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Geopolitics

In Rural South Africa, A Murder Rekindles Racial Tensions

The killing of a white farmworker near Senekal is dividing people once again along racial lines, even if most victims of violent crime — and not just in urban areas — are black.

Supporters of South African white farmers during a protest
Supporters of South African white farmers during a protest
Christian Putsch

SENEKAL — Two weeks later, there are still traces of dried blood in the grass.

"He was a hard worker with good manners, a great guy," farmer Gilly Scheepers says, kneeling down and pointing to the spot where his employee Brendin Horner was killed — strangled and stabbed.

Many of the farmers in the area around the town of Senekal knew Horner. He was one of their own. He died at the age of 22, killed, Scheepers suspects, by cattle thieves.

Since his death, murders on South African farms have been in the news more than ever. The Minister of Police visited the area and President Cyril Ramaphosa promised help. Why only now, Scheepers wonders. After so many deaths.

The case was particularly explosive because of the reaction from local farmers. Around 90% of them are Boers — descendants of the settlers from the 18th and 19th centuries. When two suspects were arrested, some of the farmers tried to storm the cells and set a police car on fire. Scheepers says they had a lot of pent-up anger to express.

They're angry about the murder, but also about cattle thieves, who cause farmers serious losses but are protected by corrupt police. Authorities release them, again and again. One of the suspects in Horner's death had been released 16 times; the second three times.

"It's not about blacks versus whites," says Scheepers. And yet, here in South Africa, the political debate, once again, is revolving around exactly that issue.

One of the suspects in Horner's death had been released 16 times.

On Friday, thousands of activists from the opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) dressed in red and marched through the town to demonstrate during a hearing for the suspected perpetrators. Some were singing a Zulu song that is a celebrated cultural relic from the struggle for freedom: "Kill the Boers."

Police were out in force, and they managed to prevent the group from attacking a group of 200 white farmers. So far there has not been much violence, but the protests are not going away. Hundreds more gathered near the town to make their presence felt. Both sides had weapons taken away from them at police checks when entering the area.

"We are protecting government property from the whites," says EFF spokeswoman Delisile Ngwenya, although it is more often EFF activists who are seen taking part in violent protests. "The police shoot at us," she adds. "That doesn't happen to the whites."

In response to the next question, Ngwenya concedes that yes, "It's always about land."

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema — Photo: Thabo Jaiyesimi/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Of the 420 farmers around Senekal, roughly 90% are Boers. Across the whole of South Africa, just under 70% of fertile farmland is owned by whites. It's often a hard job, but the difference in income between the farmers and inhabitants of nearby villages is still huge. It's an ideal breeding ground for the country's many populists.

The Boers are the group that supported apartheid most strongly. Now, more than any other group, they see themselves as victims of the failures of the democratic South Africa.

Herkie Viljoen sits in his garden, with sheep grazing in the background. Apartheid was unjust, he says, and had to be ended. "But it's unacceptable that we should be left to fend for ourselves. That our property rights should be ignored, and that we should always be the scapegoats."

In conservative circles, there are claims of a genocide against white farmers. In response, the the German right-wing party Alternative for Germany called for the country to halt all development assistance to South Africa.

The Boers are the group that supported apartheid most strongly.

The statistics don't bear this out. In the last year, there were 73 murders on farms, a number that has been largely stable for a long time. There has, however, been a significant rise in the number of attacks and thefts in recent years, and that means increased security costs.

Before this murder, no white person had been killed in the Senekal area for nine years. The last time a farmer was murdered in the region was two years ago, and it was one of the few black landowners. A surprising number of white people in Senekal stress that even in rural areas, crime mostly affects black people.

Many "white" interest groups forget this in their righteous anger over the admittedly shockingly high murder rate on farms. In South Africa, where the vast majority of murder victims are black, ignoring this fact verges on an affront.

Viljoen says that he sees himself first and foremost as a South African, then as a Boer. "My ancestors made mistakes, but do we have to repeat the same mistakes?" He says some people "haven't moved on in their thinking" and still look back to the past in anger. "But a Boer is not automatically a racist."

Would he ever leave South Africa? Viljoen struggles for words. "They'd have to kill me first." He pauses again, then his eyes begin to water. "We love this country," he says. "We can't let it go up in flames."

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