SA farmers under siege

Ixopo - White South African farmer David Mack says he is under a murderous siege and that land is being grabbed just as surely as commercial farms were seized by aggressive war veterans in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

"What we have here is a slow, grinding, insidious process to drive the whites off the land. The only difference with Zimbabwe is that there it was overt and blatant and covered by the press," Mack told Reuters.

Mack, whose son was murdered on their remote farm, is one of hundreds of white farmers clinging to survival in what has become statistically South Africa's most dangerous profession, with a higher chance of being killed than a policeman.

Mack's story of murder, intimidation and rampant theft, which he sees as an effort to force him off the land, is not unique. And it is not unique to white farmers.

It is echoed by black and white farmers around the country who are either abandoning farms and moving to the relative safety of the cities or emigrating. Others are gritting their teeth and saying they will not be driven off the land.

The number of commercial farmers has dropped by half over the past 50 years to about 55 000. The decline mirrors a worldwide trend, but there are also many local reasons.

Farmers face a minefield of legislation governing the use of water, land, and labour as well as tough market conditions, tax, rising fuel costs and increasing attacks and murder.

Dozens of farms in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province have been overrun as farmers and squatters tussle for ownership of land. In some cases, parts of farms on the edge of squatter camps have been invaded, with owners of small plots giving up their land.

"What we are seeing in KwaZulu-Natal is not the same as Zimbabwe where it is a concentrated land invasion. We need to find ways to manage it politically," Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza told Reuters.

She said security forces had to play a more active role in trying to combat the problem.

Land reform to slow

The government has implemented a process of land reform and land restitution to right the wrongs of decades of apartheid when blacks were forced from their land to make way for whites.

But the process has been painfully slow. Of 63 000 claims for land restitution, only 6 500 have been settled, with limited finances blamed for the lack of progress.

Didiza has said the state wants to settle about 70 000 black commercial farmers on about a million hectares (2.47 million acres) of state land over the next 15 years in a process separate from restitution.

The programme of moving blacks onto small farms has also been roundly criticised as unworkable because some of the units are too small to be commercially viable and have left poor families even poorer.

The commercial farmers' body Agri-SA says attacks on farms and murders of farmers and their workers are on the increase.

Agri-SA's director of general services Kobus Visser said the number of attacks had increased to 769 in 1998 from 434 in 1997 and murders had jumped to 142 from 85 over the same period.

Last year there were 813 attacks and 144 murders on farms, making farming statistically the most dangerous profession in the country.

"We are struggling to determine a motive for many of the murders. The motive for about 80 per cent of the attacks is crime, but for the rest we aren't really sure yet," Visser said.

He said black farmers in some cases were worse off than their white counterparts because they were further out in rural areas where there was no access to police or army patrols.

A consultant at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johnny Steinberg, who is writing a book on farm murders, said drifters were largely responsible for the attacks.

The drifters were young men who had fallen into the cracks between urban and rural communities, men who had nothing and strayed into the underworld of crime because they had been uprooted by generations of apartheid from their communities.

Mack's son murdered

Farmers live with the constant crackle of an emergency two-way radio linked to the army and police to summon help. They also spend restless nights listening for intruders and worrying about the safety of their families.

Mack, who lives with his wife behind an electrified fence in a remote farm house built at the turn of the century deep in the bush-covered hills of KwaZulu-Natal, is a bitter and angry man.

Bruce, Mack's 28-year-old son, was shot dead at close range with a shotgun in an ambush on the family farm last October.

"The second that trigger was pulled we lost everything, our future, our plans...everything," said Mack. "It was a hell of a thing for us."

Mack said he has stopped farming cattle and wound down his vegetable production this year. He was also reconsidering plans to convert his entire farm to a game farm.

"I used to employ 50 people. I now employ four. It has added to the poverty and despair in the area, but I just can't afford to carry on," he said.

"Our future is not here. Why should I stay? To prove how courageous I am?"

The murder came hard on the heels of Mack being threatened with death and battling a spate of arson attacks and theft on a neighbouring farm he had recently bought from a farmer driven off the land by similar incidents.

Farmers can't find buyers

John Pierce, the head of a community watch group in Underberg near the Lesotho border said there were at least 18 000 hectares of abandoned farms nearby because there were no buyers since the Zimbabwe crisis and rampant cattle theft.

"Farmers have just walked off their land. They can't sell it for any price and that's not just one farmer, we are talking about eight or 10," said Pierce.

War veterans invaded and seized at least 1 000 white-owned commercial farms in Zimbabwe ahead of a June parliamentary election in a process endorsed by the government, which said it was the correction of a historical imbalance of land ownership.

There are some farmers who will not give up their land.

Hansie Venter's wife was shot dead in front of their children at the end of 1997 at their sheep farm near Burgersdorp in the Eastern Cape province after disturbing burglars.

The men gathered the frightened children - one of them just a baby - around the wounded woman, put a gun under her chin and pulled the trigger.

"We are carrying on, but it is tough. The two older children realise their mother is dead, but the two younger ones ask why," Venter says, his soft voice becoming softer and tearful."I don't know how to answer them. I just don't know what to say."

But Venter says he will continue farming.

"I will always farm. I will never sell my land," he said.

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