This is the tale of three South Africans, all worried by the same thing. It won’t be on the G8 agenda at Gleneagles this week, and has gone largely unreported. Yet it may hold the key to South Africa’s future wellbeing.
Two are farmers—one white and one black. The other is a white policeman who is struggling to keep the peace. All are fearful and angry at the growing threat of a war over land.
The white farmer is Louis Meintjes, who, every year, makes a pilgrimage up the steps of the giant Voortrekker Monument that looms over the verdant valleys near Pretoria. The monument commemorates the Great Trek, and most especially the Battle of Blood River, in which a small number of his Afrikaner ancestors defeated a vastly larger Zulu army in 1838. Mr Meintjes makes his annual visit to renew his own commitment to fight for the land he bought and has worked for the past 25 years. But he and his neighbours are under siege.
Countless white farmers have fled after a huge rise in farm attacks in the decade since the end of apartheid. As many as 1,700 white farmers have been killed, many with a brutality that has shocked the police investigating the cases. The farmers that remain are gripped by an epidemic of fear.
In Mr Meintjes’ neighbourhood of just four square miles, in the northern Gauteng province, there have been a dozen attacks in the past two years, nine of them fatal. He heads the local armed self-defence unit, which uses mobile phones and radios to keep track of intruders. But in the long grass and vast open plains, it is easy to hide.
Men such as Mr Meintjes believe that the campaign against them is orchestrated by the ruling ANC government, whose purpose is to drive them off the land in a Zimbabwean-style land grab, albeit disguised by legal powers.
Payete Ndlovana, the black farmer, explains the violence as revenge for the sins of apartheid. He and his family were kicked off their farm more than 30 years ago and since 1994 he has vainly tried to recover it.
Despite government promises, Mr Payete is furious at the slow pace of land reform. He drives out from his small house in the townships to what was once his family’s land, now fenced off with razor wire.
A narrow passage allows him to visit the graves of his forebears. He backs Robert Mugabe’s approach in Zimbabwe and wants whites to go somewhere else. “Mugabe is right. They kicked us off our land, that’s why we fight,” he says. “This was our farm, we did not steal it. They came at two in the morning, arrested me and told me I was not allowed to live on my farm.” Despite this sense of injustice, policemen like Captain Manie Van Zyl think the motive for the farm attacks is more prosaic: pure greed. But if this is the motive then why the extreme violence?
One case involved a elderly woman being hacked to death, her body suffering almost 40 cuts.
The farmers make easy targets. Many farms are isolated and vulnerable. Mpumalanga province, which borders Gauteng, is served by a small and under-resourced police team led by Capt Van Zyl; he has eight men and two cars to police farm attacks in an area the size of Scotland. Suspicions of revenge being behind the killings are fuelled by the fact that many attacks are linked to workers on the farms, who provide information if not active support to those accused of the attacks. The irony is that the outcome is often the abandonment of the farm and the loss of their jobs.
At present there are about 38,000 white farmers in South Africa. Ten years ago, there were 52,000. Meanwhile, South Africa’s relatively successful economy has attracted millions of farm workers to the cities, putting increasing strain on the country’s ability to feed itself.
Anger is growing in the townships at the slow pace of land reform. The government promised 30 per cent of South African land would be in black ownership by the year 2015. But much less than five per cent has changed hands. At the current rate, it will take 60 years to process the backlog of existing claims. Even by that point, 70 per cent of land will remain in white hands. Frustrated claimants like Mr Payete want the government to seize property back on their behalf, but Trevor Manuel, the highly respected finance minister, is anxious to avoid any suggestion of a racially inspired land grab. That would drive both white farmers and their money out of the country, as in neighbouring Zimbabwe. So they stick to the principle of “willing seller / willing buyer” as the basis for change.
Mr Meintjes, however, accuses the ANC of stoking exactly the kind of race-based animosity they claim to be avoiding. “We didn’t steal this land. In South Africa, there is government propaganda that the white farmer has a lot of land and we need to kill him.”
Crucially, it is farming skills rather than rightful ownership on which South Africa’s future depends. Under apartheid, blacks were purposely left unskilled. The result is that many of the tens of thousands of hectares in government hands lie fallow.
But the young men whom Capt Van Zyl has arrested for the attacks are not farm workers. They are rootless township poor, driven to find cash and weapons with which to further their criminal careers—much like young offenders in Britain.
Most are too young to remember apartheid, so it seems that it is avarice and poverty, rather than history, that pushes them towards violence. This problem must be tackled if peace is to return to the valleys.