“Something like 400 white farmers have been murdered, brutally murdered, over the last 12 months.”
That’s what former Australian prime minister Tony Abott told a Sydney radio station in March this year, in support of the proposal to fast-track Australian visas for white South African farmers.
The real figure is 46, the South African Police Service (SAPS) told Parliament this week as part of its annual crime statistics release.
And even a group like AfriForum, which has lobbied internationally on the plight of white farmers, isn’t disputing that number.
“Murder statistics tend to be accurate,” AfriForum’s Ian Cameron told Daily Maverick on Wednesday. “It looks accurate.”
The police’s statistics for murder victims on farms and smallholdings were, unusually, disaggregated for race – a sign of the pressure that groups like AfriForum have succeeded in placing on authorities when it comes to reporting on this type of crime.
The police’s Norman Sekhukhune told Parliament that 62 murders were recorded in total over 2017/18 during 58 attacks on South African farms or smallholdings. Ten of those killed were farmworkers or managers, and 52 were the owners or occupiers of the land.
Thirty-three house robberies, six attempted murders and two rapes on farms were also recorded over this period.
Sixty-two farm murders of a total 20,336 murders means that farm murders represented just over 0.3% of all killings in South Africa in 2017.
It’s a fraction which has led many South Africans to question the prominence given to this type of crime in the national debate – particularly given the adoption of the issue internationally, by politicians in not just Australia but also the United Kingdom and the USA.
Most significantly, in late August 2018 US President Donald Trump tweeted that he had ordered research into the “large scale killing of farmers” in South Africa – a comment which came on the back of a lobbying trip to the US in May by AfriForum leaders.
But even after this week’s crime statistics release, AfriForum insists that a strong focus on the issue is justified.
While the group is not quibbling with the murder figures, it suggests that the police statistics for the number of non-fatal attacks on farms are wrong.
“I don’t want to simply just criticise the police,” AfriForum’s Cameron told Daily Maverick.
“But maybe they didn’t make the full attack figures available because it might confirm [the justification for] the attention AfriForum is asking for.”
The basis for AfriForum’s claim that the police figures are incomplete is the discrepancy between the group’s own records and the SAPS numbers. Cameron says that AfriForum’s records show that “just from January 2018 to 12 September, we’ve had 303 farm attacks in this country”.
The group gathers its records from 7,200 community safety members throughout the country, who feed back attack reports to AfriForum’s “control room”, Cameron says. He claims that the attack reports are verified with emergency services and local police.
“We are worried that somewhere, something is getting lost between station level and national level,” Cameron says.
In a meeting which took place on Wednesday between AfriForum and farmers’ unions, he says that the organisations were unanimous: “The attack statistics [don’t] make sense.”
When Sekhukhune reported to Parliament, however, he said that police cross-referenced their numbers with those kept by other agricultural stakeholders. He also clarified that the statistics excluded domestic violence or crimes resulting from “liquor abuse” or “common social interaction”.
The wrangling over numbers has been a perpetual feature of the farm murder discussion, but it doesn’t address the issue’s central question: what justification is there for treating this category of crime as worthy of a higher priority than others?
It’s a question Cameron fields regularly. He has a well-rehearsed answer which rests on two points: the high ratio of farm murders in relation to the size of the farming population, which is estimated at around 30,000; and the importance of farming to the local economy.
“If you’ve got 30,000 engineers in the country responsible for providing petrol, and they were to be attacked at a disproportionate rate, obviously it would have a massive influence,” he says.
In a country as violent as South Africa, however, it is hard to say what constitutes a “disproportionate” rate of violence against a particular group – since farmers are, together with police, one of the only occupational groups for whom such statistics are made publicly available.
SAPS does not present disaggregated statistics for deaths among cash-in-transit drivers, for instance. Yet Annaliese Burgess’ 2018 book Heist: South Africa’s Cash-in-Transit Epidemic Uncovered reports that there were 370 cash-in-transit incidents in 2017 – an increase of 105% in three years – with an increase of 70% in fatalities.
Cameron’s second point is that farmers also make a disproportionate contribution to the local economy, and their deaths accordingly have a “massive impact which often affects an entire community”. In some cases, he says unemployment can result for hundreds of workers. (He concedes that the same could be said for the death of other forms of business owners.)
Asked by Daily Maverick if any research had been undertaken by AfriForum on the economic impact of farm attacks, Cameron said that none was currently available.
But he claimed that in cases he had personal knowledge of, “it often takes five to eight years for a farm to become commercially viable again”.
Discussing the loss of human lives solely in terms of their economic contribution to a society may seem a callous approach – but it is nonetheless one of the arguments that groups like AfriForum foreground most forcefully as a way of avoiding more contentious appeals on the grounds of race or culture.
Asked if the death of 46 white farmers per year constitutes a “white genocide” in the way that some have claimed, Cameron is quick to distance his organisation from that term.
“We have never once spoken of white genocide,” he says – a claim which appears to be true.
“When people say: ‘how can you say that 62 farm murders are as serious as 57 general murders per day’, it’s important to say: We are not saying that one life is more important than another. But farmers are a select group which face a greater danger.”
In the weeks to come, the official statistics for farm attacks are likely to be haggled over for the umpteenth time. But when it comes to an issue like farm murders, there are very few objective facts that can be agreed on – and even less common ground to be found over their meaning. DM