Violent crime on South Africa's farms has recently become a high profile media and political issue. Some of this attention has focused on assaults on farm residents by white farm owners, but the heightened interest has been driven mostly by a rise in violent crime against white farm owners. Since the early 1990s, there has been a marked increase in assaults and murders of the owners and managers of commercial farms and their families, disproportionate to general crime trends in South Africa. Several hundred white farmers have been murdered, mostly by strangers to their property. In the context of government-endorsed land invasions in neighboring Zimbabwe, some white farm owners have perceived this escalation in violent crime to be part of an organized conspiracy to drive them from the land, perhaps masterminded by elements within the government. The term "farm attacks," used by farm owners, police, and others to describe these crimes, has tended to reinforce this interpretation, by suggesting a terrorist or military purpose. Yet the available research shows that most crime against white farmers is criminally motivated, the perpetrators seeking firearms, money, or vehicles, and that the violence used is instrumental to these purposes. Farms, remote and scattered, are seen as easy targets. In a small number of cases, the motive may be revenge for eviction or past ill-treatment.
The new vulnerability of a group relatively protected from crime during the apartheid era, as well as the perceived political motivation for "farm attacks," led organizations representing commercial farmers to demand that the new African National Congress (ANC)-led government installed in 1994 take stronger action. These protests resulted first in the implementation of a "rural protection plan" in October 1997, and then in a "rural safety summit" in October 1998 called by then President Nelson Mandela. The rural safety summit endorsed the rural protection plan as the basis of a strategy to combat violent crime affecting farming communities, and called for a comprehensive policy framework to be developed to ensure long term safety. The rural protection plan coordinates the activities of the South African Police Service (SAPS), South African National Defence Force (SANDF), and farmers themselves in combating rural crime, and provides for regular police patrols of commercial farming areas. In many areas, white farm owners are also linked together by radio in security cells, often known as the "farmwatch" system. In some parts of South Africa, farmwatches are supported by commando units, a system of army reserve units made up largely of civilians who serve part-time in the security forces. In parallel with the implementation of the rural protection plan, the police began to distribute questionnaires to police stations in farming areas in order to collect statistics relating to "farm attacks"; that is, crime committed on farms by outsiders to the property.
The rural protection plan was presented as a comprehensive initiative aimed at addressing the concerns of all residents of commercial farming areas in relation to violent crime. In practice, however, the plan has significantly increased insecurity for black residents of and vistors to commercial farming areas, as they have become the targets of sometimes indiscriminate "anti-crime" initiatives. Members of the commandos, police reservists, full-time soldiers and police, and others participating in the rural protection plan have committed serious abuses against farmworkers and other farm residents. There are reports of abuses, ranging from the staging of illegal roadblocks to murder, by commando units in several areas, especially those operating in southern Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal. Members of the Wakkerstroom commando, one of several commando units controlled by local farmers in this border region, are accused of assault, torture, forced and illegal evictions, and murder of farm residents.
In addition, the rural protection plan has largely failed to respond to crime committed against black farm residents, in particular crime committed by white farm owners. Yet farmworkers and residents on commercial farms in South Africa are frequently subjected to physical abuse by their employers and their agents. This abuse ranges from casual blows with fists for alleged mistakes in work or impertinence, to serious physical violence, including murder. While there are no reliable statistics relating to the number of assaults on farmworkers by their employers, and there has been no effort to collect such information similar to that in the case of "farm attacks," the problem is clearly widespread. Racial insults are routine. Rape of women employees by white farmers remains an unquantified problem. Rape and sexual assault of black women farmworkers or residents by other farmworkers or residents is common. A great deal of violence against farmworkers and residents takes place in the context of attempts to evict people from commercial farms in violation of new laws giving farm residents a degree of security of tenure--virtually all evictions are carried out under the actual or implied threat of force. Violence against farmworkers and residents is perpetrated not only by farm owners and managers, with whom they are in daily contact, but also by private security companies and vigilante groups hired by farm owners. Those seeking to uphold farmworkers' interests have also been harassed and assaulted when they have sought access to farms.
This report seeks to examine the state's response to violence on farms in comparative perspective, looking both at the response to violent crime against farm owners and at the response to violent crime against farm workers and other residents committed by farm owners. Assaults on black farm residents by other farm residents are also commonly reported, and in many farming areas these are among the crimes most frequently handled by the police. However, Human Rights Watch focuses here on assaults by farm owners or managers against farm residents or workers both because of the particular significance attached to such assaults by farm residents themselves, and because the problems that farm residents have in accessing the criminal justice system are particularly acute in such cases. Although farm residents generally reported an inadequate response from the criminal justice system when they reported assaults, these problems were much worse when they attempted to report assaults carried out by (white) farm owners or managers.
Farmworkers and residents face great problems if they wish to report assaults by farm owners or managers, starting from a fear of retaliation should they speak out. The police are frequently unresponsive, sometimes hostile, and may even refuse to open a file. It is a common practice for a farmer accused of assault to file a "counter charge" such as theft, and for the police to hold the two to cancel each other out--even though this contravenes proper police practice. Police investigations of assaults on farmworkers or residents are often dilatory and inadequate; many prosecutors, who have the power to refer files back to the police for reinvestigation, seem prepared to accept substandard police investigations and all too easily to decline to prosecute. Often, where prosecutions have been sucessful, sentences applied have failed to reflect the seriousness of the offense. A crisis in the legal aid system, established to provide legal assistance for the indigent, has prevented many victims of assault or people facing eviction from obtaining legal representation to enforce their rights. As a consequence, farm owners and managers, private security company personnel, and police or army reservists who commit violence against black farmworkers and residents do so largely with impunity.
The state response to violent crime against farm owners is much more determined and effective--even if resource and other constraints mean that police response times are often too slow and police detective work inadequate, and that the state has therefore also relied on self-help initiatives from the farm owners. The police in commercial farming areas have been mobilized to treat crime against farm owners as a particular priority. The government has also endorsed the farmwatch system and the use of the commandos, which have in some cases played an important role in helping to protect farm owners and managers from violent crime and in catching those who have committed crimes against farm owners or managers. Indeed, the arrest rate in cases of violent crime against farm owners and managers is higher than in the case of most crimes committed in South Africa. As with other cases in the criminal justice system, too many of those arrested are not brought to trial despite a prima facie case against them; but, nonetheless, charges are more diligently pursued and investigated when the victim is a white farmer or farm manager than when the victim is a black farm resident, even where the crime committed is equally serious. Most of those convicted of violent crime against farm owners have been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Even so, white farm owners express dissatisfaction with the rural protection plan, which, as murders of farm owners continue, they see as inadequate.
Violent crime is a major problem in South Africa, with reported murder and rape at among the highest rates in the world. Crime rates do not differ significantly between rural and urban areas. In some rural areas, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, the effects of the former apartheid state's deliberate promotion of violence among black communities are still felt in continued "faction violence" between well-armed gangs, whose predations have long been suffered by black residents of the same areas, but are now spilling over, it seems, to affect white farmers.
In the face of this violence, and in common with other countries undergoing transition from autocratic rule, South Africa's criminal justice system is under severe strain. Despite efforts to demilitarize policing and instill a commitment to community service and human rights, the government has yet to be able to create an effective force devoted to the ideals of the new constitution. Community policing forums (CPFs) set up since 1994, at which police and community representatives sit together to sort out problems, have had only limited success in improving the accountability of police officers to the communities where they work. Police brutality and corruption remain depressingly common. Moreover, the police have severe resource constraints. Similarly, the transition to a new order has also been difficult for the court system, and delays in the criminal justice process have led to a vast backlog of cases awaiting trial, despite efforts by the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) to clear them. There are a disturbing number of cases in which dockets (case files) go "missing," apparently as a result of corruption among police or court officials. In response to these deficiencies, vigilante violence has become an increasing problem, with groups such as Mapogo a Mathamaga, founded in the Northern Province, rapidly becoming as much of a problem to society as the criminals which they originally targeted.
But the state's response to violent crime on farms cannot be viewed only in the context of the generally high rate of violent crime in South Africa. It is clearly influenced by factors such as race, gender, and socio-economic status. Farm owners and managers continue mostly to be white and much wealthier than farmworkers and other residents, invariably black and poor. During the apartheid years, state policies accentuated this divide, reinforcing the wealth and land ownership of the white farmer minority at the expense of the poor black majority, which was rendered largely landless by government policy. Today, apartheid has gone, but its legacy of inequality remains deeply rooted. Working conditions on farms vary, but mostly are poor. According to the government statistical service, people employed in agriculture are worse off than those in every other major sector of the economy. For black workers on farms, wages are low, housing poor, access to education difficult or non-existent, and health indicators bad.
The situation of women on farms is more precarious than that of men. Discrimination against women in the workplace is often linked to violence against them either at the workplace or in the home. The acute power imbalance on farms between farm owners and farmworkers, and between men and women, work to the disadvantage of women. Despite a court ruling that a woman farmworker could not be evicted because her husband lost his job on the same farm, women farmworkers' access to housing is still dependent, in practice, on their relationship to a man who is employed on the farm. Women are more likely to be seasonal or temporary workers than men, and usually carry out the less well-paid jobs, such as planting or harvesting, while men occupy the relatively prestigious positions, such as foremen or tractor drivers. Women are also discriminated against by being paid lower wages than men doing the same type of work or work of equal value. Many women are also denied maternity leave, although they have the right to four months' leave under the law: some are allowed only the absolute minimum time to give birth; others who do get permission to take leave do not obtain the benefits they are due from the Unemployment Insurance Fund.
Women farm workers' experience of gender discrimination thus intersects with racism. Rape and sexual harassment of black women when perpetrated by farm owners and managers amounts to a type of "superexploitation" of women by those who have dominance over them in their homes or workplaces. Women's dependence on men for access to housing and employment renders them vulnerable to abuse within the workplace and home by their male co-workers and partners. Many women who are raped or sexually abused fear to report the crime. To do so could be to risk dismissal or eviction. But even when women do seek protection from the criminal justice system, they face bias and obstruction from officials; blame from their family and the community, and possible retaliation from the perpetrators. Many women are unaware of their rights; and they lack access to information and social support services.
Under the apartheid system, white farmers could rely on the support of the state, including the police and army, to ensure control over their labor. This historically close relationship to such state institutions is maintained today in many areas: because farm owners are economically much more powerful than their black neighbors, they continue to hold a privileged position. Even where black police officers have been promoted and appointed as station commissioners, the economic realities of rural life mean that taking action against locally powerful figures is potentially hazardous. For the same reason, white farm owners who complain of criminal activity that affects them usually receive priority attention, even from black police station commissioners. Thus, implementation of the rural protection plan still shows its origins as a response to the demands of white farm owners for action, rather than to the needs of the all those living in commercial farming areas for protection against violent crime. In only a very few areas have those implementing the plan developed it in a way that seeks to respond effectively to the concerns of all sectors of the community; and even in those cases, control of the system is largely by white farm owners and businessmen.
The rural protection plan needs to be comprehensively restructured to take account not only of the needs the commercial farming community but also those of farm residents and those living in the former homeland areas, the "tribal reserves," that adjoin commercial farmland. In particular, the inadequacies of the police service must be addressed. The answer, however, is not to allow one powerful group effectively to take over the functions of the police by setting up parallel, essentially unaccountable structures. The criminal justice system must operate for the protection of all South Africans, irrespective of race, gender, or economic status.
The most pressing need is for the government to improve the quality of policing and prosecution in response to violence on farms--all violence, not only violent crime against white farmers. This will require an injection of additional resources and training for the police and prosecutors. Among other immediate steps, civilians who serve part-time in the military or police must, as well as their full-time colleagues, be brought under proper discipline and control. All those involved in policing should be instructed and trained to respond to reports of violent crime without discrimination on grounds outlawed by the South African constitution and international law. Effective mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that complaints of abuse by commando members or police reservists are thoroughly and promptly investigated, and that those responsible for abuse are appropriately disciplined or prosecuted.
The state's ability to address violence on farms effectively is limited by a lack of relevant data and statistics. There are no statistics relating to assaults on farmworkers by farm owners or managers or other farmworkers. The statistics about violent crime against farm owners do not distinguish between crimes affecting remote commercial farms and crimes affecting smallholdings, small properties whose owners do not derive their main income from farming, usually located near to cities and thus in a very different crime environment. They also tend to emphasize crime against farm owners and managers by recording only crimes committed by strangers. These problems have helped to produce distorted perceptions of the relative incidence of violence affecting farm owners, farmworkers, and other farm residents. Fuller and more accurate statistics should be compiled to document the nature and extent of all violence on farms. The figures for farms and smallholdings should be separately reported.
The government should examine whether it would improve police accountability to merge the structures of the rural protection plan with the community policing forums in commercial farming areas. Under the current system, there are supposed to be parallel sets of monthly meetings, but both are poorly attended, while the rural protection plan is often seen as being for the farm owners, and the CPFs for the black community. The new "community safety forums" being piloted in the Western Cape, which involve all government sectors in efforts to combat crime, not only the security forces, may form a useful model.
Human Rights Watch believes that other than in exceptional circumstances, such as a national emergency declared according to the proper procedures under the constitution and legislation, police and not soldiers should carry out policing duties. Accordingly, the commando units made up of army reservists should not be involved in policing. Civilians who wish to be involved in policing on a part time basis should be police reservists, and should receive training in policing skills and instruction on the laws of South Africa and respect for human rights, rather than army-style boot camp. Where soldiers are deployed for policing duties, they should not have full police powers, but only those that are required to fill a support role. For example, police should carry out duties such as house searches, even if soldiers are deployed to establish a cordon around the house.
Those in charge of implementing the rural protection plan should take urgent steps to implement a transition from military to civilian policing. In the interim, before this switch can be carried out, it should be required that commando units carrying out policing duties be accompanied by a full time police officer, preferably of middle or senior rank, not a reservist, who should be in command as regards all policing duties. The SANDF should urgently develop an effective internal mechanism for handling public complaints in order that persons who allege abuses by military personnel can obtain redress. In addition, the Independent Complaints Directorate (ICD), the body responsible for investigating complaints against the police, should be empowered to investigate or oversee the investigation of complaints against any state agent deployed for policing purposes.
Stricter controls should also be enforced against private security initiatives, including farmwatch and similar private schemes, to ensure that they do not act as vigilante groups. Government should introduce legislation to regulate such schemes, and work with representatives of commercial farmers and other interested parties to develop a code of conduct for those who participate in them. Private security companies and farmwatch structures should be permitted only to carry out preventive patrols and "citizen's arrests" of persons actually found in the course of committing a crime. It should be made clear that such security service providers have no policing or other authority beyond that of private citizens, and are to be held to account for crimes in the same way as private citizens. They should be required to hand individuals arrested to the police without delay, and they should be prohibited from taking the initiative in conducting house searches for illegal weapons or similar activities, but required rather to pass relevant information to the police. Laws regulating the private security industry should provide for the police and courts to be required to report to the regulatory authority alleged crimes, charges, and convictions involving security service providers.
Since 1994, the ANC-led government has taken important steps to reverse the existing racial inequalities affecting access to land that were enforced by the former colonial and apartheid governments. It has passed laws for the restitution of some land, redistributed other land through state purchases from private owners, and provided some degree of security of tenure for black farm residents. South African labor law has been completely overhauled, and its application, including the right to organize, extended to farmworkers. The government has also attempted to overcome the deficiencies of the criminal justice system, particularly in relation to violence against women.
Yet the legacy of apartheid and institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination remains potent, and continues to undermine the criminal justice system. Most criminal laws are now race-neutral on their face (by contrast with apartheid era laws criminalizing a variety of activities when undertaken by blacks). But in practice, law enforcement continues to be discriminatory, with adverse impacts on blacks and women.
The South African government has an obligation under international law to provide equal treatment under the law to all persons, irrespective of their race, gender, or other distinguishing characteristics. Yet, currently, it is failing in this obligation. In particular, the criminal justice system fails to ensure that police and court officials investigate, prosecute, and punish murder, rape, and other serious crimes against black South Africans with the same vigor as when these crimes are committed against whites. While the government has made great progress in promulgating laws that prohibit such discrimination, it has failed to ensure that such laws are then systematically enforced. Positive steps must be taken to ensure that all South Africans, regardless of race or gender, receive equal protection of the law.
Farm owners and farm residents have a mutual interest in mobilizing pressure on the government to provide effective law enforcement and in participating in the structures of the rural protection plan. There are many issues that could provide the focus for a common agenda, if all sides believed their concerns were being addressed; though joint action can only be very difficult to develop in the context of South Africa's deeply divided society. Ultimately, in law enforcement as in other areas, much will depend on a reduction in the stark economic inequalities so obvious in the South African countryside.
Human Rights Watch conducted a workshop in Johannesburg in September 2000, together with our partner organization on this project, the National Land Committee (NLC). The thirty participants included representatives of the NLC and its affiliated organizations, as well as of women's rights organizations working with farmworkers in South Africa, farmworkers' unions, and of the South African Human Rights Commission and the Commission on Gender Equality. The participants at the workshop discussed the preliminary research findings and made a key contribution to the recommendations on ways to combat violence on farms in South Africa.
To the South African Government:
Regulation of Private Security
Protection of those Assisting Farmworkers
Racial and Gender Discrimination and Working Conditions
Restructuring of the Rural Protection Plan
To the Human
Rights and Gender Equality Commissions:
To All Those
Working for Rural Safety and Security: