The origins of South Africa's farm murder epidemic

James Myburgh writes on when and how this horror really began


When the first waves of violence first started hitting formerly peaceful South African farming communities a common analogy drawn by those affected was with the Rhodesian Bush War. This was a reference to the conflict between the Rhodesian Front government of Ian Smith and ZAPU and ZANU guerrillas, in which white farmers were a particular target of armed attack. Between 1964 and 1980 around 300 white farmers and their family members were killed, most in the intense and vicious final few years of the conflict.

South African statistics on farm murders date back to 1991 when the South African Agricultural Union (SAAU) - now Agri-SA - started trying to first document this disturbing phenomenon. This was the year after the unbanning of the liberation movements by President FW de Klerk, the release of political prisoners, the start of the return of cadres from exile, and the ANC’s de jure suspension of the armed struggle.

The SAAU figures record 66 farm murders in 1991, rising to 92 in 1994. This was clearly part of the trend of politically-related violence, and more general lawlessness, that swept South Africa at the time. A number of members of the Pan Africanist Congress’s armed wing, APLA, who had been convicted and jailed for killing farmers during this period, later applied for amnesty from the TRC for a series of attacks, mostly in the Eastern Cape and Orange Free State. This was on the basis that the policy of their organisation had been to terrorise white farmers and drive them off the land. Though the ANC did not take similar overall responsibility for farm attacks at the time a number of its members nonetheless applied for amnesty for farm murders as well.

Instead of falling back post-1994, however, the number of murders committed during attacks on predominantly minority-owned farms and smallholdings continued on an upward trajectory, reaching 150 a year by the end of the decade, according to the South African Police Service (SAPS). Between April 1998 and March 2000 there were about as many people killed in such attacks in South Africa as white farmers had been killed in Rhodesia during the entire period of the Bush War. While the numbers of farm murders are down from that peak, the number of white commercial farmers has also more than halved since 1996, from 60 000 to under 30 000 today. Members of the white farming community, especially in the eastern half of the country, are still being killed in armed attacks at an extraordinarily high rate, as explained here.

Though there has been no shortage of intellectuals willing to argue the contrary over the years, the prevalence of this type of murder (especially in rural areas) is clearly abnormal, the age profile of the murder victims (usually elderly) is abnormal, and the level of brutality often involved is abnormal. That these high levels of farm attacks and murders have been sustained for close to three decades is also abnormal. In this period there have been around 2 400 people killed and many others seriously injured and/or left psychologically scarred for life, in over 15 000 farm attacks. This is a death toll that has come to far exceed that of white farmers during the Rhodesian Bush war. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Equally inexplicable, on the face of it, has been the ANC government’s lethargic response to this crisis. Although some concrete efforts were taken to address the issue during Nelson Mandela’s presidency, such as declaring farm attacks a priority crime in 1998, the same cannot be said of the Mbeki and Zuma presidencies. Indeed in May 2003 cabinet announced that the commando system, the farming community’s main line of defence, would be progressively dismantled over the next few years. Having done so it was then announced that farm attack statistics would no longer be released. This moratorium was only recently lifted, with three years of data still missing, and the reliability of more recent figures under question. To this day the ANC government steadfastly refuses to once again treat farm attacks as a priority crime.

Yet if farm attacks are not an expression of “normal criminality”, as has been claimed over the years, then what are they? Why have past ANC governments been so lethargic when it comes to acting against them in any meaningful way? One way to begin to start answering these questions is to try and understand how and when they originated pre-1991. To do so it is necessary to briefly sketch out African National Congress ideology in exile and how it related to white farmers.

The ANC and the Boers

In terms of the ANC/SACP’s doctrine of Colonialism of a Special Type white people in South Africa were (and still are) regarded as an alien race who, after their initial arrival in the Cape centuries before, had proceeded to amass all they had through the brutal exploitation and robbery of the indigenous black African majority. As one SACP document in the early 1970s put it: “The foreign settler came to our country and with the Bible in one hand, the rifle in the other and money in his pocket, destroyed our way of life, robbed us of our land and cattle, and made us into chattels.”

There was a degree of fluidity in how the ANC defined the “enemy” ideologically however. Those few “white democrats” (white communists) who sided with the oppressed majority, abandoned their racial privileges, and completely threw their lot in with the ANC and its ideology of revolutionary racial nationalism (which they had helped formulate) were accepted as part of “our people”. By contrast those black South Africans, such as policemen or councillors, who were seen as siding with the white oppressors against the liberation movement were defined as traitors and enemies.[1]

In this ideological schema the white farmer (or “Boer”) was the individual embodiment of the “historic injustice”, the illegitimate occupier of stolen land, and a ruthless exploiter of the labour of those who had been dispossessed. The Zulu King Dingane was praised on occasion in ANC propaganda for the sly and ruthlessly effective way in which he had dealt with trekking parties and their leaders in Natal, “scattering the Boers like terrified rats.”[2] It was regarded as axiomatic too that these “white colonialists” who “took our land by force” could not be made to hand it back without force.

The ANC/SACP’s selection of military targets for attack by its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) - under the severe internal and external constraints that it had to operate under - was not primarily racially or ideologically driven (unlike the PAC), but was rather shaped by an incredibly sophisticated situational awareness of all the political, diplomatic, strategic, and propaganda considerations that applied at any one point in time.

Up until the late 1970s the ANC leadership had not ordered MK to directly target white civilians. At this point discussions within the top leadership of the ANC/SACP nonetheless started proceeding around the framing of the white farming class as a legitimate target for attack. An internal bulletin of the SACP from 1981 quotes the party’s Secretary General Moses Mabhida[3] telling a meeting of the Central Committee: “There is sufficient inflammable material amongst the peasantry to make them respond. We must issue strong propaganda in language the people understand. We are a Party of the oppressed people. We must produce the Alpheus Madibus and the Gert Sibandes. Farmers must move from the countryside in fear of our people.” (My emphasis)

Then in 1983 national protests had broken out – led by the newly formed United Democratic Front – against the new ‘Tricameral’ constitution. This was followed in September 1984 by the Vaal uprising, the start of a sustained insurrection against apartheid and continued white rule in South Africa. The activists on the ground, and in the leadership of the UDF, looked to the ANC in exile for tactical, strategic and ideological guidance. This was expressed in ANC strategy documents and conveyed into South Africa – where ANC and SACP literature was banned - through word-of-month communications, smuggled political pamphlets and documents, and Radio Freedom broadcasts. Throughout this period however the ANC was highly limited in its ability to infiltrate armed MK cadres into South Africa given that its bases were located in Zambia and Angola.

An early indication of the direction that the ANC/SACP was moving in, when it came to the land question, was contained in the ANC National Executive Committee’s January 8th statement of 1984 delivered by Oliver Tambo, which also made the call for South Africa to be made ungovernable. This stated that:

On the commercial farms, the most merciless brutalisation of our people, especially women and children, takes place, every day and every hour of the day at the hands of the landowners. One of the fundamental elements for the solution of the problems facing our people in the countryside is the resolution of the land question in favour of the tillers. Our immediate task, therefore, is to mobilise the rural masses around the question of land. It is only when the countryside is organised that the rural masses will be able to respond resolutely to the call: ‘Seize the land!’"

1985: Resolving the land issue “the hard way”

Tambo’s January 8th statement in 1985 returned to the importance of organising in the farming areas of the country and placing “the perspective of seizing the land from the dispossessor in front of our rural masses and educate them to understand that this is a task that calls for dedication, determination and sacrifice.” This address stated “The dispossession of our people of the land that is theirs remains one of the most burning national grievances….Millions of our people in the rural areas are brutally exploited as agricultural workers on farms carved out of their ancestral lands. Their daily lives are dominated by the dictates of the racist White farmers and agricultural companies against whom they have absolutely no redress, because they are the least organised and mobilised.” It then delivered the ominous warning, “The land question must be resolved, if needs be, the hard way.”

While the ANC leadership remained cautious around the selection of targets for MK, for which they and their Western (if not Soviet-bloc) funders and backers would have to account, they were far less discriminating when it came to their efforts to incite violence by their supporters. Whatever horrors and excesses resulted could plausibly be ascribed to justified outrage at the injustices and oppression that black South Africans had had to endure for decades under the apartheid system, or as a reaction to the brutal and often murderous state response to the insurrection.

In Radio Freedom broadcasts through late 1984 and early 1985 the ANC in exile exhorted its young supporters on the ground in South Africa to completely discard adherence to the criminal law and basic Christian morality; to organise themselves into military-style units, to link up with MK operatives, to sabotage industries and farms, to rob whites and take their guns, and to use these (and whatever other weapons were at hand) to “eliminate” black policemen, councillors, suspected informers, and other categories of the enemy.

The Kirkwood area of the Sundays River valley was one of innumerable areas across the country where such a call to arms received a ready response. On 5th May 1985 the EP Herald reported on how the formerly peaceful farming community there had, over the past six weeks, suddenly been afflicted by strikes, consumer boycotts, arson attacks and death threats against individual farmers. Then on the night of the 17th of June 1985 an elderly farming couple - Koos de Jager, 72, and his wife, Myrtle, 68 - were brutally murdered. They were found “in their blood spattered homestead on their farm near Addo. Mr De Jager fought desperately against the killers before he was overpowered and bludgeoned to death with an axe. His wife died of stab wounds.”[4] The killers took various minor items, including a .22 rifle and a pellet gun, and had driven away in the couple’s Datsun bakkie, which was later found burnt out in Motherwell Township, Port Elizabeth.

The twelve youths who carried out the attack were all members of the Addo Youth Congress, an affiliate of the UDF. Eight members of the group were arrested and charged and convicted for the murders, four were sentenced to death, with two eventually being hanged in April 1989. They would be reburied by the ANC government as heroes in 2017. Some of the group however escaped over the border and joined MK. On his return from exile one of them, Khanyiso Malgas, was integrated into the South African National Defence Force and applied for amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the killings. He told his hearing in 1999 that the League had held a meeting where the decision was taken “that farmers should be killed. After that meeting Chairperson, an action was taken. We went from Addo. We went to kill the farmers and then this first farmer was killed.” Asked why the De Jagers were targeted in particular, he expounded: “We did not target a specific farm, the farmers were killed and if our plans did not fail, I think that a lot of farmers would have been killed, more than one, but what happened is that our plan failed, so it was difficult for us to continue killing the farmers. So we did not target a specific farmer, we were killing farmers.”

The targeting of white farmers was also top of mind of the ANC leadership in exile at that time. A discussion document for the Commission on Armed Struggle prepared for the ANC’s Kabwe conference, held in June 1985, stated: “We should liquidate and harass the enemy manpower, puppets and traitors including the rural bourgeoisie (white farmers…)”. The Commission on Strategy and Tactics talked about using the liberation movement’s urban strongholds as a springboard for launching the armed struggle in the rural areas. It stated:

“In the rural areas it is necessary to create underground and mass political bases as a foundation for the armed struggle. In areas where suitable conditions exist units must be sent to be based in the terrain to make contact with and train the local population for action against the enemy. We must undertake a sustained drive to clear the white farms and harass the enemy with mine warfare. Sustained armed activity in the rural areas is important both as a politicising factor locally and nationally, and as a tactic to disperse the enemy.” (My italics)

Although a key reason for targeting white farmers was ideological –the start of an offensive designed to “seize the land” from the “white colonialists” - the ANC still remained formally committed to the principle, enshrined in the Geneva conventions, that MK would not directly target white civilians. The Commission argued around this by claiming that “the enemy has begun to transform almost every farm into a military outpost. Certainly in the countryside they are more and more blurring the distinction between what is civilian and what is military.” The white farming class as a whole was thereby redefined as a legitimate “military” target.

The report of the conference stated on the question of armed struggle that “we should shift the struggle from the black ghettoes into the white areas.” It also stated that “armed propaganda” should be stepped up in the rural areas and “Farm workers should be encouraged to sabotage and destroy the economy of the farms - especially the border farms.” On the question of the “rural masses” it noted that “Farm workers are politically isolated. But still our organisers from the urban areas must find ways and means of reaching these rural masses. Armed propaganda must continue…. We should revive areas with traditions of resistance and revolt. We should destroy border farms.”

Among the 30 NEC members elected or re-elected at Kabwe were Moses Mabhida, Joe Slovo, Joe Modise, Mac Maharaj, Joe Nhlanhla, Sizakele Sigxashe, Aziz Pahad, Chris Hani, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma. The campaign to take the struggle into white areas would involve both a propaganda element, involving incitement, and a military element, with MK cadres either going after particular targets themselves, or training and arming radicalised ANC supporting youth and then directing them to do the same. The Composite and Organisational Report of the National Preparatory Committee for Kabwe talked about building “MK units among workers and peasants, drawing in the unemployed” and creating “politico-military units in factories, farms, mines and other places of work.” It described the ideally trained MK cadre as an “all-rounder who can impart the skills of a soldier, agitator, propagandist, etc, to people inside the country. Stress must be put on MK fighters as political militants.”

In a Radio Freedom broadcast in October 1985 the ANC called on its supporters to “use all means” to get weapons from the “privileged white community” that it said was “armed to the teeth.” These weapons it said were “meant to mow down our people.” It called on “our compatriots who are working as domestic servants to take a leading role. They know where their employers keep their weapons and they are the ones who can devise plans of transferring the ownership of the weapons.” It also called for the “theatre of war” to be taken “into the white residential areas. So far, although we have managed to maintain our momentum of struggle, our offensive has been confined to the black areas of our country and the enemy is still boasting that the white areas are its rear bases. It is high time now that we put paid to the notion that our struggle will remain confined to the black areas.”

A pamphlet distributed by the ANC later that year stated that the “time has come to take the war to the White areas. White South Africa cannot be at peace while the Black townships are in flames.” It elaborated that “taking the war to the white areas” meant inter alia “forming underground units and combat groups in our places of work and taking such actions as sabotage in the factories, mines, farms and suburbs” and “well-planned raids on the armouries and arms dumps of the army, police, farmers and so on to secure arms for our units.” Even in this somewhat watered down call to action then farms were explicitly mentioned as a legitimate targets both for sabotage and robbery.

After the Kabwe conference meanwhile MK, under the direction of the ANC NEC’s Politico-Military Council, also set about implementing the ANC leadership’s instructions to drive white farmers off the land, beginning with the border areas. Operations would be carried out under the command of Julius Maliba, the head of the MK’s Regional Politico-Military Committee in Zimbabwe, and Siphiwe Nyanda, the head of the RPMC responsible for the Eastern Transvaal, and from Botswana as well.

In November Maliba directed a unit of twelve MK cadres to cross the border in two groups into the Northern Transvaal. The units planted the landmines on roads in the Soutpansberg area before withdrawing across the border. On 26th November 1985 two people were injured in two separate land mine blasts on roads near Messina. A Pretoria News report the same day proclaimed that this was "the first time that mines have been planted on South African roads." Edward Meluba, a passenger in one of the vehicles, died sometime later of his wounds. Four South African Defence Force (SADF) members, sweeping the area for other mines, were slightly injured the following day after their troop carrier detonated a mine.

The first fatality of the landmine campaign was Jas Balie, 25, a black tractor driver. His vehicle had struck a landmine on a farm road on 27th November and he died the following day. A day or two later another black farm worker, Philemon Ngcobo, was killed when his tractor was blown up on a farm in the area.[5]

A Radio Freedom broadcast on 28th November 1985 boasted that these explosions had “shocked the racist regime”, adding that “All along, the racists who have farms in the northern Transvaal, just like in other areas, were living in a fool's paradise thinking that they were safe.” It vehemently denied that these landmine attacks had been carried out by MK units operating out of Zimbabwe. It also warned white South Africans that activities like the Messina landmine “will soon become the order of the day… they must also keep it in mind that such activities will not only intensify but will also spread and engulf the entire country including their residential areas.”

On 15th December six people were killed when the bakkie they were driving in detonated a landmine on a game farm near Messina. Mrs Kobie van Eck, 34, her children Ignatius, 2, and Nellmarie, 8, Marie Denyschen, 59, and her grandchildren Kobus, 3, and Karna, 9, were all killed in the blast. Two weeks later Elize de Beer, 32, and her father-in-law Hubert de Beer, 63, died after their vehicle struck a landmine on a farm close to the Botswana border near Ellisras in the Northern Transvaal. A Radio Freedom broadcast on 6th January 1986 described the victims of the first attack as “six white Boer farmers and one black” and the second as “two Boers” and said that, while ANC HQ in Lusaka could not confirm responsibility, whoever carried out these attacks was “most certainly a South Africa patriot.” The following day Lukas Marais, a successful sugar-cane farmer was shot dead in cold blood on his farm by an assailant with an AK-47 rifle in the Komatipoort district in the Eastern Transvaal.

The “MK in Combat” section of the first edition of the MK journal Dawn in 1986 stated that these landmine explosions were all MK operations. Another operation it claimed as MK’s own was that of murder of Marais. It stated “a Komatipoort farmer was killed in his farm. Nine empty cartridges were discovered the following day.”

At the end of 1985 South African newspapers began reporting on a phenomenon that would later become so familiar that it no longer qualified as news. The Eastern Province Herald reported on 29th November 1985 that while there had been twenty whites killed in the Eastern Cape in the 1983 to 1984 period, there had already been fifteen murdered since January that year, a fifty percent increase. It quoted Lieutenant Colonel Eric Strydom, head of the Eastern Cape Murder and Robbery Squad, as saying that “most of the victims [eleven] were elderly people who lived alone in remote areas and on farms.” Among the victims named were the De Jagers. The motive in all these cases, he said, was robbery.

On the 23rd December 1985 Die Vaderland newspaper reported, under the headline “Boere so uitgemoor”, on the serious concerns among farmers in the Eastern Transvaal following a series of attacks on elderly people living alone on isolated farms. In the Middleburg district a number of elderly farming couples had been attacked, and in the case of Faan Balack, 75, and his wife Alie, 75, brutally beaten to death with blunt objects. In the Komatipoort district meanwhile, it reported, there was shock over the assassination of Marais. This followed a similar attack on another farmer, Johan Schoeman, 70, which had been successfully repelled.

1986: Give the enemy no quarter

The ANC NEC’s January 8th statement of 1986, delivered by Tambo, stated that “the charge we give to Umkhonto we Sizwe and to the masses of our people is attack, advance, give the enemy no quarter--an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!” On the land question the NEC noted that “Our mass political offensive must of necessity also succeed to draw in the millions of our people in the countryside, both inside and outside the Bantustans. It is clear that, relative to the situation in the past, we have made considerable progress in mobilising and organising the people in the countryside.” Tambo added that MK had also “taken the armed struggle both into the Bantustans and into the enemy rural military zones, striking blows that have worried the enemy and its puppets.” He then stated:

“Much organisational and mobilisation work still needs to be done in these areas, raising to the fore such questions as the need to destroy the oppressive Bantustan system, to rise up against the blood-sucking white soldier-farmers and to address the central task of the landless masses seizing the land which rightfully belongs to them.” (My italics)

In his address to MK at this time Chris Hani stated that in 1986 there should be a qualitative change in the way in which the enemy was fought. This should be the year in which MK should be made a “people’s army involving the whole population in the fight”. It would also finally be in a position “to arm the young lions who have been battling with the racist army for more than a year”. 1986, he said, should also be the year: “when the countryside should be unsafe for the enemy. Already there are indications that this is beginning to take place. But what has happened is the tip of the iceberg. We should spread those operations in the rural areas and the farms.” To make all this happen, Hani added, MK need to “plunge itself into the country, train and arm our people and be part of the struggles of those millions of our people.”

In an interview on Radio Freedom broadcast on 26 February 1986 Hani said that in taking the struggle to the white areas MK was 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 administrations terrorising and harassing our people to those farmers and other civilians who are part of the defence force in our country, of the military, paramilitary and reserves. But comrades we are realists. The theatre of these actions are going to be in the white residential areas, and it is inevitable that white civilians will die.”

He also told his interviewer that MK cadres had been instructed to converge with the “young comrades” in South Africa and teach them “the skills of warfare, to impart to them the tactics of fighting, to impart them the skill of fighting, the skills of ambushing the enemy, the skills of raiding for weapons in order to capture them, the skills of fighting in small groups, the skills of fighting and camouflaging, the skills of attacking when the enemy least expects you.”

In March 1986 Radio Freedom broadcast a call for farm workers to find ways of sabotaging the production process on the “Boer farms where millions of our compatriots are working under slave conditions.” In another broadcast that month Hani reiterated the ANC’s call for the people to arm themselves. “There are arms everywhere in that country. The white community is a militarised community. Every shopkeeper, every dealer, every farmer has got weapons. The people must grab those weapons and use them against the enemy.”

On the 15th April three members of the Paarl Youth Congress (PAYCO), an affiliate of the UDF, raided Vlakkeland Farm to seize weapons for their fight with AZAPO. In the attack the domestic worker, Anne Foster, and the gardener, John Geyser, were shot dead, the latter while he was tied up and completely helpless. Unable to find weapons the culprits instead made off with a box containing jewellery and money.

Later that month the eleventh landmine explosion occurred, the first in the Eastern Transvaal. In late April a taxi detonated a mine between Chrissiesmeer and Breyten. The driver of the vehicle, Ben Ndluli, was badly lacerated. His passenger, Jan Moshuloane, had part of his leg blown away. In another blast a few kilometres away a tractor driver Simon Makwanazi was hospitalised with injuries to his right leg, face and eye.

In early May The Star newspaper reported on numerous attacks by young comrades operating out of Sekhukhuneland, in the then Lebowa homeland, against farms on the other side of the Steelpoort river in the North-Eastern Transvaal. This included petrol-bombing of vehicles, sabotage and the enforcement of strikes by workers against the abysmally low wages paid by farmers in the area.

On the early morning of Sunday 25 May 1986 a mini-bus taxi with ten occupants on their way to visit an ancestor’s grave detonated a landmine just off the tarred road between Hendrina and Davel in the Eastern Transvaal. This is an area well away from the border. Biza Mahlangu, 25, and Daniel Sindane, 40, were killed and eight others had to be hospitalised.

The same evening three members of the Cradock Youth Association (Cradoya), another UDF affiliate, attacked a smallholding outside Cradock with the goal of seizing weapons. Daniel Cronje, 67, was shot in the head and killed instantly. His wife, 61, was also shot, then raped and left for dead (she survived). The assailants then made off with the couple’s bakkie which they loaded with goods seized from the house.

In mid-1986, at the height of the insurrection, the SACP magazine Umsebenzi called for the consolidation of gains of the revolution in the face of President PW Botha’s declaration of a state of emergency. It noted that “the flames of urban resistance and defiance have spread to the hated Bantustans. Names like Bophuthatswana, Lebowa, Transkei, KwaNdebele are being added to the lists of nationwide flashpoints of upsurge.” The urgent need now, it stated, was to “intensify the offensive against all the sell-out administrations and those at the top who use their positions as out-and-out puppets of Pretoria. It is also time to begin to clean out the countryside of the racist farmers.” (My italics)

On 17th August 1986 three women and two children were killed after the BMW they were travelling in struck a landmine on a road near Nelspruit. Ernelena Sebiti, 28, Lindiwe Mdluli, 20, Katie Sambo, 23, were killed in the blast along with two infants, Joyce Nkowayne and Regina Nkowayne.

In September 1986 the Eastern Province Herald reported that 22 whites had been murdered in the Eastern Cape since January. Most of the victims were “elderly men and women who had lived alone.” The newspaper listed four cases of murders on farms and small holdings including that of Daniel Cronje.

In a broadcast on Radio Freedom on 21st October 1985 the ANC noted that “quite a number of racist farmers” had been killed or seriously injured in a spate of landmine explosions in the areas around the northern borders of South Africa. The ANC said that it had long ago declared these areas war zones, after these farmers, their wives and children were integrated into the state’s security and defence network. “These racist farmers” it continued, “are notorious for their brutal oppression and exploitation of African labour. Our people employed by these farmers go to the fields under the shadow of the whip and the gun. They work under slave conditions for slave wages.” It then added:

“This white farmer community is [one of] exploiters with a slave-owner mentality. They treat their chickens and cows, their tractors and trucks with greater respect than they treat black farm workers. And, of course, they monopolise the land claiming it as their own. They naively believe that they, as whites and as farm owners, have exclusive rights to all our fertile land. On the farms and within their racist community, they feel the idea that black people are there only with the permission of the white farmers is held up as a God-made law. Black farm workers know from their bitter experience that the Boers impose their presence and their rule with cold-blooded brutality. They do not think twice before beating a farm worker to death. They see nothing wrong in taking our children on nightmare joyrides or sexually assaulting black women farm workers: And this is all in the name of white civilisation, white power, super profits and free enterprise.”

It added that MK was continuing to escalate its activities in these areas, with landmines becoming a way of life. It said that black workers, as part of the oppressed majority, were not the targets of this campaign. It called on farm workers to take care, to refuse to be used either as “sweepers by the Boers” or to work as informers. “You owe the Boers nothing. In fact it is they that owe you everything because they have grown fat and wealthy on your poverty and labour.” It then exhorted farm workers to do the following:

“Sabotage his farming operations. Destroy his crops. Sabotage his implements and machinery. Daring actions of Umkhonto we Sizwe are not the only way of confronting the enemy. Sabotage operations are part of the people's war. And actions of the people are. Do not allow the Boers to arm you against the people. Take the guns and communication equipment [in their possession] and everything you can lay your hands on and turn them on the exploitative farmers. These are the actions we have to take to end this state of tyranny which occupies our land. Let us all unite and fight for a new South Africa where the land shall not be the property of white farmers only but shall be shared among all those who [work it].”

It is worth noting at this point the similarity between the message conveyed in this broadcast, and the words of the war song "Dubul'ibhunu" sung by MK cadres in exile:

Dubula! Dubula! Dubula nge s'bhamu
Dubul' ibhunu
Dubula' Dubula Dubula nge s'bhamu
Mama, ndiyeke ndidubul' ibhunu
Dubula' Dubula' Dubula nge s'bhamu
Ziyareypa lezinja
Dubula! Dubula! Dubula nge s'bhamu

[Shoot! Shoot! Shoot them with a gun
Shoot the Boer
Shoot! Shoot! Shoot them with a gun
Ma, let me "shoot the Boer
Shoot! Shoot Shoot them with a gun.
These dogs rape us
Shoot shoot shoot them with a gun.]

On the 3rd November 1986 a national serviceman, Lance-Corporal Albertus Le Roux, 20, was killed when the horse he was riding detonated a landmine on a dirt track outside Barbeton in the Eastern Transvaal. He had borrowed the horse to get from one observation post to another. If he had simply walked the landmine would probably not have detonated. Business Day reported that this was the fourteenth landmine explosion in the area since April. These had resulted in 11 deaths, including of three suspected MK members, and 24 people being injured.

On the 14th of November a farmer, Dries van der Westhuizen, was driving home with his eight-year-old son Pieter when the rear wheel of their bakkie detonated a Soviet-made landmine on a farm road close to their homestead near the Botswana border. The vehicle was blown apart and the two were flung clear. The father was found by his neighbour bleeding and in a state of shock, holding his critically injured and unconscious son in his arms.[6]

In a press conference on the 20th November the Chief of the South African Army, General Kat Liebenberg, said that MK cadres were being infiltrated into South Africa from Botswana through two routes. Their instructions were “to carry out a programme of selective murders of White farmers with the aim of intimidating farmers into abandoning their land, and to spy out deserted farms on which ANC sub-bases could be set up.” He said that MK operatives operating out of Botswana were responsible for six mine incidents and fourteen other incidents so far this year.[7]

In an interview with Sechaba that appeared in the December 1986 edition of that magazine Hani stated that “we are going to come increasingly across a situation where comrades in anger are going to react and deal even with White civilians. That is not the policy of the ANC…. I must repeat its position: we want to deal with the enemy personnel, the police, the army, with the administration of the enemy, with the economic installations, with farms and farmers.”

1987: The insurrection fails

In an interview with journalists in early January 1987 ANC President Oliver Tambo was asked how far the ANC had gone towards taking the war into the white areas. He replied that “The call that was made was for the struggle to be taken beyond the borders of the townships to the rest of the country. That is how we should see it. We should not only limit our struggle to townships. It must spread across the whole country. As a matter of fact, it has done so and white areas have been affected. Farms have been affected. There was so much action in the rural areas that the regime had to impose and maintain state of emergency countrywide.”

Delivering the ANC NEC January 8th statement of 1987 Tambo stated that the rural masses had “taken important strides to organise themselves. The level of mobilisation and the extent of revolutionary activity that these heroic fighters have attained is one of the most important achievements of our broad movement for national liberation in the recent past… We must reinforce this development to ensure that the rural areas are organised and further activised, as in KwaNdebele and Lebowa, to enable them to clear the countryside of all apartheid institutions of power, including the Bantustans, to join the armed struggle and to repossess the land as part of our nationwide advance towards victory.”

On the 5th of February 1987 four members of a Cradoya armed unit went to the farm Leeukop outside Cradock, where one of their fathers worked as the foreman, under instructions to go and “disarm” the “Boers”. The farm was owned by a Mr Boy Jordaan but the farm house was occupied by Matheus Gideon Palvie, 63, who acted as the overseer, and his wife Jeanette Johanna Palvie, 54. While the Palvies drove into town on the 6th the group broke into the house and loaded up goods in two suitcases. The group then waited for the Palvies to return.

Two members of the group armed themselves with a knife and a hammer found in the house and then ambushed the couple as they entered their home. Mr Palvie was first stabbed and then beaten to death. His wife was hit over the head with a hammer so hard that a fragment of her skull was found on the floor next to her by the police. She only died of her wounds sometime later. The appeal court described the murder as a “coolly planned, premeditated attack” committed with “horrifying savagery” against a “solitary couple, well advanced in years.” The assailants then escaped in the couple’s vehicle with the stolen goods, including a small pistol and a rifle, but were arrested shortly after. No political motive was detected at the time of the prosecution and conviction, though it was later disclosed before (and accepted by) an amnesty panel at the TRC.

On 29th March 1987 four passengers – including two Motha brothers and a Mrs Phikhiti - were killed when their vehicle detonated a landmine in the Lebombo mountains near Barberton. Siphiwe Nyanda, Solly Shoke, and Dick Mkhonto applied for and were granted amnesty in 2000 for these killings, as well as that of Lance-Corporal Le Roux. In early May 1987 Karel Thou was killed after the truck he was transporting ten others in hit a landmine near Messina.

During the Dakar meeting in Senegal in July 1987 between an ANC delegation, led by Thabo Mbeki, and an IDASA delegation made up of many leading Afrikaner intellectuals, led by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, one of the issues raised was the ANC’s policy of taking the war into the white areas. Radio Freedom broadcast a comment by Hani explaining MK’s approach on this matter. He said that while white civilians would not be directly targeted white farmers would continue to be. As he put it: “We mean that we must go for the white personnel which is responsible for the repression of our people, for those who have been manning the instrument of repression, for the white policemen, for the white members of the SADF, for those who are in the reservists and in the commando groups. We must go for installations in the white areas. We are already going for the farmers, because the farmers are an important element of the SADF […].”

By mid-1987 it was increasingly clear to the ANC leadership however that the security forces in South Africa had, using severe repression, steadily brought the security situation under control following the declaration of the State of Emergency, not least through the detention of thousands of UDF activists. The ambitions of MK to provide training and weapons to young comrades in South Africa, in order to step up the People’s War in the white areas and elsewhere, had largely been thwarted. In the Eastern Cape there were 14 whites murdered both in 1987 and 1988, with many of the cases in the latter year being intra-family murders. There appear to have been no farm murders in the area in 1988.[8] Howard Barrell described the reasons for the ANC’s failure as follows:

“Apart from rhetorical urgings, the ANC's ability to provide tactical guidance to township militants was extremely limited, despite growing popular support for the outlawed movement. The ANC's main operational bridgehead in Mozambique had been largely dismantled; its Swaziland machineries were under heavy pressures; MK infiltration had all-but dried up; and those MK cadres hurriedly infiltrated after the Nkomati Accord were suffering appalling casualties. Moreover, the ANC's underground comprised scattered units without any internal command structure. And the detention of UDF leaders had netted members of the underground, further weakening the ANC's capacity to provide leadership.”

One reason for this high casualty rate of MK operatives inside South Africa was the high level of penetration of the ANC and MK by the South African security services. In the late 1980s the Security Police had prior knowledge of all ordinary MK infiltrations into the country. This included the names of the operatives being sent in, their orders, the routes they would take, and the sabotage assignments they were instructed to carry out.

By 1987 the ANC leadership’s high hopes for the imminent overthrow of the regime had receded, and it was forced to switch its approach. On the one hand it placed greater emphasis on diplomatic and political initiatives, including talks with intermediaries of the Afrikaner establishment. Mbeki’s role in these talks was, as Mark Gevisser later wrote, to demonstrate to his “white compatriots” that he and the ANC could be trusted in “the face of their Piet Retief anxieties.”[9] On the other it sought to build up the ANC’s underground presence within South Africa through Operation Vula, in which only the most trusted operatives were involved. This involved extensive arms smuggling and stockpiling. The intention was that the next mass insurrection would not fail for the reasons that the first one had. Siphiwe Nyanda, among others, was deployed into the country for this purpose in 1988. In the second half of 1987 the ANC leadership now sought, for the first time, to actively discourage the use of the necklace method against black targets of the liberation movement. It also put the landmine campaign in the white farming areas temporarily on hold.

The return of farm attacks

Through the late 1980s there were numerous reports in the South African press on the growing problem of elderly people falling victim to violent crime in the white areas of South Africa, including murder, in both urban and rural areas. In late 1989 there were also reports of MK once again targeting farms in the border regions. In September there was an RPG and AK47 attack on a farm near the Zimbabwean border. In late November the South African Police reported that two Russian-made mines had been found stacked on top of each other on the road to a farmhouse near Piet Retief, about a kilometre from the Swaziland border. Earlier the same week landmines had also been discovered on farm roads in the Western Transvaal. The newly appointed commissar of MK, Steve Tshwete, had recently been quoted as promising that the ANC’s armed wing would soon be carrying out “ruthless and sensational” attacks, as part of a “sustained military offensive”. The pro-government Citizen newspaper, citing state intelligence sources, said the primary targets of such a campaign would be “farming areas where landmines will be laid, but urban attacks remain equally possible.”[10]

In 1990 the South African press started reporting again on farm attacks and farm murders as a distinct trend. On the 16th February 1990 the Oosterlig newspaper reported that police were hunting a group in the Stutterheim area in the Eastern Cape that had attacked farms in the area. In one recent incident Erich Kobus was fired at with a shot gun through the window of his bedroom late at night and blinded by flying glass. He would die of a heart attack in hospital a short time later. In the following one the attackers had fired a shotgun through the door of a house wounding a black employee, Phindile Sendi, 42, in the hand. They had then fired upon and injured the owner Johannes Pretorius, 60. Members of the group involved would be tried and convicted for these and other cases of robbery and attempted murder on farms in the area. The perpetrators applied for, and were granted, amnesty by the TRC on the basis that they were young ANC/UDF activists. One of applicants explained that the reason they had carried out these attacks was that “Our executive members, our leaders gave us the message that we should attack the farmers, we should intimidate them and take the weapons from them and we should tell them to leave their places.”

From mid-1990 onwards there were a number of reports in the press on a series of attacks and brutal farm murders in the Midlands region of Natal that had begun in March that year. These attacks were said by police, in mid-1990, to be linked in some way to the bloody clashes that had been ongoing in the region’s black areas for months between supporters of Inkatha and the UDF.[11] In an article headed “The murderous Midlands” the Sunday Tribune reported on 5th August 1990 that “Ten people, all elderly soft targets, have been murdered on farms and small holdings this year, and many others attacked. As in any small community, the deaths of neighbours in the most brutal fashion imaginable has a reaction far more intensely emotional than it would in a diverse urban community.”

A map of recent farm attacks in Natal from a report in The Star newspaper 11th July 1990

During the second half of the year there were also a number of brutal murders in the Eastern Cape and Border regions. On the 8th December 1990 the Weekend Post reported on “mounting concern about rising crime and violence on farms” in these areas “Elderly farmers and women are among victims assaulted in a series of attacks on farms and smallholdings.” On the 19th December 1990 the EP Herald reported that police had expressed grave concern at the “mounting number of attacks on elderly people in the Eastern Cape particularly on farms and smallholdings.” Six victims had died following a spate of farm attacks over the past few months. “In most cases”, the newspaper stated, “the victims were brutally assaulted and some terrorised for hours before being robbed, mainly of firearms and vehicles.”


Although outside of the main scope of this article, it is important to make a few observations around the period that followed. After 1990 it becomes far more difficult to follow the political thread behind the massive increase in the number of farm attacks and farm murders described in the introduction, given the thick fog thrown up by the fires of horrific political/criminal violence that swept across much of South Africa in this period.

From 1990 onwards certain elements within the security forces – particularly in police and military covert units– increasingly spun out of civilian political control and continued upon the criminal and murderous path embarked upon in the mid-1980s. Such elements no longer sought to keep the lid on what was always going to be a challenging security situation in the country, but now actively sought to destabilise it. In particular there was an effort to stoke the already burning conflict between ANC and Inkatha supporters in Natal, and ignite and fuel this on the Reef as well. Particular use was made of false flag or pseudo-operations which eventually made it impossible for even informed observers to tell with certainty who was responsible for particular acts of violence at the time they occurred.

The security and intelligence services were also now no longer united against a common enemy, as before 1990, but were divided against themselves. On the one hand the National Intelligence Service was trying to shepherd the negotiation process that they had initiated with the ANC to completion; while, on the other, right-wing elements within the police and SADF were effectively in outright rebellion against President FW de Klerk and Roelf Meyer’s “selling-out” of the Afrikaner.

On the other side, the early 1990s saw the release from prison and the return to South Africa of thousands of ideologically-committed and military-trained members of both the ANC and PAC’s armed wings. Even in a period of legality the liberation movements would have continued to regard the combination of legal and illegal work as standard (revolutionary) practice. From 1989 onwards Transkei’s military leader General Bantu Holomisa allowed MK and APLA to use the homeland as a secure base in which they could train their operatives, and from where they were then able to carry out armed operations into neighbouring areas. Though it had formally suspended the armed struggle in August 1990 the ANC meanwhile was arming and organising so-called “Self-Defence Units” in South Africa both to fight Inkatha and state-backed vigilante groups as well as in preparation for a resumption of a full-scale People’s War approach, should they not get their way in the negotiations.

In terms of the 1994 negotiated transition the ANC agreed to not seize white-owned farmland (and other property). Although this was a bitter concession, reluctantly made, if they had persisted with this demand, at the time, they would have precipitated a full scale civil war. The ANC leadership did not concede an inch though when it came to its commitment to its ideology of Colonialism of a Special Type. Instead its strategy was now to pursue its goal of dismantling the “legacy of colonialism”, through stages, over a twenty to twenty-five year period. The intention was to focus initially on capturing the state machinery - through a combination of cadre deployment and pushing out of white officials and officers - before eventually turning, in the final stage of the National Democratic Revolution, to an ultimate solution of the land question in South Africa.


It is evident from the pre-1991 history sketched out above that the farm attack phenomenon in South Africa has a very particular political history behind it. In the mid-1980s the ANC’s top leadership explicitly defined white farmers as the “enemy” and as a legitimate target not just of armed attacks by MK units, but of the popular violence it was seeking to unleash across the country in terms of its People’s War strategy. Though these plans largely failed in the execution stage, at least initially, the declared intention was to use various forms of sometimes quite indiscriminate violence to drive white farmers off what was seen as illegitimately acquired land. The notion that farmers were targeted because many were members of the commando system was a rather threadbare moral alibi used to obscure a decision to target a category of the civilian population largely for racial and ideological reasons.

While the ANC leadership could call off MK’s landmine campaigns when they no longer suited its political purposes, it is difficult to see how it could un-ring the bell when it came to the popular violence it had sought to incite and orchestrate against white farmers (assuming it wanted to). To begin with the success of the ANC’s People War strategy required the obliteration of normal moral taboos against robbery, killing and the destruction of property. Once broken these are not easily repaired, as evidenced in numerous other contexts in South Africa today.

Moreover, in both the 1980s and early 1990s, ANC and then PAC supporting youth were organised into small military-style units, given rudimentary military training, and taught how to successfully carry out farm attacks. The basic template involved gaining information about the target, either through surveillance or insider information, cutting the phone lines ahead of the attack, physically neutralising the farmer, seizing any weapons available, and then making off in the victim’s vehicle, which could also be used to cart off any loot. Again, once such knowledge has been widely disseminated into a population, it cannot subsequently be easily rescinded. (As an aside, it is worth emphasising that robbery was integral to the politically-inspired farm attacks described above. Given this background more recent assertions that theft or robbery in an attack somehow automatically excludes the possibility of a concurrent political or racial motive are ludicrous.)

Finally, ANC propaganda and ideological indoctrination in the 1980s sought to completely dehumanise white farmers as a class in the eyes of MK cadres and ANC supporters in South Africa. As documented above white farmers were labelled inter alia as “dogs”, “rapists”, “racists”, “exploiters” and “blood-suckers”, who had "stolen" the land. While the ANC leadership subsequently pivoted towards trying to persuade the Afrikaners to peacefully give up power, and made various gentle assurances to them while trying to do so, this earlier message continued to resonate down the years with radical youth.

To sum up then, the high level of now endemic violence against farmers in South Africa is clearly inseparable from the legacy of the ANC’s People’s War strategy, and the decision at Kabwe to define white farmers as an “enemy” to be attacked. Moreover, many of the exiled ANC leaders involved in making or executing that fateful decision later took up senior positions in the South African government and the state security forces post-1994. Afrikaner and farmer representatives who approached successive ANC governments to do something meaningful about farm attacks were, in effect, petitioning the same people who had created the problem to set about remedying it. It is little surprise, in hindsight, that they received such an indifferent response.


[1] A Radio Freedom broadcast in October 1987 put it this way: “Our struggle is not between blacks and whites, but it is between the oppressed and democratic majority on the one hand and the colonial oppressor and his agents on the other. If a black person is on the side of the enemy he must be [drowned] with the enemy.”

[2] A Radio Freedom feature on “Heroes Day” on 29 November 1981 stated as follows: “Though finally defeated in that battle, our forefathers, the warriors who fought the invading army with spears, under King Dingaan, remained undaunted. He had won a number of earlier skirmishes, scattering the Boers like terrified rats who had to take some time licking their wounds and organizing reinforcements from other parts of South Africa before they could match the gallant forces of King Dingaan.”

See also the ANC leaflet “Sons & Daughters of Africa” secretly distributed to black African schools and colleges in November 1970 and also published in Sechaba March 1971. This stated:

“Using simple weapons King Dingaan gave his order to his brave warriors: “Bulal ‘Abathakathi’ (Kill the evil men.) And they were indeed, evil men – those slave owning colonialists who had vowed that there could be no equality between black and white people neither in church and in the state. These were the evil men who had robbed the Africans of their land. What is important to understand about this battle is that Dingaan fully understood that he was dealing with a desperate, brutal and ruthless enemy. He therefore devised a plan of action that would meet the situation….Dingaan used the well known military principle of DECEPTION and SURPRISE to crush the enemy.”

[3] Mabhida was also secretary of the ANC’s Revolutionary Council at the time.

[4] Eastern Province Herald 29th November 1985

[5] Some of the details of the landmine campaign are from a previous article The ANC and the boers.

[6] Business Day 15th November 1986

[7] Citizen 21st November 1986

[8] Eastern Province Herald, 13 December 1988

[9] Mark Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki: The dream deferred, (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2007) pg. 514

[10] The Citizen, 27th November 1989

[11] Rapport, 15th July 1990