Why South Africa’s farm murders should worry us all

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Parts of South Africa have come to a standstill today in protest against the increasing number of attacks and murders affecting those living and working on farms in the country.

The first thing to point out is that this is not a new phenomenon. Farmers in South Africa have always found themselves vulnerable to attack. Being in possession of large portions of land, in a country with significant wealth inequality, makes them an attractive target for burglars who believe (often wrongly) that land ownership equates to sizeable wealth.   The fact that, in many cases, very little ends up being stolen (in most cases due to the fact that the perpetrators realise there is very little to steal) sadly does not halt the trend.

And the sad truth is that the trend is upwards.   Recent claims that farming in South Africa is the most dangerous profession in the world, with the murder rate among farmers being four and a half times the national average murder rate (which in turn is significantly higher than the world average murder rate) have been vigorously challenged, with the Africacheck fact-checking website highlighting discrepancies in the definition of what should be classed as a farm murder versus the definitions used to determine the population of farm workers. As their report highlights, it is near impossible to get an accurate official figure for a “murder rate” on farms.

It is not, however, impossible to verify that the number of attacks and murders is increasing.  AfriForum, the South African farmers’ union, reported 357 attacks and 70 murders in 2016 – compared to 48 murders recorded in 2011.   We are not yet at the end of 2017 but already 70 murders have been reported this year – with Lorraine Claasen, a criminologist for AfriForum, pointing out that there is usually a spike in November and December which will likely see this number rise further.

Discussions around farm attacks are inevitably politically charged, and invariably degenerate into racial hostility, with terms such as “white genocide” used by white activists who see the attacks as a deliberate attempt to drive white farmers off the land and out of the country – especially given reports of the gruesome torture to which many of the victims are subjected.

Responses to the “white genocide” claims typically take two forms – with some people claiming that “white genocide” is a racist myth created by white people who only see crimes against their own race as important, while some black activists simply say “Give us back the land so that we don’t have to take it back” – fuelled, no doubt, by a claim made in 2013 by Andile Mngxitama, founder of the socialist political party “Black First! Land First!” that 80% of the land in South Africa is owned by 40,000 white people. The fact that this claim has been proven completely inaccurate will make no difference to many who believe it to be true.

As to where this claim came from – according to Africacheck, this appears to be based on conflating two separate sets of data: first, that 80% of the land in South Africa is privately owned (whether by individuals, corporations or trusts, and taking into account that the definition of “land” includes all urban real estate, as well as farms and mines) – and secondly, the fact that in 2011 there were roughly 40,000 farming units in South Africa.

But the number of farming units does not equate to the number of farmers, nor does it mean that all farming units are white-owned. Similarly, the “land” that is privately owned will be owned by people of all races.

The truth is, this is not purely a “white” problem. A Committee of Enquiry into farm attacks in 2003 determined that of the attacks that had taken place up to that date, 61.6% of victims were white, 33.3% were black, 4.4% were Asian and the remaining 0.7% were listed as “other”. While the victims’ race has not been recorded in recent years, making up-to-date racial analysis impossible, it would be naïve to believe that only white farmers are currently being attacked.

But the real reason this is not purely a “white” problem – nor, for that matter, purely a South African problem – is the wider issue of population growth, combined with the decline in agricultural production, not only in South Africa but in Africa as a whole.

South Africa, traditionally, has been a net exporter of food and agricultural products, both within Africa and the rest of the world. Since 2007, however, it has become a net importer of certain food types where previously it was a net exporter – particularly maize, rice, meat and wheat.   It remains a net exporter of citrus fruits, wine, grapes, apples, pears and quinces, and wool.

The number of commercial farmers in South Africa, meanwhile, has dropped from 128,000 in 1980, to around 30,000 currently – and is expected to fall as low as 15,000 within the next 10 years.

The reasons for this are twofold – firstly, due to low rainfall and poor soil quality, only about 12% of land in South Africa is suitable for growing crops, with recent droughts further reducing the soil quality, making farming a particularly tough business to be in.

And secondly, the lack of security – both politically and physically – is putting many farmers off. Fears for their safety, and lack of certainty over government land redistribution policies, have led many farmers to decide to sell up in favour of a more secure lifestyle.

It is very tempting to flippantly say, “Fine, let them sell up, we already import food, we can just import more”. But from where – and at what cost?

South Africa’s current largest food import markets are Argentina, Brazil, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Imports are priced according to the currency of the exporting country, meaning South Africa is paying for its imports primarily in pounds, euros and dollars.   Given the relative strength of these currencies versus the South African rand, it makes no economic sense to seek to increase food imports from those parts of the world unless absolutely necessary.

Furthermore, despite the decline in agricultural production in recent years, South Africa still has the most productive and competitive agricultural sector of any country in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). It is not only South Africans who rely on South African farms – it is the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.   With estimates that the demand for food in SSA could rise by as much as 360% by 2050, the fact that South Africa’s output is declining has implications far beyond its own borders.

Zimbabwe – another former net exporter of food, previously referred to as “the bread-basket of Africa” – has recently been reduced to food shortages which have sparked a humanitarian crisis in the country. Among the many reasons for this are the combination of land-grabs and murders that drove many of its formerly successful farmers out of the country – and drought that has devastated the crops of those who have remained. Zimbabwe now relies heavily on imports of food from South Africa.

Farming in South Africa is no doubt one of the least secure, most challenging businesses available.   But it is also one of the most vital. To have any chance of continuing, it requires significant development in technology, infrastructure and water sources – but equally it requires improvements in land reform policies such that land remains commercially viable, rather than being split up and handed over to new owners who have no experience in farming and who end up leaving the land idle.   And most importantly, it requires those who currently farm the land, to be allowed to go about their work and their lives in security.

Farm attacks are not just a white problem. Nor are they just a South African problem. If South Africa’s agricultural production is allowed to go the way of Zimbabwe’s, the knock-on effect on sub-Saharan Africa could cause a humanitarian crisis that the rest of the world simply will not be able to ignore. So let’s not ignore the protests now.










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