On Saturday, in an unprecedented move to mark the second anniversary of the slaughter of a farming family, survivors of farm attacks marched in Pretoria and called for attacks on South Africa’s mostly white farmers to be designated a crime of national priority.
Since the attack on Attie Potgieter and his family, the simple stone farmhouse where they lived has stood empty and crumbling, with nobody wanting to live in the home where one of South Africa’s most disturbingly brutal crimes took place.
Mr Potgieter, a farm caretaker, was stabbed and hacked 151 times with a garden fork, a knife and a machete near Lindley in the Free State—the agricultural heart of the country.
His wife, Wilna, and two-year-old daughter, Willemien, were both made to watch him die, before being shot in the head, execution style.
All for pocket money, and possessions of relatively little value—a too-common story in South Africa’s rural areas, where mostly white Afrikaner farmers feel they are being targeted in gratuitously violent attacks on their remote farms and smallholdings. They accuse police and government of failing to make these crimes a priority. And as the horrifying murders continue, they are growing increasingly angry.
“If you kill a rhinoceros in South Africa, you get more time in jail then if you kill a person,” said Susan Nortje, 26, Mrs Potgieter’s younger sister. “I don’t think people understand. We must show people what’s really happening.”
The murder last weekend of British engineer Chris Preece, 54, who was born in Southgate in north London and found his dream on a piece of rolling farmland bordering Lesotho’s Maluti mountains, is the most recent farm killing to make headlines.
Mr Preece spent his weekdays working in Johannesburg before retreating to his beloved farm near the town of Ficksburg, where he and wife Felicity dreamed of starting a nature reserve to save raptor birds and cheetahs.
He was stabbed and hacked to death by men who stole just £210 and a mobile phone. Felicity was left severely traumatised with a skull fracture, and has not yet been able to talk about the attack from the Bloemfontein hospital in where she is being treated.
The couple’s son, Robert Preece, and his wife, Jeanne, are now considering leaving their native South Africa, because they don’t want to raise children in a country “where a man can be hacked to death for no reason”.
“This isn’t something we’re going to get over,” Jeanne Preece, 29, toldThe Sunday Telegraph. “It is a bottomless weight in all our souls.”
On Saturday, in an unprecedented move to mark the second anniversary of the slaughter of the Potgieters, families of murdered farmers and survivors of farm attacks marched in the capital Pretoria and called for attacks on South Africa’s mostly white farmers to be designated a crime of national priority.
Carrying photos of dead relatives and friends, 200 protesters—many wearing the khaki shorts and short-sleeved shirts that are the unofficial uniform of white South African farmers—sought to deliver a memorandum to the country’s police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, urging that farm attacks be given the same elevated police attention already accorded to rhinoceros poaching and copper cable theft.
“These murders are marked by a unique level of brutality—often worse than that found in terrorist attacks,” the memorandum said. “The argument that farm murders are ‘only murder’ does not hold water.”
South African police stopped releasing separate figures on farm attacks in 2007, and incorporated them into wider violent crime statistics.
But according to the Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa, there have been 2,863 farm attacks and 1,592 farm murders since 1990, and independent think-tanks put the true number of farmers murdered at closer to 3,000.
It is now twice as dangerous to be a farmer as it is to be a police officer in South Africa, according to Johan Burger, a senior researcher with the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies’ crime and justice programme. Last year the country had a murder rate of 31.9 per 100,000 people, almost 30 times higher than Britain, according to police statistics. For police officers, this rate rises to 51—and among farmers, a staggering 99 people killed per 100,000.
What troubles many South Africans is the horrific and unnecessary violence that’s a grim hallmark of farm attacks ostensibly staged to steal money—blamed by some on resentment at the yawning gap between rich and poor, 40 per cent unemployment in some rural areas and the legacy of ill feeling bequeathed by the former apartheid system.
Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of the Afrikaner civil rights group AfriForum and an organiser of the campaign, complained that the government had tried to declare the march an illegal gathering. “They are taking active steps to stop us from speaking out about the problem,” he said.
The police minister was not in his offices on Saturday to receive the memorandum. But a spokesman, Zweli Mnisi, accused AfriForum of “grandstanding”.
Mr Mnisi said: “They are only representing people based on their colour. For us, racialising crime is problematic. You can’t have a separate category that says, farmers are the special golden boys and girls.
“You end up saying the life of a white person is more important. You cannot do this.”
South African farms are still overwhelmingly owned by whites, mostly Afrikaner—who are descended from the country’s first Dutch settlers and speak their own language. The government’s efforts to encourage a gentle method of land reform, known as “willing buyer, willing seller” in stark contrast to the state-sponsored violent takeovers in neighbouring Zimbabwe, has been a flop.
Prof Burger rejects claims by some in the Afrikaans farming community that the attacks amount to a genocide on white farmers. He said there is also no evidence of political involvement in the attacks.
“The perception is that farmers are all rich, and these criminals know the vulnerability of these remote farms, and so they see it as relatively low risk,” he said.
However, he added, in some attacks the perpetrators “take out their hatred for all those past wrongs, and show who’s in control now”. Farmers claim their attackers are stirred by the old black struggle song “Shoot the Boer”, the subject of a court case on hate speech brought against the former African National Congress party youth leader Julius Malema after he took to singing it at rallies.
Among those on the march was Magda Pistorius, 53, who still grieves for her husband Wybrand, killed in an attack in June last year.
The couple were asleep at their new home on a smallholding in Muldersdrift, near Johannesburg, which they had moved into just 12 hours earlier, when they awoke at 3.50am to find two men standing over the bed. One of the men said “Hello, boss”—and then shot and killed Mr Pistorius, 53, before shooting his wife in the stomach.
Their daughters were also at home, but unharmed. The robbers fled with just a mobile phone and a torch.
The bullet was removed from Mrs Pistorius’ stomach four months after the June 2011 attack. Today, she lives around the corner from the smallholding, and finds daily life hard because of the constant reminders of her husband.
“Physically, I have recovered,” she said. “But emotionally, it will never go away.
“The government has to do something to stop this whole story. This whole country is so lawless. It’s easy to rob and steal. The justice system is a mess. Everyone else here has got their human rights. But what about ours?”
Also protesting were three generations of the Pretorius family, ambushed when they returned home from a church service to their smallholding in Muldersdrift, near Johannesburg, one night in 2005.
Unbeknown to them, members of their extended family had been held captive at the house. A worker ran out to warn that a gang of armed men were inside, but while Coenie Pretorius, 36, was trying to drive off, the men opened fire.
Mr Pretorius died from gunshot wounds in front of his family and his wife, Petro de Kock, was shot in the lower back while protecting their two young children. She survived the injury, but the family still has deep scars from the trauma of the attack, especially since no one was ever convicted.
The slain farmer’s parents have since moved to Perth, Australia, saying they can no longer live in South Africa, but returned to join in yesterday’s protest.
Their grandson—also called Coenie, who is now 20 and lives in Johannesburg, said: “It makes it so difficult for us, because they wrecked our lives.
“Something needs to be done. This isn’t just happening to our family—look at how many families there are here today.”