Murder and mayhem: How South African farming became a 'full-scale war'

Peta Thornycroft
Bredin Horner
Bredin Horner

When armed men broke into their farm in Free State province on Wednesday night, Mark Regal and his wife were already on high alert.

Just the day before, their neighbour and fellow farmer Eddie Hills had died in hospital, a week after being stabbed in a robbery in which his father was tied up and shot.

Aware that they too could lose more than just their property, Mrs Regal returned fire and killed one of the intruders, police said. But Mr Regal, 50, was overpowered and killed, the seventh farmer to be murdered in the province in six weeks.

The spate of killings has inflamed racial tensions in South Africa, with the Free State's white farming community accusing the ANC-ruled government of doing little to help.

Trouble first flared with last month's grisly murder of farm mechanic, Brendin Horner, 21, whose body was found tied by a noose to a fence near his cottage. When two suspects appeared in court a week later in the tiny town of Senekal, a white mob stormed the building, attempting to avenge Mr Horner's death on the spot.

Meitjie Horner
Meitjie Horner

At a following hearing, the protesters – some wearing "Boer Lives Matter" T-shirts – also faced off against the Economic Freedom Fighters, a black political party led by the radical politician Julius Malema.

Moderates among the farmers have appealed for calm, arguing that the real problem is unchecked criminality, which affects black farmers as well as white. But either way, more than just racial harmony is at stake.

Such killings are fuelling a steady exodus of whites from the farming sector, prompting fears that it could go the same way as Zimbabwe's under Robert Mugabe. Here, the problem may be crime rather than state-backed farm invasions, but with around fifty farmers murdered every year, the effect is similar.

Farmers block the main road as they stand off against Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) during the bail application for two men accused of murdering young farm manager Brendin Horner
Farmers block the main road as they stand off against Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) during the bail application for two men accused of murdering young farm manager Brendin Horner

The 30,000 white farmers in South Africa are just a third of the number in pre-apartheid times, many emigrating for safer pastures in Canada and Australia. "Being a farmer is a dangerous career," said Pierre Vercueil, a prominent member of farming organisation Agri SA.

"Many young farmers are leaving the country to continue their love of farming elsewhere, which will have an impact on food security in the future."

The crime problem is particularly acute in the Free State, a balmy plateau long known as South Africa's breadbasket. It is a stronghold of white Afrikaners, who founded it as the Orange Free State before defeat by British forces during the Boer Wars.

Today, its prime farming land is plagued by stock thieves, who flit back and forth over the porous border with neighbouring Lesotho. Farmers speak of frequent armed confrontations with the thieves, few of whom seem to fear the law much.

One suspect in the Horner case, for example, has been arrested 16 previous times for stock theft. A few local police are alleged to be involved too.

“This is organised crime," said Francois Wilken, 59, whose farms lies close to the broken-fenced border, and who had 18 pregnant ewes stolen last month. "Corruption is killing the economy. Let’s get beyond race, let’s get to the real issues.”

With little faith in the police (for whom the Free State's remoter corners are a challenge at the best of times) local farmers already rely on self-defence. Farmers run their own emergency response teams, driving to each others' aid if panic alarms are pressed.

Farmsteads have guard dogs and CCTV, while some farming groups even have drones with number plate and facial recognition technology, which can track fleeing stock thieves.

Pieter Hills and son Eddie
Pieter Hills and son Eddie

Mr Wilken, whose own father was murdered 17 years ago, fears that racial hatred plays a part in the killings. Some victims, he points out, are found tortured and mutilated. Yet at the same time, Free State farmers believe they are caricatured by outdated stereotypes, which often paints them as racist throwbacks.

While many white settler communities in Africa never master local tongues, most Free State farmers are fluent in the local language, Sesotho. They also claim to do their best to protect local black farmers, who are included in community safety associations.

Many black farmers have only been in business since post-apartheid land reform programs, and struggle because of lack of credit access. But they still fall victim to robbers.

On Tuesday, for example, Free State cattle farmer Teboho Machakela (pictured below), who described himself on Facebook as an "innovative and ambitious Young Black Farmer”, died after being shot by robbers the month before.

Teboho Machakela
Teboho Machakela

Indeed, when South Africa's police minister, Bheki Cele, met with Free State farmers to discuss their concerns on Thursday, black attendees accused his government of only acting when white farmers died.

“When one just one person dies here, (Brendin Horner) the whole world stops," complained Pitso Sekgotho, a black farmer who has had 50 cattle stolen. “Meanwhile, we are struggling every day with criminality."

Johnny Maseko, a former anti-apartheid fighter who was part of the local community police forum for 17 years, added: “This is not about race, although only a few white farmers help their black neighbours. It’s about the police and our justice system, which is failing the whole farming community.”

Last year, 49 farmers were murdered across South Africa, most of them white. While the figures have been worse (between 1997 and 2002, when there were many more white farmers, the annual toll was above 140) South Africa's reformist president Cyril Ramaphosa, who came to power two years ago, does not want more farmers to quit.

Not only does agriculture make up four per cent of South Africa's economy, it employs 700,000 people.

With that in mind, a task force has been set up to tackle the problem, while Mr Ramaphosa himself has struck a statesmanlike pose.

"The brutal killing of a young white farmer, allegedly by black men, followed by the spectacle of white farmers storming a police station to get to a black suspect has opened up wounds that go back many generations," he said.

Both communities, he added, had to "challenge racial attitudes that prevent a united response."

Few Free State farmers, though, expect the task force to improve things anytime soon, if at all. And in the meantime, a gun will be as much of their job as a tractor or a plough.

“Farming in the Free State feels like war, a full-scale war," said Jess de Klerk, chairman of the Senekal Safety Association. "We have weapons with us all the time these days."