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The Milk House: The South African farm attacks

Ryan Dennis Published on 10 June 2013

I find it especially annoying when someone tells me to consider myself lucky and then names a far-away country they know little about. (While I hope, growing up, I had sufficient empathy for the children of Mozambique, I was able to realize that whether or not I finished my vegetables was disconnected from their fate).

Agricultural journalism carries the same headlines around the world when it comes to dairy farming: High costs, low margins. Still, there are farmers in some countries that must face additional struggles. Few of these places are as severe, or as complex, as South Africa.

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In understated terms, South Africa is a place struggling with the implications of its history. Hundreds of years of colonization by the Dutch (the Boers) and the British extended into the ’90s under apartheid – the sanctioned segregation by race that granted whites ruling power and most of the land.

Today, the same level of disparity exists. This had led to a country whose unrest is realized in some of the highest crime and murder rates in the world.

Of all the grand, sweeping notions associated with agriculture, violence is seldom one of them. Yet, since apartheid ended in 1994, well over 3,000 farmers have died in the South African “farm attacks.”

There is no shortage of accounts of the gruesome manner in which these assaults occurred, nor of the results. Children have come home to find their parents massacred, or worse, the other way around.

Both the young and old, male and female, have been tortured and often slain. To understate it once again, the motivations are strongly economic and racial.

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Some reports conclude that the attacks result largely because farms tend to be soft targets and generally have valuable supplies, such as food and weapons. The South African government has been criticized for both giving too much attention to farm violence as well as doing too little to stop it.

Regardless, race cannot be separated from the events in a country in which it has been at the forefront for centuries. Julius Malema, populist leader and previous member of the ruling African National Congress, often led the singing of the apartheid-era song “Kill the Boer” at official rallies.

The term “Boer” translates as farmer and also represents those of Dutch descent, which make up the majority of the white population. Malema was eventually expelled from the ANC for his radical views but still remains widely followed.

Politics aside, to farm in South Africa means to take your life in your own hands. They do the best they can to fortress themselves with electric gates, panic buttons on radio systems and basements turned into fully loaded arsenals.

The police force is underfunded and spread very thin in rural areas, making it difficult for them to respond to calls fast enough. As a result, farmers form their own posse of commandos that patrol the area with AK-47s.

If they were fortunate, they may have received one weekend of militia training. When the panic button is pushed, a band of old, beat-up pickup trucks come bounding down the fields, hopefully in time.

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The issue of farming in South Africa, in general, is extremely fragile. While there has been at least marginal improvement in urban areas and the mining industry regarding black opportunity, racial inequality has remained stagnant in agriculture, if not worsened.

The same percentage of land is owned by whites as when it was officially given to them 100 years ago. Many are calling for an official land redistribution, as was promised by the African National Congress when apartheid ended.

Some white farmers, however, have gone as far as to say they are suffering from genocide. “This issue is potentially explosive,” stated Lechesa Tsenoli, deputy minister for land reform.

The story of South African agriculture is a difficult one to tell as an outsider. I am not a landowner that fears for his life, nor an impoverished black farm worker abused by his employer or simply frustrated with a system that withholds equality.

Simply, I couldn’t imagine either circumstance. I do not want to tease from these events any morals or cereal-box truths, or suggest that there is something to learn from it. I don’t want to pretend to understand its complexities.

I do believe, however, that it is a story that needs to be told – one that unsettled me when I ran across it – and that it should be shared as such. PD

Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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