Some condone it. A few openly encourage it. No one wants to hear about it. Few want to talk about it.
Despite being regularly raised in Parliament by some opposition parties, it is a topic that much of the media and social media commentariat instinctively shy from.
It is the sustained and steadily increasing murder of farmers and, to a lesser extent, of their workers. It’s a slaughter that goes almost and unremarked upon. In October alone, there have been at least seven attacks and 6 fatalities.
This week the police portfolio committee was presented with South Africa’s annual national crime statistics. They showed a worrying growth in violent crime, with murder up by 1.8%.
The Freedom Front Plus castigated the police for failing to provide specific numbers of farm killings and attacks, as they had promised to do. Fortunately, there are other sources. According to the Transvaal Agricultural Union, there have been 1,824 farm murders over the past 26 years, the lowest number being 16 in 1990 and the highest being 153 in 1997/98, while the FF+ claims 3,100 farm killings in 15,000 attacks over that same period.
Following a dip to 56 murders in 2011/12, there has been an increase, with AfriForum’s statistics showing 70 murders and 357 farm attacks last year. This year, so far, 74 farmers have been killed, with the historically violent months of November and December yet to come.
In a country where 52 people are murdered every day, 13% of whom are women and children, the equivalent of less than a day-and-a-half allotted to farmer extermination may not seem anything to fuss about. Viewed proportionately, however, the numbers are chilling.
SAPS statistics show that 34.1 South Africans are murdered per 100,000 of the population. Among commercial farmers – estimated by the Institute of Security Studies to number around 32,000 – this rises to 156 per 100,000, making a violent death on the farm 4.5 times more likely than the SA norm, says AfriForum.
The TAU says that white farmers are disproportionately targeted in such attacks. The violence meted out is also often disproportionately brutal, with the victims sadistically tortured.
When I speak with Lorraine Claasen, AfriForum’s criminologist, she notes that in the last few months, while levels of torture have remained the same, there is evidence of a new recklessness. “There is no attempt to simply tie up the victims and take things. The attackers just enter and open fire on anyone and everyone, no questions asked.”
She hesitates, however, to ascribe a direct political motivation. “There’s no research to substantiate a political motivation. But there is no doubt that the defining characteristic of South Africa today is its culture of frustration, anger and aggression.”
“Attacks like these can be a form of asserting power and control. And because of the physical isolation of farmers, there is also more time for prolonged violence.”
While it is not clear, as Claasen points out, that racial scapegoating has a direct role in farm attacks, the polarised nature of SA society cannot help. Social media is filled with race-fuelled vitriol, while the authorities are seemingly indifferent to outrageous threats from the Economic Freedom Fighters against minorities in general and farmers in particular.
To condone violence is to encourage it. The tenor of much of the public discussion on farm killings and torture is that they are to be expected, indeed that they can be justified, by the “illegal” occupation of the land by whites and the brutal way that some farmers treat their employees.
In an interview with TimesLive, Claasen concedes that some farmers are racist and mistreat farm workers. “But this is not a reason to isolate and to decry farmers and people in rural communities as criminals, when they are murdered and attacked.”
After years of vacillating over whether to prioritise efforts to prevent farm attacks or instead to pretend that they are just everyday crime, the new Police Minister, Fikile Mbabula, seems to have a refreshing approach. “We must never give an impression that there are certain things we are running away from,” Mbalula said at the oversight committee hearing.
He ordered the missing statistics to be compiled and released immediately. He said also that his ministry was interacting with farmers to develop a rural safety strategy.
But, being Mbabula, he was unable to resist spoiling it by shooting from the hip. Farmers, he said, should not shout foul if they were attacked “because they employ people from Zimbabwe as cheap labour and exploit them, and then those people turn against them and kill them”.
“Don't employ unregistered, undocumented foreigners … We've got nowhere to find such people.”
So now you know. The consensus of the commentariat and the minister of police is that farm killings are, when you get down to it, the fault of the farmers. Or maybe Zimbabweans.
But it apparently has nothing to do with poor policing. Nor with a politically expedient tolerance of violence by influential voices in our society.
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