OPINION | On being responsible: Minister Cele and farm murders

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Police Minister Bheki Cele (Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)
Police Minister Bheki Cele (Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)
Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart

More needs to be done to look into the causes of what is behind farm murders, rather than relying on narrow narratives, writes Terence Corrigan.

Police Minister Bheki Cele is to be commended for submitting himself to a lengthy interview with Adriaan Basson (‘Frontline: “We are beginning to co-govern with gangsters,” Cele says’, 9 October). It was a valuable opportunity to probe his perspective as the minister in charge of policing on the painful issue of violent crime against farming communities, a subject that has come into renewed focus with the gruesome murder of Paul Roux farm manager Brendin Horner.

Engagement of this nature is crucial to understanding, debate and criticism, from which demands for accountability can flow. At least potentially. We need more of it.

Cele framed his position as one deeply concerned about the safety of all rural dwellers and – at Basson’s prompting – denied claims that he said in a recent meeting that farmers who impounded others’ cattle "shouldn’t complain if they get hurt".

This, he said correctly, would be "irresponsible".

READ | Fact check: No evidence Bheki Cele said farmers shouldn't complain when they get hurt

And that is a good position in which to frame a response. The old cliché that with great power comes great responsibility is never more applicable than when it applies to leadership in a volatile situation. Violent crime poisons the lives of ordinary people, undermines our economic prospects and poses a very real threat to South Africa’s future as a constitutional democracy.

For farming communities – of all races, farm owners and farmworkers alike – this is magnified by their relative isolation and the difficulties of reaching out for help in an emergency. Among close-knit networks, many people will personally know others who have fallen victim.

According to the Transvaal Agricultural Union, there have been some 2 088 murders during 5 585 attacks on farms between 1990 and August this year. Of these, about 90% were farmers or their family members, 9% were farmworkers and the balance, visitors. Each of these represented a spread of race, sex and age.

Minimise this threat and the fear around it, or manipulate either, "at your peril" – to borrow some words from the minister.

The minister’s narrative is that labour disputes, racial "tensions" and insecurity around land reform are key to the issue. Labour relations were in some places "really, really bad".

His evidence for this is sketchy. Few would argue that more harmony in workplaces or in the country at large would be eminently desirable. However, it is not clear whether this does much to explain violent crime on farms, much less provide a deterrent strategy for it.

READ | Analysis: Brendin Horner murder: 'You dont solve a criminal situation by committing criminal acts'

The truth is, we do not know a great deal about what motivates farm attacks. A 2003 report (the minister conceded that there was a need to "update that understanding") published by a commission of inquiry into the phenomenon, found that "labour related" disputes accounted for only 1.6% of instances, "political" or "racial" factors for 2%, "intimidation" for 7.1%, and "robbery" for the vast majority, at 89.3%. In other words, labour-related, political and racial motivations seem to have driven less than 4% of attacks.

This information is old, but in the absence of anything more current, it may be the best we have. If the minister has any other information, he should be transparent about it. In his interview, he offered nothing but vague anecdotes, particularly allegations passed on to him about one farmer. These seem not to have been tested, nor is it clear whether the farmer has been the victim of an attack.

A narrative

This proves very little. It seems to represent a narrative that owes more to prejudice about farmers and an ideological worldview than to hard evidence. One cannot help seeing in that the implication that farmers are in some way bringing violence on themselves by their own behaviour. The minister speaks of "revenge" here. Without evidence, this is indeed deeply irresponsible.

There are no doubt there are abusive farmers and farm managers – as exist in every industry, dare one say, even in the civil service and police. Farms are subject, as are other premises, to labour inspections to prevent abuses.

Nor, incidentally, would the involvement of a farmworker in an attack on a farmer necessarily point to culpability on the part of the latter. The tragic case of the murder of Tim Green from Northern KwaZulu-Natal, killed by a gang that included an employee, is an example. His assailant, Mfanukhona Masiteng, told the court that Green had always been kind and helpful to him and his family. "I don’t know what came over me," he said.

Presiding Judge Jerome Mnguni said: "He went the extra mile to lend you a helping hand, and you thanked him in a way that he never expected."

These are complex problems that need to be addressed. Reckless assumptions are a hindrance to doing so.

READ | Cyril Ramaphosa: Brendin Horner murder: Whether you are black or white, crime is a collective problem

Minister Cele has subsequently been joined by President Ramaphosa in his weekly newsletter. Condemning Horner’s murder, his message rested heavily (though not exclusively) on repudiating racism and stressing the importance of rural development. "If we are to succeed in tackling violent crime, particularly in rural communities, we must confront this trauma and challenge the racial attitudes that prevent a united response."

This is true. Whatever may motivate violent crime, mutual respect and cooperation among communities is a potent weapon against it – indeed, with the state in its current dysfunction, this may be the only hope.

But too much official rhetoric and policy pushes directly against this, whether in the allegations of labour abuse by farmers, by the regular invocation of "our people", as opposed to, well… others. However satisfying this may be as politics, it only compounds the country’s crises.

Minister Cele is correct to emphasise a duty to be responsible. It is a message that should be heeded.

- Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). 

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