14/03/2017 20:17 SAST | Updated 15/03/2017 11:23 SAST

Notes From The House: Farmers Can't Get Away From Race

Tuesday's debate on farm attacks was dispiriting and divisive. Organised agriculture still has its work cut out.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters


Dan Kriek (50) is the strapping, broad-shouldered and even-tempered president of Free State Agriculture, the union that represents most commercial farmers in that province. He's also the deputy president of AgriSA, the largest representative body of commercial farmers in the country.

He was tasked with modernising AgriSA two years ago, and specifically to change the image of farmers, who are mostly white, mostly Afrikaans and always under pressure.

As a farmer near the town of Tweeling in the North Eastern Free State, with a prize cattle stud as the mainstay of his enterprise, he knows first-hand what challenges commercial farmers in South Africa face.

Kriek -– whose father is a renowned academic and political scientist -– is part of a new generation of agriculturalists: certain of their place in this country's social and democratic architecture, aware of the fraught political history of their calling and seemingly determined to work with government in finding solutions to land reform and restitution.

At gatherings of organised agriculture -– under the auspices of AgriSA -– there's no talk of "us and them" or "the black government", references to "the good old days" or "we're becoming another Zimbabwe", and not a whisper of the k-word. Instead there's a visible commitment to search for common ground with government, a striking "can-do-attitude" and a sobriety about the realities facing society, the sector and the economy rarely seen elsewhere, let alone government.

That's why the debate about the highly emotive issue of farm attacks and farm murders in the National Assembly on Tuesday was probably such a disappointment to Kriek and his colleagues. Besides putting the matter on the order paper and having a slot for debate allocated to it, the tabling of the issue didn't do much besides prise open ancient fault lines and magnify divisions.

And all of these are centred around race.

Very few speakers rose to the occasion and was able to distinguish between crime and politics, with almost all of them conflating the issue, which saw the debate degenerate to something from circa 1991.

Pieter Groenewald, leader of the Freedom Front Plus who requested the debate, offered nothing on Tuesday except graphic detail of gruesome murders on farms, replete with biographical detail of white victims. There was no mention of the identity of black victims, even though he said they, too, suffered under rural violence and murder.

Annette Steyn, herself a farmer in the Eastern Cape and an MP from the Democratic Alliance (DA), decried the fact that "no one says anything when we hear of people burnt with an iron or burning plastic, tortured with a blowtorch ... are we quiet because it is farmers?"

She acknowledged that farmworkers also suffer, adding that seven of the 12 farm attacks that recently occurred in the Free State had workers as targets: "These attacks are well-planned and executed. They aren't normal crimes anymore."

The Economic Freedom Fighters' Hlengiwe Hlophe was a mirror image of Groenewald -– her speech boiling down to a racial census of victims, but hers limited to black sufferers.

"Why must it be," Groenewald asked. "That when nine people die of violence on the Cape Flats daily, we should highlight the murders of a few white people above others?"

Mosioua "Terror" Lekota –- the Cope leader who a decade ago today was still the minister of defence and the chairperson of the African National Congress -– implored "good men and women" to speak out against the apparent divisive rhetoric of President Jacob Zuma and EFF leader Julius Malema.

"We can't keep quiet when he [Malema] is on a platform, screaming at a section of the population and threatening them, saying that when he comes to power he's going to walk all over them ... 'hulle moet pasop!'" the old struggle veteran said amidst cheers and jeers before his microphone was disabled by the chair.

Surprisingly, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko, a commander in Zuma's praetorian guard, brought a measure of decorum and a degree of wisdom when he spoke, declaring his and government's support of commercial farmers.

"We have no desire to trivialise the murders on our farmers and compatriots, who are mostly white," he said, not forgetting the racial tinge of the debate.

Nhleko said crime on farms and in rural areas needed to be understood within the broader context of crime in the country and that it's important not to "overly exaggerate or contend" that there is a political campaign to "kill white farmers or drive them into the sea" –- a favourite tool used by some to whip up ethnic isolationism.

This was echoed by Francois Beukman from the African National Congress (ANC), who said there is no evidence that the nature of farm attacks is unique or different to other instances of violent crime.

The minister added that in 2001 to 2002, there were 1,069 farm attacks and 103 fatalities. Between 2015 and 2016, those figures dropped to 457 and 50 respectively.

The most telling statement of the afternoon -– tucked away in the middle of an otherwise bland and uninspiring speech, towing the party line -– belonged to Beukman, the chairperson of the portfolio committee on police and one of the last remaining National Party holdovers in the governing party.

Explaining what the government is doing to combat crime -– a rural safety strategy, white papers, beefing up crime intelligence –- he said farmers and workers will be the safest when they work and live together: "The conditions in which they live [the farmworkers] do affect the way in which they respond during an attack."

The debate was one in which white South Africans were pitted against black South Africans. White farmers against black farmworkers. A white industry against a black majority. White suffering against black suffering.

Wherever Kriek was when he heard this, it must have been dispiriting. Beukman's assertion encapsulated everything around the debate: generalisations around farmers and their workers, their race, workers' involvement with crime and the degree to which they are mistreated by their employers.

The inference is that there is a correlation between the treatment of workers by their employers and attacks on farms, and that if they aren't treated well or fairly, they might not help or react during a farm attack, or, worse, that they are complicit. It could even be construed as a shot across the bow of Kriek and his colleagues, intimating that if they don't improve living conditions one never knows what might happen.

The debate was one in which white South Africans were pitted against black South Africans. White farmers against black farmworkers. A white industry against a black majority. White suffering against black suffering.

If perception is reality, then Beukman's statement is the truth. Which means Kriek and his colleagues –- unfairly –- still have a long way to go.