which reveals that by far the majority of farm murder victims recorded are the farmers, as well as their spouses or direct family members, who together account for 91% of all farm murder victims.

CAPTION: According to TAU SA's figures, 65% of those murdered on farms since 1990 are the farmers themselves. Together with their spouses or direct family members, they account for 91% of farm murder victims. Workers account for 8% and visitors 1%. SOURCE: Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU SA)

One of Africa Check’s most astonishing claims, however, is that Statistics South Africa estimated 2.3 million households – or around 11 million people – were “involved in agriculture” in 2016.

“If this figure is used, the farm murder rate drops to 0.4 murders per 100 000,” declared Wilkinson.

However, if one reads the report, by far the majority of those practising these agricultural activities were doing so in their own back yards – 83.8% to be exact. Anyone who had grown food during the survey year – including those with between one and ten chickens or some spinach and tomatoes out back for personal consumption – were deemed to be “involved in agriculture”.

The study itself is important and should not be disparaged. But to suggest that, based on these figures, the “farm” murder rate drops to nearly zero, is patently absurd[8].

The issue of bias

Myburgh in 2012 highlighted the problem of intellectuals and human rights organisations being “anxious to underplay the import of this problem” and pointed to the “pre-existing biases of many in the media”. It however appears this trend is accelerating.

Africa Check has published numerous studiesanalyses, “factsheets” and commentaries on crime and farm murders. When dealing with these statistics, however, the reports frequently take on remarkably Judge Judy-esque tones: claims are declared “grossly incorrect”, and should be “discounted”, or summarily “dismissed”. One finds reports peppered with words such as “right wing” and “conservative”, and organisations like AfriForum are pointedly referred to as “minority rights” groups, rather than “civil rights” organisations.

Most telling, however, is their choice of imagery. When Africa Check deals with issues such as femicide, you will find photographs taken at a victim’s funeral. She will be named and you will see her face beside the wound of a freshly dug grave. She will have mourners by her side and police holding vigil with the warm glow of candles in their hands.

But when Africa Check writes about farm murders, you will find a very different picture. You will not see the bloodied handprint of a small dead child. You will not see grief or tears. You will not see graves, or tools of torture, or the sheeted bodies of an entire family gunned down.

Instead you will see – not once, but twice – the image of a man turned arrogantly to face you. He is on a mission as he goose-steps behind the high, exclusionary fence of his master’s ill-gotten property. He wears khaki fatigues and a shady look under his cap. Beside him a gnarled dog – a meaty machine that will surely destroy you – sniffs the trail for swart gevaar.


After Black Monday, writer and commentator Max du Preez published an opinion piece headlined Whites have to find a new balance - not play victim.

He wrote that he was “an educated, informed human being” who could “understand history and the society [he lives] in”. He said he was a democrat and a “moral and ethical person” who is able to “overcome [his] primal instincts with facts-based reason” and figure out where he “fits in”.

Du Preez had feared the protests would turn into a day of identity politics and “white fragility”. He said these fears were justified. The message created by the protest was one of “privileged whites playing victim; of people who regard their own lives as of superior value; of arrogance, insensitivity and self-obsession”.

He urged the protesters to think about what was “actually hidden in their hearts and minds” and said that facts were really important. Essentially, it was the volk who now consider it “almost an act of treason” to question the statistics released by the “right wing”; statistics that claim farmers are more vulnerable to attack.

“It’s not true,” he asserted. Unisa criminologist Willie Clack had “shown that convincingly with his published research”.

But when contacted Clack said his research had not yet been published. It would only be published in June or July this year. He could therefore not forward his paper. He instead sent a PowerPoint presentation and made reference to Kate Wilkinson’s Africa Check research, an article written by Piet Croucamp for De Kat last year, and a link to an IRR article.

That Du Preez chose to mention this unpublished research is not a reflection on Clack, nor an indictment of his forthcoming work. It is however misleading when a writer of Du Preez’s standing authoritatively passes this message to the public when such research cannot be scrutinised.

A special approach

Over the years, civil rights organisations and groups have laid wreaths, led marches, sent letters, organised demonstrations, sent memorandums, marched to parliament, submitted reports, or supported days of protest. And yet, call after call has simply been ignored.

They are campaigning for government to prioritise these crimes and say a special approach is justified by four reasons: their frequency, their brutality, the isolation of farms, and the vital role farmers play in creating jobs, producing food, and in South Africa’s economy.

The nomenclature “priority crime” does not however mean that farmers are special. It does not mean they should receive preferential treatment “even in death”. It is for the crimes themselves to be prioritised. The call is in addition not for white farmers alone. Emerging black farmers in our country are also affected. It is therefore time to put aside the politically correct fears that are starting to feel a lot like complicity.

When things go bump in the night and farmers are brutalised in their homes, they cannot simply press a panic button or shout for their neighbours and hope for salvation. The persistent and often outright dismissal – or even ridicule – of any work on these violent crimes is detrimental to rural safety as whole. And if one believes that rising tides can lift all boats, then lobbying for better protection would benefit all. And since these communities live closest to the action, or perhaps inaction, it seems obvious they are better placed to steer the conversation on rural safety needs.

Follow MLA on Twitter @MLAntoni


[1] The 2015 General Household Survey released by Statistics SA details the number of households per province. It is an estimate calculated using the United Nations headship ratio methodology. These households include formal, informal, traditional and ‘other’ housing types. (‘Other’ housing types include caravans/tents, hostels and compounds, units in a retirement village, and other unspecified dwellings). Farm dwellings are included in these estimates. However, their numbers are comparatively so small that any fluctuations are negligible. 

[2] SOURCE: Crime Stats SA: statistics for “robbery at residential premises” in KwaZulu-Natal

[3] The most recent census undertaken by our government on commercial farming was done in 2007. According to this census, there were 3 574 farming units in KZN at the time.

[4] Source: Kwanalu

[5] Kwanalu’s farm attack figures are marginally higher than those released by the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU). According to Chris van Zyl, Assistant Head Manager for TAU, this is likely because Kwanalu’s network is local to the region and would have better access to this data. He stressed that TAU’s farm attack figures are generally more conservative even than the SAPS’s figures. The SAPS however use their statistics for operational purposes and do not make them public. Nevertheless, using TAU’s figures it is still possible to show that farms are up to five times more likely to be attacked than other households.

[6] GroundUp, 17 January 2018. Here’s how unfairly police are distributed

[7] Source: Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU)

[8] It should be noted that even “predominantly residential” smallholdings are excluded from the SAPS definition of farm murders under the Rural Safety Strategy – something which Wilkinson mentioned earlier in the report, but neglected to apply in this calculation.