Are the police finally serious about farm murders?

Ernst Roets on the significance of the SAPS announcement that such attacks are now a priority crime

Farm murders now a priority crime: Wat does it mean and will it make a difference?

The announcement that farm murders will be a priority crime as from 2016 is probably the best news of the year. In his private discussion with AfriForum and at the joint press conference that followed the discussion, the acting national police commissioner Lieutenant General Khomotso Phahlane made it clear that the police are not busy with a publicity stunt but that they are fully committed to put their words into action.

AfriForum sees this as a major victory. We have already been running a campaign since 2012 to get farm murders prioritised. We wrote letters, organised conferences, held wreath layings before the minister’s office, organised protests and even pleaded with the United Nations, to name only a few of our initiatives. However, we do not for one moment suggest that this breakthrough is solely due to AfriForum. Several organisations have made invaluable contributions in their respective fields of work. In particular, TAU SA and the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) can be mentioned here.

Yes, you may be sceptical

The question is of course: What now? People are sceptical about this announcement. “Seeing is believing,” says one. “If they did nothing for so long, what makes you think that they’re going to do anything now?” asks another. Then there are those who ask what this announcement really means. It almost sounds as if a note has been made on a record somewhere, and now farm murders are all of a sudden a priority crime.

This scepticism is well-founded, of course. People are living in the real world. And in the real world, they are confronted on real farms with the reality about which AfriForum has been protesting for so long: Poor service to the public, slow reaction time, investigations that are being done half-heartedly.

When I say this, I of course do acknowledge those police officers who still do excellent work and who help to save lives every day. Furthermore, it is not as if a hundred thousand police officers will come marching out of the police college after this announcement, ready to protect the farmers.

Phahlane himself said that the solution must be realistic and it is not possible to put a police officer on every farm. One of the points tabled by the commissioner on that day, is indeed the fact that there is a drastic decrease in young white people joining the SAPS. #RenateBarnard #EmploymentEquity.

Then why be ecstatic about this breakthrough?

The announcement that farm murders are being prioritised, is undoubtedly a historical one. Although we do not at all pretend that a crisis as complex as farm murders can be solved with a single press conference, it can have far-reaching consequences in the medium to long term. Here are a few reasons why I say this:

1.    Deprioritisation is stopped

Since 2003, farm murders have systematically been deprioritised by government and the police. Prior to 2003, the government had said that farm murders must be a priority. But then, in 2003, the former president, Thabo Mbeki, unexpectedly announced that the commandos would be abolished.

No reasons were given for this, and we can assume that his reasons were political in nature, because if there ever had been a meaningful project on which state money was spent to promote public safety, it was the commando system.

Since then we have heard the most alarming statements from government circles about farm murders, for instance that farm murders cannot be a priority because farmers must realise that they are not “golden boys and girls” or that those calling for the prioritisation of farm murders are only busy with publicity stunts and should not be taken seriously.

With Phahlane’s announcement, the couldn’t-care-less attitude at the national level and the process of deprioritisation that has gathered momentum the past thirteen years, have been brought to an abrupt stop.

2.    Statistics will be published

According to police figures there was a 25% increase in farm attacks in 2007. In response to this, it was suddenly announced that no further statistics would be released. The police even said in the media that they no longer maintained those figures. The excuses that were offered for this, are not at all valid.

In our view, this step was the final indication that farm murders were not a priority. During our meeting with the commissioner, the police statistics were shared with AfriForum in quite some detail.

This in itself was a major breakthrough. It is still unclear whether these statistics will be published together with the annual crime statistics, but we now know that the police maintain these figures, that they are now studying it and that they are willing to share it with AfriForum in the search for a solution.

3.    Analysis of the problem

Under Phahlane’s leadership, the police started analysing the problem even before our meeting. Part of this analysis was also shared with us. Figures were analysed. Provinces and regions were compared. Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and North West, for example, were identified as the most vulnerable regions for farm attacks. Critical areas (so-called “hotspots”) were identified. These include areas such as Brits, Rustenburg, Muldersdrift, Modimolle (Nylstroom) and Letsitele.

4.    Analysis of police action

An analysis was also made of the ground-level response of the police to farm attacks and their modus operandi at this stage. All the recent farm attacks were evaluated and a progress report has been prepared on these cases. The broad outlines of the report were shared with us.

5.    The strategy is being reviewed

I cannot even count the times the police’s Rural Protection Strategy (Rural Safety Strategy, commonly abbreviated as RSS) was mentioned in recent years as evidence that the police are indeed serious about farm murders. Our comments on the RSS have always been twofold: In the first place, it is a good idea and it will help to make a difference, but it is not being implemented.

In the second place, there is much room for improvement of the plan. It addresses safety in rural areas. The big crisis in rural areas is farm murders – but the plan makes no reference to farm murders at all. Thus, it is a good general plan, but it is not necessarily geared to specifically address farm murders.

During our discussion, the police commissioner and his team raised the issue of the RSS themselves. And guess what they said?

Firstly, the status of the implementation of the plan has been reviewed and it seems that it is not applied equally well everywhere.

Secondly, more thinking needs to be done on the strategy. It has already been suggested that farm murders should be included in this – it will involve proactive steps to prevent farm murders from happening and also reactive steps to be taken after a farm murder.

6.    Action plan for greater visibility

An action plan for greater visibility has been developed. During the press conference, it was clear that the commissioner did not want to disclose the details of this plan and I therefore will not do it here either. The details that we did see, however, will definitely make a difference if implemented at ground level.

7.    Awareness strategy

The police are working on a communication and marketing strategy, to make the police’s local structures and the community more aware of this problem in the first place. What is specifically important in this regard, is the fact that preventive measures are included in the strategy.

Police are planning to do their own research, using their own resources, and especially to provide information to farmers about what they can practically do to minimise their chances of being attacked or killed during an attack.

8.    Liaison with stakeholders

Part of our frustration to date was that a lot of doors were closed for us and we could only talk about farm murders with government through the media and from across the UN council tables. In the plan, police specifically made provision for liaison with stakeholders at national, provincial and local level.

In the meeting it has already been decided that a follow-up discussion should be arranged, where the various agricultural unions should be involved as well. There are many institutions and organisations in local communities (especially safety networks) that can play an invaluable role in the fight against farm murders. Whereas they had largely been left in the dark in the past, the police’s plan now is to involve these people and organisations in the fight against farm murders.

9.    Current and future preventive measures

A list was also compiled of preventive measures currently being implemented by the police and possible measures that could be added in the future. I cannot give too much detail about this either, since the publication thereof may negatively impact on these measures.

I can announce, however, that the police have shared a list with us of at least ten different initiatives that will be implemented in the short term. These include a national security conference.

10. Greater cooperation with communities

AfriForum has always suggested that we need to follow a dual strategy against farm murders: On the one hand, we must put pressure on the government and the police to prioritise farm murders. On the other hand, we cannot sit back and do nothing while we wait for the government to intervene – we must get involved!

We explained this strategy to the national police commissioner and all the provincial commissioners. Phahlane immediately emphasised that this strategy is one part of the solution – the other part of the solution being the police’s actions.

Phahlane stated that the police intend to follow the same dual strategy, but from a police perspective, namely: The police should do more to prevent farm attacks and murders and to address these where they do happen, but the police must also realise that they cannot win this battle on their own, and that they need the community’s help. Therefore the police must provide room for local communities (especially community safety networks) to play a greater role in this regard. A perfect fit!

Okay – but what now?

If you’re still sceptical, you will at this stage be asking what guarantee can be given that all these plans will be carried out in practice. It is a valid question, and much as we want to, we cannot give a guarantee about something over which we have no control. What we can say with confidence, though, is that Phahlane convinced us of his intention to actively do something to address this crisis.

What makes Phahlane different from his predecessors, is the fact that he is not a politician, but a career police officer who has served in the police since 1984. He is intensely aware of the extent of the problem and in the private discussions with him he made it very clear to us that he intended to tackle this crisis.

Does this mean that there will never again be a farm attack? Unfortunately not. If there were a proverbial silver bullet that could immediately stop all farm attacks, we would have fired it long ago already. The reality is complex and the solution even more so.

However, if everything that was said, is indeed put into practice, it will certainly have an impact. And the good news is that AfriForum is not a spectator in this battle, but an active participant. The good relationship that we have with the national leadership of the police and the subsequent discussions that will take place, imply that we can monitor the process and give feedback on the extent to which promises are realised.

One farm murder is one too many. But every farm murder that we prevent, is one farm that does not die, one employer that continues to strengthen the economy, a producer who continues to put food on our tables, one family that is not destroyed and one community that is not in mourning.

Let’s do what we can!

Ernst Roets is Deputy CEO of AfriForum. Follow Ernst on Twitter at @ernstroets.

This article first appeared in Afrikaans on www.maroelamedia.co.za