NELSON MANDELA BAY
Farmers determined to find solutions after bearing brunt of protesters’ rage at lack of service delivery
On Wednesday, 28 July a protest along Rocklands Road in Nelson Mandela Bay by residents of Bobani Village led to 6km of power infrastructure being destroyed. A farm was attacked while police watched and a road that is essential to the agricultural sector was shut down. The farming community is now leading the charge to find a solution to the problem.
Two weeks after a horror attack on his farm, farmer Francois Blom is still without electricity and water. But last Friday morning a cow wandered up the road to the farmhouse on Nuweplaas and gave birth at one of the burnt-out buildings.
“I don’t know whose cow this is, but I do care that the cow was safe enough here to give birth. I am excited,” Blom says. “This is the first good thing that has happened here in a long time.”
The horror of the night of 28 July, when his farm was attacked by “about” 20 men and he tried to defend himself in “one hell of a fight using an antique steam pot and an old oil lamp” is still audible in his voice.
“They made it clear that they were coming for my land,” he said.
Blom is studying for a BMus degree at Nelson Mandela University, but his heart is here on his inherited 200-hectare farm, Nuweplaas.
“Of everything my grandfather left behind, this farm is all that is left.”
The farm geese, his pride and joy, have been missing since the attack and he has walked the dusty roads of his farm looking for them.
“We had a paranoid Egyptian goose here. She was also taken,” Blom said.
“I heard my geese down there in the township this morning. I must wait for the police to come and go with me. It would make me so happy if I could find my geese. I will buy them back. If I can just be close enough to call them, they will come.”
The pigs on his farm, which belonged to a small-scale farmer in the township, were beaten to death with large stones on the night of the attack. One piglet survived and now runs with Blom’s farm dogs, Wollie, Kollie and Putin (the dog arrived on the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).
One of the tenants of a burnt out-house arrives, looking for her garden gnomes. “I think the attackers took them as well.”
“This farm was bought by my grandfather. This is where I grew up,” Blom says. “My grandfather died before I was born. He was a butcher and a baker. He had a lot of businesses in the Bay [Gqeberha]. But when I grew up we farmed with melon and watermelon.”
More than a decade ago, his father, Johannes Blom, died. He was shot in the back during a farm invasion in 2009. He was 57.
“All the men who attacked him died. I was very angry for a long time. I was hoping for closure, but it didn’t happen,” Blom said.
“From the time that I remembered, my dad had invited the women from KwaNobuhle to pick the prickly pears here and sell them for school money for their children. They were always welcome.
“I used to provide grazing for other people’s animals, but since 2019 all my fences have been stolen. Even my electric fence in front of my house was stolen. So now I can’t really do it any more. It is not a safe place for animals.
“Terrible things have happened here. People will chase an animal into oncoming traffic and then stand ready to slaughter the injured animal, but I don’t think it is the people who live here. Many of them work on farms. We don’t know the people [who do these things].”
‘A hell of an explosion’
The trouble on Nuweplaas started on Wednesday, 28 July at about 8pm when angry protesters told the farming community that if they could not have water and electricity, nobody else would.
“I had settled down for the night. I was listening to the St John Passion from Bob Chilcott. It is beautiful. I was wearing sweatpants and a top, something like that. I looked like Susan Sarandon going out to buy some milk at the corner cafe.
“I heard a hell of an explosion. At my entrance, a truck had been set alight. I ran back. All my water tanks had been emptied. That was when the poles started falling. The power went off. It is pitch dark here,” Blom said.
“Alex [his life partner] was alone in the house. There were 20 men inside the store and my tenants’ house. There was a car here on bricks that burnt out. Next, I saw the door to what was my dad’s office being broken down. I got ready with an antique steam pot for bashing. There were three of us. The others went to hide in the bushes.
“They [the attackers] told me to leave the farm. I asked them: ‘What have I done to you?’ I have never seen these guys before. I said, ‘I won’t leave. You can forget about it.’ The one guy had a gun. But he dropped it and we realised it was a toy gun.
“There was an oil lamp on the table and I threw it at them. It didn’t burn quite as I hoped it would. We decided to throw a bottle of thinners at the attackers. Then they ran.”
When Kobus Joubert, who farms in Withoogte up the road, heard Blom’s calls for help over the radio that night he was ready. Every night before bed he sets out what he will need if there is an attack. Torches are also placed at strategic points throughout the house.
As the vice-chairperson of the Rocklands Neighbourhood Watch, Joubert knows, perhaps better than most, that they live in a police no-man’s land as there is a dispute over which police station covers their area and calls are rerouted back and forth until it doesn’t matter any more.
A few weeks ago, Joubert followed a trail of blood into the house of a 76-year-old man who had been attacked with a garden fork and suffered injuries to his head and hand. The suspect — arrested by Joubert — took bags of coins totalling less than R100, and an old cellphone. It took the police 2½ hours to arrive as there was a dispute over whose job this was. The police from the one side “sat there”, he explained, pointing up the road, and didn’t come any further.
At 7.30pm every evening, Joubert starts the WhatsApp roll call for the neighbourhood watch. At 7.55pm, he sets his radio to the security channel and he starts his roll call for the surrounding farms.
By July 28, there had been signs of trouble for months. Joubert himself was shot at. His fences were cut. People would open his gates and chase their cattle on to his farm to graze.
The power network had been targeted before, leaving farmers with massive losses as the electricity stayed off for weeks. Farmers had to dispose of close to two million dead chickens and eggs that went bad.
Previously, streetlights, used to make illegal connections, were broken down when the illegal connections were severed, leaving Rocklands without power for weeks.
Joubert, who farms with pigs, has deep freezers that he must keep going. “It has cost me up to R6,000 in petrol to keep my 6.5kW generators running [for a week].”
So when the call came from Nuweplaas on 28 July, Joubert was ready. Trouble had been brewing the previous day when a truck was burnt. On 28 July, protesters sawed down electricity poles.
At the entrance to Nuweplaas, they found a decapitated dog.
“I looked at Francois’ farm with the binoculars and you could see the flames. We were ready. We went. There were shots fired at us from the protesters. Fast. Hand weapons. I saw the electricity poles were flat. There were 10 bakkies with farmers that went down there to Francois. We made a decision that we will defend ourselves.”
By 4am the next morning 16 electricity poles had been hacked down. Then the power went off.
“There was a fire on Francois’ farm but the fire department didn’t want to go in,” he said. “They wanted to wait for the police.
“Our neighbourhood watch made 52 calls between 28 July and 1 August to the police that remained unanswered. To add to their anger, a protester who had been arrested on the night was released because there wasn’t a charge.”
But out of the chaos of that night and subsequent meetings, hope is emerging among the farming community led by attorney and farmer Themba Nkhola.
Nkhola grew up in KwaNobuhle just a few kilometres from where he now farms in Rocklands. He too has been affected by the violence and infrastructure destruction.
“We have scaled down quite a bit with the chickens because of the electricity. Two months ago when we had the riot, we had just slaughtered 200 chickens and a cow and two sheep. We have a shisa nyama [buy-and-braai venue] in KwaNobuhle. So that went bad.
“I had a farm very close to Bobani Village. We had moved the livestock to this side. There was nobody there. Just a small house. When they cut the electricity off at that time, someone went to my farm and dug up all the cables. I don’t think even then there was a focus on the electricity poles, but as time went by there were more ideas on how to create disruptions,” he said.
Nkhola finds himself straddling the two communities — he lives and farms in Rocklands, but: “I was born in KwaNobuhle. It is where I do business. My office is there. My people live there.
“We must be one community. It would have been very painful to see South Africans fighting South Africans,” Nkhola said.
“Nobody is pointing fingers here.”
In the days after the July 28 attacks, Nkhola, other farmers, the police, Nelson Mandela Bay Mayor Eugene Johnson and ward councillor Jason Grobbelaar met to address security issues in the area.
“The farmers are very tired,” Nkhola said, adding that at the meeting the mayor was told that the situation was “a crisis”.
“Businesses are hit hard … the community was ready to retaliate. The government is not doing anything. The police station is closed. The police sit around chatting. It is like it is a holiday. We were at boiling point. They want to fight. There are people who have been shot at, on that road. Some of the farmers feel that they want to fight back. All hell will break loose.”
Nkhola warns that if not addressed, the situation could devolve into a race issue.
“We are not divided because of colour here. We are divided because of our circumstances. [But] when it comes to the fighting, it is going to get to the point where it is a black and white issue… in the middle of it, people like me and my wife.
“We must find a way to put a stop to this. There was one comment on the WhatsApp group about damage to infrastructure… that the law doesn’t apply to the ‘barbaric blacks’. I said we are all affected. It was not a race issue.
“People here are very committed to finding a solution. We don’t want the line to run that way again,” he said.
Policing is the key
The key to the solution is policing.
Several of the farmers Daily Maverick spoke to describe police who stand on the sidelines or shift responsibility to other jurisdictions when protesters destroy infrastructure and burn farmland and equipment.
“The police were not doing what they should. There is a duty on a police officer to act if a crime is committed. There must be visibility there and there must be patrols. But the police’s solution is to block the road at both ends if there are riots, but there are farmers in between those two points. So, are you saying that farmers are on their own? We said we cannot accept that,” said Nkhola.
“We are committed to helping the police. We ask for resources to prevent these crimes.”
Nkhola said they had asked the police to allow one police station to take control of Rocklands Road.
“We had meetings with the ward councillor of Ward 35 [where Bobani Village is]. We know what the issues are. Unfortunately, the municipality can’t fix those issues in two weeks. We are going to have a meeting with that ward. We want to help where we can. If we must take up placards with them against the human settlements department we will do that. Most businesses here depend on KwaNobuhle for human capital.
“If that road is blocked, protesters take away the bread of many families. We want to find a way to support Bobani Village. We can write letters. We will support them. We will share our resources… we will help as far as we can. We don’t have to be fighting each other.
“The sentiment is that the government will hear the farmers if they speak. We can help the community to be heard. It must come to an end that the farmers are provoked. Who will pay me for my losses? No government will do it,” Nkhola said.
Cattle farmer and community leader Tania Steyn is at the forefront of the community’s plan to broker peace with Bobani Village and invest in improving living conditions for residents there, including establishing communal farm projects.
Steyn says they believe that illegal land grabs are done to block the farmers in.
“Look at Bobani Village, those shacks are built on a floodplain. If we have heavy rain those shacks will wash away.
“Most of the people who live in KwaNobuhle work for the farmers. It is not them. It is Bobani Village that is the problem. The municipality doesn’t want to do anything for them. They have offered alternative housing over there [a settlement with prefab houses called Dubai], but people want brick houses.
“I think they know that if they take on the farmers, then things will get done,” she said. “But the non-action of the police is a major thing.
“The Rocklands police station closed before the Covid-19 pandemic started in South Africa in March 2020. They said we didn’t have enough cases, but we have more than 200 between the security firm and the neighbourhood watch. We need to get the police station open. We need cameras on the road. This is the road the thugs use. If you want to steal a car or an animal this is the road you take.
“There were direct threats to the farmers that attacks were coming.”
The community had been targeted and extorted by men asking for R33,000 to stop the violence.
Adele Harris, a former primary school teacher who now works at the local liquor store, said she was worried about all the classroom time children were missing.
“A bus was stopped and the children were chased into the bush. The bus was then set alight.”
Major-General Vuyisile Ncata, the police district commissioner for Nelson Mandela Bay, said he had been briefed about crime in the area and unhappiness with the police. Ncata, who recently transferred to Nelson Mandela Bay from Nyanga in Cape Town, said he would find out why the Rocklands police station had closed down and whether it could be reopened.
“My demand will be that there is a quick reaction,” he said. “I want to see a close relationship between the SAPS and the community. We can find solutions to some of the problems.” He encouraged community members to carry on with their patrols.
“It is wrong when crimes are committed in the presence of the police. It is wrong from the police to just watch. I want someone to be arrested. That is what we want.”
Ward Councillor Grobbelaar said on Wednesday that due to demands from business owners in the area who do not want the municipality to continue without awarding them part of the contracts to install a new transformer, restoring electricity to the area had been delayed. DM/MC
Tomorrow: A fight to the death — despite many promises, the residents of Bobani Village still live in difficult conditions without sanitation and electricity and with the closest tap 5km away.