AfriForum's own farm murder stats don't support their claims

Elmien du Plessis

My father taught me that you must always speak in a way that lifts people up. Perhaps it's a lesson that I should have taken more to heart when I composed my Twitter thread on farm murders in response to Ernst Roets' tweet about AfriForum's delegation to the United States to "lobby against racist theft (#LandExpropriation) and #FarmMurders".

I used AfriForum's own statistics to show that, in my opinion, the statistics do not support their claims of an ongoing genocide against white people, or even white farmers in South Africa. In my opinion, the information that AfriForum disseminates into the public domain on a variety of platforms is, at times, misleading.

Roets responded with a 31-minute video in which he addresses my claims accompanied by a series of tweets in which he says I give "the legal academic profession a bad name with this series of pseudo intellectual poppycock".

My interest in the debate stems from the fact that in certain groups the conversation on land reform in general, but in the context of expropriation without compensation specifically, inevitably leads to farm murders. I find there is a curious correlation and conflation of these issues, which is why I try and listen carefully to those arguments. I went to some lengths to genuinely try and understand AfriForum's position on these issues, and even attended one of their events on expropriation. 

At the event there was a clear emphasis on the right to own property and the right to be proud of your property, which then moved to the right to protect your property. The protection of your property in this sense means to build a fort, and to exclude the rest of the world – to build a laager for the expected onslaught of people wanting to take your property.

AfriForum's protectionist stance does not sit well with me and has been criticised by the Constitutional Court (in a minority judgment that ruled in their favour). According to the judgment, the judges "[D]isagree profoundly with AfriForum's view of history. And we think it would be better for white Afrikaans people, and indeed everyone else, to find their sense of place and belonging, not only in the past, but also in a shared future, one the Constitution nurtures and guards for all of us, together, united in our diversity. But does that entitle us to say that AfriForum members' sense of belonging, place and loss is not real and that it should not also be recognised under the Constitution? The answer is No."

This is my concern. Some commentators suggest that instead of criticising AfriForum, efforts should be aimed at government (which, in turn, would take the wind out of AfriForum's sails). While I can agree with this to some extent, the fact remains: social cohesion in this country is pulling at the seams. In the absence of a well-functioning government, the citizenry needs to step up, and it will require co-operation. 

Civil society organisations are important. But we should always be mindful that the way in which we do the work, the accountability, fits within the ambit of the Constitution, which requires inclusivity. How we are doing it is as important as what we are doing.

432 years to kill all commercial farmers

This also applies to how we determine murder rates. AfriForum claims there is a murder rate of 154/100 000 farmers. The biggest problem with determining the murder rate is that there is no generally accepted definition of "farm attack". Is it only an attack on a farmer? Are black farmers included? What about family members and farm workers? If a farmer and his wife are both murdered, does this count as one attack or two? 

This is critically important because the farm murder rate is calculated by taking the farm attack victims as defined, dividing that number through the total population of that group and then multiplying that result by 100 000, rendering a figure of murders per 100 000 for a specific group. The denominator should be the total possible size of the group for which you are determining the murder rate. 

If you want to determine the murder rate for a suburb you need to account for all the murders in that suburb, comparing that first figure to the total number of inhabitants in that suburb. Similarly, if you want to determine the murder rate for commercial farmers in South Africa you can't include any victims who are not listed as commercial farmers. That is the first problem.

The second problem is that "farm attack" is not a crime itself. Attacks get reported as murder, rape, assault and so on, so it is difficult to keep track of it. The third problem is what property one includes. Is the inquiry restricted to big farms only? Or do we include small holdings? Must the person be farming on the land, or will people who rent houses on farms, although not farming, also be included?

I tweeted that in 2016/2017 there were 74 farm murders (including murders on smallholdings, which some people leave out of the calculation). At this rate it will take 432 years to kill all the commercial farmers (and families).

How did I get to 432 years? By dividing AfriForum's rate by the official commercial farming population of 35 000 (this figure does not include workers). This overstates the murder rate. I chose these statistics because it is the most generous to AfriForum's claims. 

I can acknowledge that I have simplified the argument due to the limitations of Twitter as a platform. But in the absence of the exact number of commercial farmers murdered (there are no separate entries for commercial farmers), or alternatively, the number of people who fall in the definition of farmers (do we add smallholdings and the 10 300 reported family members? The 5000 partnership activity owners? The 771 000 employees?), it is nearly impossible to get a figure. 

Who you include in the denominator will greatly impact your rate. If we include ALL people living on farms, the calculation will stand at 8/100 000. This is well under the national average of 34/100 000.  

Race not the main motivator for attacks

In 2014 AfriForum initiated a process at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on the issue of farm murders. A report was produced with several findings. 

The commission acknowledged the concerns around race in the safety of farming communities. It acknowledged that safety and security issues persist in farming communities but denies that it is based on race. It found the term "farm attacks and/or murder" to be inappropriate. 

The report highlighted "a lack of adequate and effective collaboration between all members of the farming communities to secure their safety and security".  It condemned the violent nature of these killings, but again denied that overall, these are racially motivated. 

While the SAHRC agreed that some of the attacks are motivated by racial hate or hostility, the evidence that was presented to them weighed heavily to the criminal element. This ties in with previous research on the subject.

Irresponsible to paint bigger picture with details of individual incidents

Often when reading the newspapers on farm murders the impression is created that every attack is accompanied by torture. 

Mr Roets states that 20% of murders are accompanied by torture, and that this is a substantial amount and horrible. I hear the individual stories, I read the reports in the newspapers too. As a human they affect me deeply. But it would be irresponsible to paint the bigger picture from these individual stories. 

Roets asks if I would quote statistics of how long it would take to murder all farmers to the victims of farm attacks. I always try to not rip the scab off a person's wound. I am however cognisant of the fact that Twitter is an open platform and that my words there are open to be read by anyone, and that I already speak to the victims. That is the reason why I also tweeted that "[p]eople's lived experiences should not be overshadowed by data". 

I acknowledge the experience of those who suffer torture. My tweets state so too. 

Biased reporting?

When it comes to news reports on farm murders Mr Roets and I are in disagreement. The impression that I get is that farm murders are reported on more frequently than other murders. While the two incidents involving black farmworkers that Roets refers to (Coligny and the coffin case) might have been reported on 16 times more than other murders, in numbers it remains only two, and as a percentage it seems negligible. 

I know of ongoing studies in this regard and will encourage the authors to write on it once the study is completed. 

Condemn all murders equally

I condemn farm murders as I condemn any murder. I weep for the victims of farm murders as I weep for the victims of any murder. Whether by shooting, torture, or hanging from lamp posts. There is no justification for the taking of a life. Whether that life ends on a farm, smallholding or latrine on the Cape Flats. All life is precious. 

But a useful solution can only be found if the problem is correctly identified and contextualised, as the SAHRC points out. With what is said here, I leave it to Mr Roets himself to reflect on whether they do this. That answer is between him and his conscience. The results of their actions however will, in time, bear down upon all the citizens of this country. 

In the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary, and relying on the findings of the SAHRC, who consulted with various stakeholders, I remain resolute: farm murders as part of rural violence are problematic and need specific solutions to fit the unique circumstances of the situation. A failure to address the issue will lead to the human rights of all the members in these communities being infringed. 

We need to address crime in this country, and we need to address the special challenges that rural communities face without favour or prejudice to any group. 

But these problems are our problems, as a country. It affects us all. There is no deliberate movement to drive white people en masse off the land or out ofq the country. There is no genocide. To claim that is insulting, not only to the citizens of this country, but to the victims of genocide in history.

I remain stubbornly adamant that there are more people in this country that want to find sensible, workable solutions for the problems we face than there are people who drive us apart. It is time for those voices to rise.

* This article has been adapted after publication.

- Elmien du Plessis is an associate-professor at law at the North-West University, and a pseudo-intellectual poppycock lawyer on Twitter.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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