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Farm attacks and moral panics

I am often one to criticise the media for generating unwarranted fears. I see the swine flu “epidemic” as one clear example of media hype being larger than the real problem. South Africa is perceived to be one of the most violent countries in the world with the crime and violence widely reported in the global media. One form of highly sensationalised violence is the
farm attacks”,
which is the name used to designate attacks on “white” farmers by “black” Africans. These attacks are given much media attention and appear to embody generalised racial tensions and fears in South Africa.

As someone who lived and worked in a rural community I have been curious to understand more about rural relations between peoples that share an area but form two very separate communities. When I was doing my fieldwork I was often warned that I was going to be killed living in a rural space and the farm attacks were highlighted as examples of my impending demise.

The violence in certain rural communities appears to suggest that poor social relations between white farmers and African communities may feed into acts of violence and generalised lack of empathy between the communities. There may be historical precedents to this violence such as apartheid-era oppression or violence perpetrated by whites against blacks that went unchecked in the recent past.

The racialisation of the attacks is connected to the apartheid past as well as contemporary racial discourses in South Africa that still resonate with apartheid-era labels. However this simple portrayal of the rural violence may be incorrect and to label all farm attacks as racially motivated is probably incorrect. Many are probably just armed robberies that are far too often deadly no matter their location. But it is far too easy to dismiss these attacks as mere robberies and there are clearly cases where other factors are at play.

The farm attacks and the associated violence may be used as a lens on which to focus greater issues of race and violence in South Africa. This is possible due to the amount of media coverage as well as the generalised discourses of violence in South Africa that are generated in relation to the farm attacks. The unprecedented media coverage resembles a media moral panic whereby the media overstates criminality and generates unwarranted fear. This was my initial stance on farm violence. I thought it was being over-reported and fear being needlessly generated.

And there has been some data that suggests farm attacks are less common than perceived, but up-to-date information is not readily available or well-analysed. Statistics South Africa (from 2006) released reports that break violent crime in the country down into these categories:

  • Murder and attempted murder,

  • Robbery,
  • Rape and associated crimes,
  • Burglary; and
  • Farm attacks.
  • The breakdown of the reports highlights the special attention given to farm attacks that mark it as separate from other violent crimes. According to this report, in 2003 there were 103 farm attacks. How many people were killed in each attack is unclear as they refer to each incident and not individuals attacked. According to earlier police statistics there were 356 murders on farms between January 1997 and December 1999. Overall murders from 1991 to date that are referred to as farm attacks range from 2500-3037 depending on the source.

    Now one can look at these statistics and argue that 356 murders over this period of time shows that the murder rate of farmers is much lower than that of young black men. This is true, but is a misleading use of statistics. Statistics should be used to compare similar populations or at least acknowledge the differences between such groups as well as limits of the analysis. They are not transparent receptacles of “truth”.

    Having lived and worked in a rural space for many years, I was surprised at the fortresses that the white farmers lived behind. Houses were unapproachable due to large dogs, fences and gates. The farmers are often organised into community watches and are in frequent radio contact with one another. Most also have private security companies that they can contact if there is an emergency. Many were armed and well-trained in the use of their weapons.

    What this suggests is that the murder rate of farmers is extraordinarily high despite their attempts to shield themselves and their families from these horrific attacks. What also needs to be noted is that there is also often torture and extreme violence that suggests other motives beyond theft.

    And yes I am aware that following from the apartheid past is a range of socio-economic problems and massive inequalities. As Paul Farmer states that the “dismantling of the apartheid regime has not brought the dismantling of the structures of oppression and inequality in South Africa … ”

    However horrific the poverty experienced by poor Africans that may be linked to the past, farm attacks need to be better understood and the fears of the farmers addressed. They are under siege as are many people in this country. Criminality in general needs to be targeted, but farm murders and attacks need to be understood as hate crimes and fought against as hate crimes. They serve as an example of the worst type of labelling and dehumanising of the victims. Though I do not buy into claims of an orchestrated campaign by the state, I do believe there is too much hatred and neglect of the issue.

    As I said above, the issue can be seen as a lens on which to focus greater issues of race and violence in South Africa. If we do not get this one right, then the future does not look good — more fear, more hatred and a rural economy in worse decline.


    • Michael Francis

      I have returned to South Africa. I now teach Economic History and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I am happy to be back after a couple years away. I had been teaching anthropology at a Canadian University, but Africa called and I returned.