ASSAULTS AGAINST FARMWORKERS
are human rights, whatever the color, but the situation here is totally
unacceptable. The farmers have the same color skin as Jesus in the pictures,
but what they are doing is unchristian.
of farmworkers is bad round here. There is a high level of basic abuse,
and then some cases going to situations which result in death or permanent
disablement. The people always have the police, but the local police are
part of the problem in terms of not responding to what the farmer has done.
So people say it's always been like this, there is no point in reporting
anything, especially if they are illiterate, with the cost in taxis, and
so forth. People are helpless. And instead of it getting better, the farmers
are seeing no action taken against them. And those who are trying to mobilize
the people are victims of the farmers' wrath, so we can't make sure that
rights are respected. We have no go areas where there are 200 people on
the farm and you can't visit, not even if you're from the same family.
There are no reliable statistics relating to assaults by farm owners against farmworkers; indeed, there are virtually no statistics of any kind. As in the case of violence in the home, it is in the nature of violence committed within the enclosed world of the farm, between people who have a long-term relationship to maintain and where power relations are very unequal, that it is likely often to be concealed from outside observers. Even if assaults by farm owners against farmworkers are reported to the police, there is no crime code identifying this particular category of assault; nor has there been an effort by the authorities similar to that made in relation to violent crime against farm owners to collect this type of information through the distribution of questionnaires to police station commissioners.
Violence on South African farms is a longstanding problem. Although there are and have always been many farm owners who have good relations with their workers or those who live on their farms, the power imbalance based on the racial and economic disparities of the colonial and apartheid state meant that the use of violence was always an implied threat, even if mediated by a paternalistic ethic. (157) A 1991 report concluded that: "Assaults are part and parcel of the lives of farmworkers. Violence is resorted to at the slightest provocation, with little or no restraint being exercised on the part of the farmers. One wrong word uttered by the worker is sufficient to unleash the extreme violence of the farmer. In a rather bizarre twist, the farmer's abusive behavior often results in the assaultees then being kicked off the farm." (158) Eugene Roelofse, appointed "ombudsman" by the South African Council of Churches in 1976 with a wide brief to expose and fight injustice, noted that, among all the complaints that received his attention during the seven years he held the position before it closed down for lack of funds, "One of the most distressing problems was physical maltreatment of workers by farmers--often with the connivance, and sometimes with the active participation, of the police. Cover-ups, perjury, non-submission of hospital records to courts and even downright frauds by district surgeons, enabled many accused to escape justice." (159) As one white farmer acknowledged to Human Rights Watch, "I would not be surprised if most black South Africans hadn't at one time or another had some personal experience of violence on farms." (160)
Farm owners' representatives consistently state that they believe that the extent of assaults against farmworkers is exaggerated: "the bulk of farmworkers have good relations with farmers; less than 15 percent, if that, do not." (161) An independent study commissioned by the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union (KWANALU) found that less than 7 percent of farmworkers characterized their relationship with the farm owner as "fairly" or "very bad." (162) The survey was, however, criticized on methodological grounds, given that the farms surveyed would be those whose owners were prepared to cooperate with the report(and therefore not a random sample), that many farmworkers would have very low expectations of their relations with a white man, and that, despite assurances of confidentiality, farmworkers might have concluded that the reports of the survey would be reported to the owner of the farm where they lived. (163) Other research among migrant farmworkers in the Free State found that 74 percent of those surveyed reported that relations with their employer were good or satisfactory--but that no less than half of those who stated that labor relations on the farm were satisfactory still reported that they had been verbally abused, and 19 percent that they had been physically abused. (164) The expected standard of treatment is clearly low. Overall, 15 percent of respondents reported physical abuse (19 percent of men and 11 percent of women), and 32 percent reported verbal abuse (36 percent of men and 28 percent of women). Nearly 40 percent of farmworkers reported some kind of abusive treatment from farm owners, often as a response to perceived minor infractions such as incorrect operation of machinery. (165)
Commercial farmers' leaders maintain the "few bad apples" thesis: "The agricultural union is definitely not saying that violence on farms is not existing, but the situation is blown out of all proportion. If you look at relationships on farms, when you really go into the details you find that the vast majority of farmers are handling their workers in excellent conditions.... The few incidents that have happened have been pulled totally out of context; and most have gone through the legal process." (166) Or again, TAU told Human Rights Watch that it was "on record requesting government ministers to give examples of assaults that we could address through the organization, but we have had not one bit of information from any of those departments, and that worries us. We're not saying there are no issues that require attention, but that they are nowhere near the magnitude that is alleged." (167) The Free State Agricultural Union has asserted that "isolated incidents are being blown out of all proportion, and are used to tarnish the entire sector.... Isolated cases should be treated on their merits and must not be made out as the modus operandi of the entire sector." (168)
The agricultural unions are on record condemning assaults on farmworkers. Agri-SA has called on its affiliated unions not to accept as members farmers who deliberately contravened labor and land reform legislation or who violated their workers' rights. (169) Speaking to the parliamentary portfolio committee on labor, Agri-SA called for the law to be fully applied against these "rotten apple" law breakers. (170) Similarly, the Mpumalanga Agricultural Union stated that "MAU strongly objects to mishandling of people and physical abuse. We tell our members that they must not do that kind of thing and the law must take its course. We condemn these actions." (171) The more conservative Transvaal Agricultural Union stated to Human Rights Watch that "We have a project to involve our laborers in the safety structures to defend the property and people on the farm, and we tell them that there is no way to get the laborers involved if they are not treating them well." (172) The agricultural unions have also condemned some specific incidents of reported ill treatment of farmworkers, (173) and the KwaZulu-Natal Agricultural Union, for example, states that it checks its membership lists to find out if a case of assault brought to its attention involves one of the union's members and investigates further through local farmers' associations. KWANALU's experience is that in general those accused of carrying out the assault are not its members, and that in some cases they are not "typical" farmers, but rather smallholders whose real income is earned elsewhere. If a crime is alleged, KWANALU lets the criminal process take its course without interference, and has "not yet had cause" to follow the route of disciplinary action. (174) The Transvaal Agricultural Union states that it leaves investigation of allegations of assault to the legal process and to the district agricultural unions that are its affiliates. (175)
It is certainly the case that many cases of assault by white farmers on farmworkers or residents do not reach the criminal justice system. Police and prosecutors in many different parts of the country were unable to recall such assaults that had been brought to their attention when interviewed by Human Rights Watch. But it is also true that when such assaults are reported, they may not assume the same importance in the minds of the police as crime against white farmers. In several police stations officers immediately assumed, when asked by Human Rights Watch about violence on farms, that the question must relate to crime against farm owners or managers, and only addressed assaults against farmworkers when their attention was specifically brought to the issue. A station commissioner of a small police station in rural KwaZulu-Natal, for example, was able to recollect by name the half dozen cases where farm owners had been assaulted or murdered in the region, or their homes broken into, but was unable to recollect a single case of assault by a farm owner on a farm resident or worker, even though farm residents reported to Human Rights Watch that several such cases had been referred to the police: "I don't think we have a problem with assaults on farmworkers so far, though there have been one or two. But there have been a couple of assaults on farmers, including a case of attempted murder when people living on a farm assaulted the farm owner when he tried to remove a structure that was obstructing his irrigation system." (176)
There are a number of obstacles to farmworkers reporting crime to the police, obstacles which are particularly severe in the case of assaults by farm owners against farmworkers. Communication with the authorities is difficult, especially when many farms are in very isolated locations, many kilometers from the nearest police station: "It may be the case that cases of assaults by farm owners against workers are not reported because it is difficult for the farmworkers to contact us since the farm compounds don't have telephones. In most cases if there is an incident in a compound it is the farm owner himself who contacts us." (177) But the problems of communication are probably less important then the fear that farmworkers have of reprisal should they report an incident. One official in provincial government commented: "You must remember that for a farmworker to make a case of assault against his employer is a Catch 22 situation; I should think many cases are not reported." (178) The sister of a farmworker who had been assaulted and then arrested at the farm owner's instance, and assaulted again, confirmed this view, "He is not a guy with a criminal record, he is a good guy; he has never been arrested before. But if he tried to report the matter they might end up killing him. It is difficult to report anything that is happening here on the farm to the police, because the people here, we are afraid of the farmers. We don't have telephones and anyway if we report the farmer here the farmer will report us to all the other farmers that you are a troublemaker and you will never get work anywhere." (179) Another farmworker talking to the press was even more explicit in his accusation: "You report any incident to the police, and you're evicted the following day." (180) Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable: "Everybody is afraid of the farmer and no one can complain to him because if you do he will give you your passport and you will have to walk to Lesotho." (181) A group of former farmworkers now living in a tent encampment outside Greytown in KwaZulu-Natal after being evicted from the farm where they were living, reported regular assaults and threats from the owner of the farm to Human Rights Watch: "He used the gun to hit us, fists, and he was a good kicker. He beat women as well as men, and children too. He would threaten us with a gun and shoot into the ground where we were standing. We never reported this to the police; it would just cause him to evict us." (182)
Many of those within government or the criminal justice system are aware that it is difficult for farmworkers to report abuse. But even where there is a recognition, it can be difficult for the police to act. As one black station commissioner noted, when asked about the response of the police to assaults on farmworkers: "They work because they have to, for their families; and there is a lack of jobs elsewhere. They fear victimization and expulsion if they complain of assaults.... If you talk to them they will try to give information, but their concern is that they must not be exposed: 'Hey, I am afraid, he is doing one, two, three, but you mustn't tell it in public.' So it is not something that the police can give attention to.... And we need assistance from the farmers, who play an influential role also in motivating their laborers for crime prevention. The moment we start investigating assaults the farmers are no longer going to cooperate." (183)
In other cases, as noted below in the section on the police response to violence against farmworkers and throughout this report, farmworkers attempt to report abuse, but the police refuse even to open a docket. "Three years ago the farm owner came when I was sleeping, around 5 am, and hit me on the chest and said I should leave the farm. About one week later he came back again early in the morning with the induna [headman], who held my feet, and he beat me with his fists. I was bleeding badly. I went to report at Greytown police station, who told me to go to Rietvlei. At Rietvlei I asked them to open a case, but the officer there, who is now station commissioner, said it was not worth it because I would just be running up and down and nothing would happen, so it was not worth bothering." (184)
carried out by Human Rights Watch was not statistically based, and cannot
indicate how widespread the problem of assaults on farmworkers or residents
by farm owners or others really is. The accounts below aim rather to give
an indication of the sort of abuse that occurs on South African farms,
and the lack of accountability through the criminal justice system where
that abuse takes place.
At intervals, a particularly shocking case in which a farm owner has abused a farm resident or worker will reach the South African media, such as the April 1998 incident in which a smallholder near Johannesburg shot and accidentally killed a small baby being carried in her sister's arms across his land (185); or the Mpumalanga farmworker painted in silver from top to toe for allegedly trespassing on a farm in July 1999 (186); or the January 2000 beating of a farmworker so severely that he died several days later (187); or the September 2000 case in which a farmer appeared in court accused of murdering his employee by tying him to the back of his pick-up truck with wire and dragging him along the ground for almost six kilometers (188); or the March 2001 beating to death of a black trespasser, allegedly by members of the Pieterburg rugby team. (189) Alternatively, a story will attract attention when it concerns a well-known figure. (190) However, advocates for farmworkers' rights state that it is not so much the headline cases of extreme violence as a constant lower level of abuse, often for "disciplinary" reasons, that forms the daily reality of the lives of many farmworkers.
near Tarlton on the West Rand, Gauteng, growing vegetables for the Johannesburg
market, provides an example. Among the testimonies received by Human Rights
Watch were the following comments from women working on the farm, and one
man (names have been changed):
Elizabeth: I have lived on this farm since 1986. Sometimes the farmer hits us. We work morning to dark for R110 (U.S.$14.50) a week. He beat me once when I spilt some flour.
Meisie: We are working long hours. I have seen people being beaten by that guy; sometimes he hits me because I don't know Afrikaans.
Lettie: We were in the field cutting broccoli, and he came and saw one was not cut and so he hit me on my side with his fist.
Julia: We work hard and we are beaten. We work six days a week, 6 am to 6 pm. Once when I was working I fell from the tractor and injured my foot. I was in hospital several months and I was not paid during that time. I used to see other people being beaten by him.
Palesa: One time I was asking the owner how to cut properly and he hit me on the head with the blunt side of the knife. Another time he hit me with a carrot when some vegetables fell from the belt in the storeroom.
Baleka: I was arguing with the foreman, and then he told Joubert who came here and hit me with flat side of a knife on the back and head. Then he came to the house and took my possessions and took them to the tar road and left them there until I came back and begged for my job again. He calls the workers kaffirs. Another time he hit me with fists because I was absent the day before.
tractor driver): He hit me once last month because we had a problem with
the wheel we were trying to fix, and after we came back from lunch break
the owner kicked me, saying I was destroying his trucks. He hurt my hand
when I tried to stop him.
When asked whether they had ever complained to anyone about this constant low-level violence the workers commented: "We have never reported these incidents to the police because there is no use in doing so. We have no place to run. There is no other place to work." (192)
A similar pattern was reported to Human Rights Watch by a former farmworker from a farm near Levubu, Northern Province: "The farmer was never treating us well, he would assault us while we were working. If he saw you could fight back then he would be hiding and kicking you when you don't see him. If you were weak he would assault you anyhow, with anything near to hand, even a spade. He was always blaming us if the crop was not of good quality, especially the avocadoes, if they were falling and getting bruised. There were cases of serious injuries, a lot of them. There was one old man who was beaten every day; he was even walking like a cripple, one side of his body was not right. Another one was injured with a splinter in his eye. The farm owner used to tell his workers that around here in Louis Trichardt or Levubu there was no policeman who could arrest him, and so we were thinking there was nothing we could do." (193) Another worker from Northern Province told of the same sort of low-level aggression: "When we were working they would come and say we were not working the right way. When you were packing oranges they would take an orange and throw it at you, or hit you with their hands if they were closer." (194)
(not his real name), a farmworker in the Western Cape, is fifty years old
and has been working as a tractor driver for eleven years on a farm earning
R250 (U.S.$33) per week. In 1999 Regis went to visit his brother who works
at a neighboring farm. When he got there, the farm owner started beating
Regis, accusing him of being drunk. Regis told Human Rights Watch:
The owner of
the farm, known as Cassie, beat me for no reason. He kicked me hard on
the chest several times, rolling my body on the ground. I spent some days
being very sick and could not report to work. I went to see a doctor at
Piketberg. The doctor who treated me also took some X-rays of my chest
and told me that I had a fractured rib. I was hospitalized for one week.
After discharge from hospital, I reported the case to the police. The investigating
officer gave Cassie a warning against beating me and asked him to pay a
fine. I do not know how much he was asked to pay. I wanted Cassie to be
sent to prison for beating me. To date, I still suffer from chest pains.
Watch interviewed another farmworker who was assaulted by his employer
in May 1998 and dismissed from his employment on the same day. Paul Muzambi
(not his real name) was born on a farm in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands in
1936, and lived on the same farm since his birth. He worked as a headman
and earned R160 (U.S.$21) per month.
In May 1998,
I was taking the cattle to the grazing yard. The farmer asked me why I
was taking the cattle to the grazing yard--but I did not understand why
he was asking me that, because I have always been taking the cattle there.
He picked up a thick stick and hit me on my left leg. He told me that I
was dismissed from employment and I should leave the farm. I went to the
police station and reported the case. My leg was seriously swollen. The
police recorded my statement and referred me to the doctor. The doctor
treated me and completed a form that I took back to the police. After a
couple of weeks, I went to the police station to inquire about the status
of the case and the investigating officer told me that the case had been
forwarded to the prosecutor, who declined to prosecute it.
When Human Rights Watch interviewed Muzambi, he was still staying on the farm, but no longer working. He complained to Human Rights Watch about the constant threats of eviction and harassment by the farm owner. Muzambi still limps when walking.
There are frequent allegations of theft and other property crime against those who live or work on farms. Many of these allegations are well-founded: both petty theft and stock theft by well-organized gangs is common. Altercations over allegations of theft or other crimes or misdemeanors by farmworkers can often precipitate violence.
The wife of
a farmworker from the Northern Province, who herself worked as a domestic
servant, reported how the farm owner assaulted her husband in December
1999, when he tried to deny that he had stolen R100 (U.S.$13) worth of
paraffin (kerosene): "I was watching with my two children as the farmer
beat him with his fists. Then the farmer said to me 'take your dog home.'
The farmer said he doesn't want to see him on the farm any more; he was
dismissed and they told us we must leave the farm."
(197) The woman also lost her job. In another case, farmworkers
told Human Rights Watch of abuse which resulted from an allegation that
they had been poaching animals from a game farm:
On June 30,
1999, the farmer who is the owner of the neighboring farm, came to our
residence and told me and George to get into his car. He made us get into
his car, with another white person. He was carrying a rifle. We went with
him to his farm, and we met two other black security guards there from
Messina, and one white security guard. The security guards did not have
firearms. The security guards used our own t-shirts to blindfold us so
we would not see where we were going. They took us to a dam. When we got
there they took off the t-shirts and told us to get in the dam. When we
refused they were assaulting us with fists, and they tied our hand behind
our backs with rope. They drove us into the water and kept us there for
two hours, from about 5 pm to 7 pm. Every time we tried to get out they
were assaulting us again, and the security guards even got in the water
and held our heads under water so we could not breathe. At 7 pm they took
us out and left us there. When we asked them why they were doing this they
said they had information that we were poaching animals from the game farm.
We were asking them 'Where is your evidence?' but they couldn't show anything.
They have not opened any case against us for poaching. We did open a case
of assault, but up to today we have not been for trial. The police in Messina
say that when the papers come from Pietersburg they will let us know.
In some cases,
the police are alleged to be willing participants in such assaults. Human
Rights Watch interviewed a farm resident tried and sentenced to thirty
months in prison for stock theft in March 2000:
On 24 December
1999 eleven people came to my house, including the farm owner, his son
and grandson, farmworkers from the farm and a police detective from the
stock theft unit. They dragged me outside and beat me, accusing me of stealing
a sheep, and also beat my mother (aged about sixty) and my two children
(nine and ten). They were beating me with fists, kicking me, and hitting
me with gun barrels. They were using electric cattle prods on my body and
on my genitals. They put a plastic fertilizer bag over my head and then
covered it with another cloth bag, so I couldn't breath, and laughed at
me when I started vomiting. They threw me in the dam and kept putting my
head under water. They were doing all this for a long time, more than an
hour, even though I admitted that I had stolen the sheep. Then they put
me in the back of a bakkie [pick up truck] and left me near my bus stop
and said I must not do it again.
Some days after
Christmas, when I could walk again, I went to Louwsberg police station
and opened a case of assault. A policeman took a statement and the police
took me to a doctor in Ngotshe who filled in a form saying that he found
injuries on my body but he didn't give me any help. I still have scars
on my abdomen, and I am still sore on one rib today. I think it may have
been broken. I have heard nothing about the case I opened since then. I
don't have a case number.
The man believes
he was victimized for reporting the assault:
On 24 February
2000 seven detectives, three white and four black, came in two police vehicles
to my house at night, and arrested me. I heard a knock and saw the searchlight.
I opened the door and asked what was going on. They told me to dress and
said I was going with them and I must show them my friend who was involved
with me in stealing the sheep. When we reached my friend's house they said
I must show them his bedroom, and they beat me again. The owner of the
house came out and said my friend was not there. The policemen were drunk,
and they beat me again in the car when they took me to the police station
at Driefontein where they kept me in the cells for two days.
They took me
to the magistrate in Ngotshe on the third day, and then I was transferred
to Vryheid prison awaiting trial section. When I was tried in March, I
asked the magistrate how I could be tried without a lawyer and why I had
to be beaten, when I had admitted that I stole a sheep--why couldn't they
just take me to the police station. The magistrate, who was white, said
that I had been arrested for theft and I shouldn't complain.
the huge economic inequalities in South Africa so marked as on the "front
line" between commercial farmland and former homeland areas, where there
is great poverty and land hunger. Farms that border the former homelands
are often the site of confrontations between farm owners and their neighbors,
especially over stock theft, collection of firewood, and other property
crimes; in some cases over land invasions. Rather than go through the criminal
justice system, which is slow and often ineffective, the temptation for
farm owners is to take the law into their own hands. These confrontations
can be abusive. For example, Josephine Thenga, who lives in a village in
the former Venda near Louis Trichardt, was found with others collecting
firewood from a neighboring farm in April 1997. The farm owner, Roelf Schutte,
fired in the air at first:
I was so afraid
I couldn't run away. Then he started assaulting me, with his fists and
boots. There was a black man with him, but only the farmer was assaulting
me. I couldn't even ask for forgiveness or anything because he was just
assaulting me.... He took me to his house inside the farm and put me in
his bakkie [pick up truck] and drove me to his workshop at the garage he
owns in Levubu. He put me on a chair, and I started asking forgiveness,
begging with my hands. There was a young boy there and I asked him to interpret
from Venda for me. The farmer gave me a choice between being killed and
being arrested. He untied the dog that was outside the workshop and came
in holding it on a leash, threatening that he would let it loose. [The
farmer went away in the bakkie and came back.] He asked the black man who
was with him on the farm to carry a coffin he had brought back with him
to the workshop, and he told me to undress to my underwear and get inside
the coffin and lie down. I said, 'No, I will lie down only when I am dead,'
and he ordered me to go and sit in the chair again. After a long time he
told me to help the other man to carry the coffin back to the bakkie [pick
up truck]; we then drove to the mortuary and we were ordered to take the
coffin back into the mortuary.... He then took me to the police station
and he got a policeman to come back to the farm with us. We went back to
the police station and they opened a docket. I spent the night in the police
cells and was released on R100 (U.S.$13) bail. I then went to court at
Louis Trichardt and I pleaded guilty and was fined R800 ($105) for trespass
and theft of the wood. I didn't lay any charge of assault against the farmer;
I took it that since I was on his farm without permission I had no right
to lay a charge. While I was there at Levubu police station I was complaining
that I was feeling pain, but a black policeman said not to talk about that
because of the firewood I had stolen. Now we get firewood on the other
side, within the tribal area. But he does nothing on the farm, there are
no crops, no cattle, no game, he uses it just to live; and we have no electricity
The South African Human Rights Commission heard evidence from Ms. Thenga in the course of an inquiry into farmworkers' rights in the Northern Province, and concluded that "while the initial arrest of Ms. Denga was lawful in all the circumstances, her subsequent treatment at the hands of Mr. Schutte amounted to a violation of her right to dignity and her right to the freedom and security of her person." (202) The commission recommended that "the Prosecuting Authority should consider the findings, the reasons for them, and the full record relevant to the allegations against Mr Schutte." (203) Thenga commented to Human Rights Watch on the SAHRC investigation: "The inquiry was helpful. It can change his behavior. He came and testified, which is useful. The hearing was indicating that things have changed; you can't just be beaten any more and say nothing." (204) Whatever the failures of the criminal justice system, direct action of the kind taken in this case is not permissible, and should result in prosecution.
surgeon (government-employed doctor, responsible for medico-legal services
in addition to other duties) in KwaZulu-Natal told Human Rights Watch that
he had received many cases involving dog bites from the farming community
in that area--cases in which the dogs had been deliberately set on the
have a tendency to set their dogs on farm workers, often causing them serious
injuries. In one critical case involving a dog bite, the farm worker had
an argument with the farmer after he was evicted from the farm. The farmer
then set his dogs on him and the dogs bit him severely. When the farm worker
was brought to me for treatment, he had serious cuts all over the body
and was bleeding seriously. I referred him for hospitalization. The case
was reported to Waterburg police. In another case in January 2000, a farm
owner let his dogs on the farm worker who had trespassed on his farm. The
dogs bit the farm worker severely causing him serious injuries all over
his body. I referred him to Matebelo Hospital where he was hospitalized.
to get farm residents, especially labor tenants, to reduce the number of
their own livestock or vacate the land, can lead to violence; tension over
grazing rights is a significant cause of tension between farm owners and
labor tenants. (206)
An elderly woman from a farm in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands told Human Rights
Watch about a saga of confrontation that began in 1998:
[headman] came to my house and started counting my goats one evening. I
asked him why he was counting my goats and he said I should ask my husband
since he was the one who was working. He came back the next day with the
farm owner who questioned us about the goats and why I wouldn't let the
induna count them. Then [the farm owner] went straight past me and started
beating up my sons, who are working on the farm, with a stick. When I tried
to stop him he threatened to beat me as well, but then he left and said
he would come back to kill us. A few days later around sunset the farm
owner came and parked here [on the public road close to the farmworkers'
houses] and dropped off the induna and three security guards that he has.
We heard them talking and after a few moments the dogs barked, and then
they lit up the thatch on the roof of my house, and then the house where
my daughter-in-law and her children were sleeping. I heard them screaming,
'We are burning.' I came out of my house and saw the two houses burning.
The farmer was still on the road and we heard him laughing loudly. Then
they left. The next morning the farmer came and said that he had heard
that we were suspecting that he had burnt down the houses, but that the
burning down was just a small thing, the serious things were coming later.
The same day after sunset we heard the dogs barking and footsteps. Apparently
someone put down poisoned pieces of meat, because one of the dogs became
sick and then vomited, and then we saw other pieces of meat around. The
dog died anyway.
The next day
the farmer came and he was boasting that no matter where I went for help
I wouldn't succeed because he works with everyone from the police station
at Rietvlei to Zibambeleni [a community development association] in Muden.
I said of course I can't do anything because I don't have land. You've
got the land and the world belongs to you.
the woman who talked to Human Rights Watch did report the case at Rietvlei
police station, where a police officer made an appointment to meet her
in nearby Greytown. On three consecutive days he failed to turn up, until
she went to the magistrate's court and was advised by a magistrate to phone
the station commissioner and given the number. The station commissioner
confirmed that the police officer was coming, but said that the farmer
had also reported that some fence was missing. The investigating officer
did eventually come to the farm several times and take a statement from
two members of the family, but only after a fieldworker from the Pietermaritzburg-based
Association for Rural Advancement (AFRA) had inquired about the case.
About a month
after the houses were burnt down, security people came to the farm early
in the morning. There were ten of them in six vans, Coloreds, Indians,
and Africans, wearing green and white camouflage uniform. Three of the
vans were of the kind the police normally use. They had dogs as well. They
parked on the road and came to our houses and started looking in boxes
and searching. One of the Indians, who seemed to be in charge, said 'stop
looking, we were not asked to search, only to beat up the old woman and
the son.' They ordered me and my son to stay separately. I thought they
would shoot at any minute, they were armed with rifles and revolvers. But
the Indian guy told his people to leave. I think he was touched, because
he was asking where is my son's gun, and I said that there was no gun,
if there had been a gun my other son wouldn't have died. [He had been shot
by cattle thieves earlier.] More than one of them was wearing police uniform,
navy with tabs on the shoulders. The Indian officer did not want to beat
about the bush, he just said that they had been told by the farm owner
to chase us away from the farm because we didn't want to leave voluntarily.
I heard from someone who works on the farm that now he is threatening to
send people to shoot me because I have reported the case to AFRA.
Often, violence or the threat of violence is used by farm owners in an attempt to induce farm residents who are not currently employed on the farm to leave the property. Some of the more serious cases of violence are reported below, in the section on evictions, but many lower level incidents take place short of actually forcing a family to leave the property: "Earlier this year the farmer came to my house and destroyed my garden. There were banana trees, sweet potatoes, strawberries. I was not there, but he told my children that he was cleaning his farm. I don't know what he meant by that; perhaps it was dirty! When the farmer was destroying the place the [private security company employees] were there, looking high and low; they didn't say what for. They locked one young man up with handcuffs for a short while, saying that he looked like a criminal, and they took away my brother's tool box that he uses as a builder and never brought it back. The farmer said he was not allowed to build any more because he was no longer working on the farm." (209)
In some cases,
an individual farmer engages in a range of abuse of those who live on his
farm, the lesser incidents leading up to more serious assaults. For example,
a number of witnesses described to Human Rights Watch the behavior of a
farmer who owns several farms and a poultry business near Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal.
From their accounts, there appears to be a war of attrition between the
farm owner and the long term residents who no longer work on the farms
but want to continue living there. The previous owner of the farm, with
whom the residents had a good relationship, sold up and went overseas.
As he was leaving he said to the residents, according to one who was there,
"I'm not sure if the new owner will be good to you; he has said he will
burn all of you." (210)
The new owner has allegedly engaged in a range of abusive behavior. One
elderly man recounted a relatively minor assault: "I have been living on
this farm for many years. I was working there but I am not any more. I
had built a large rondavel [hut] but it was not yet thatched. In March
1999, the farmer came with guns and security people and gave me a saw to
cut down the hut, which I did because the barrel of the gun was pointing
at me. The farmer said 'I have been trying to evict you all this time and
you must go; why are you still building?' About two weeks later I was coming
back from town on a cold day and the farmer saw me at the bus stop and
he looked around to see if there were any other people around; then he
jumped out of the car and started kicking me and hitting me. He kicked
me twice and then he jumped into his car again and drove away. I was confused,
I didn't report the case."
(211) Other serious incidents were described by a middle-aged
woman living on the farm:
On May 13,
1999, I was going to a neighbor's place, on a path that is not much used.
After I had crossed the river, I heard the farmer calling me. I thought
of running away, but I thought, 'no, let me go to him' and so I went. The
farmer was on the river bank. When I got to him I crossed the river to
the fence separating us. The farmer was standing on the steeper side. He
had a big stone in his hand, and he put it on top of a big pole and asked
me to cross to his side of the fence and asked me where I was going. I
said I was going to my neighbor and he then said 'when are you going to
leave the farm.' And I said I would not leave because the previous farm
owner said we should stay on the farm. He then crossed the fence to my
side and grabbed me and started assaulting me. He was hitting me until
I fell to the ground and then he pressed me to the ground and started banging
my head against the ground and strangling me. Then he tried to pull me
to the river down the steep bank, saying 'today I am going to kill you.'
I was sure I was going to die anyway so I pulled at his balls and started
screaming; he let go and I could run away.... I ran to my neighbors bleeding
and told them he had assaulted me. The following day I went to the police
station and reported the case. They took a statement and came back with
police officers to the farm. When we got there the farmer said he had never
seen me. The police wanted him to come to the police station, and he said
'no, I am busy with my accounts.' Some of the other workers had heard me
screaming, but when I later went to the police station to see what had
happened with the case, the investigating officer said the farmer had come
to cancel the case with several workers from the farm who were witnesses
for him saying they had heard nothing.
canceled the case, one day in August in the late afternoon I was with my
daughter and we saw a car passing by. The car stopped and the farmer asked
me who was collecting firewood on the farm. I said no one is carrying firewood
here. Then the farmer took my child, she is thirteen, and left with her
and took her to the house. At 8 pm he came back with her and with the police.
The police came to arrest me at the place I stay with my sister. They stopped
at the door and called us out. When we went out the farmer said 'our people
said you were collecting firewood.' I said I never went there. He said
'this child--indicating my daughter--was collecting wood.' My daughter
later told me he was asking her about trespasses, people hunting, people
collecting firewood. She said he had a big gun with him while he was talking
to her. My daughter went into the police van, and I went with my sister
in the farmer's car and we went to the police station where I was held
overnight in the cells, though the farmer took my daughter and my sister
back to the farm. The police came to write a statement that evening. They
said that the farmer had come to the police station and told them that
my daughter had told him that I had opened the dam and all the water had
drained out and he had lost livestock as a result, which is not true. I
can't read but I fingerprinted the statement. They took me to Estcourt
prison and I spent one night in prison. On Monday I went to court and I
was released on free bail. The prosecutor canceled the case because there
was no evidence. (212)
In other cases, farm owners' own fear of violent crime leads to violence against people who seem to them to be suspicious, even those on public property. One paralegal working with farm residents in northern KwaZulu-Natal reported an occasion in 1995 when he had been assaulted: "I was coming back from Durban, when I was stopped at about 11 pm, just outside Vryheid after I had fetched my wife from the farm where she works. A farmer stopped me on the public road, he was standing in the road with his vehicle, and asked me where I am coming from. I explained I was fetching my wife. He said that all the farmers had gathered together the previous Saturday and decided that no one is allowed to travel at night because they are scared. He grabbed me by the shirt through the window, pulled me out of my car and started to hit me with his gun, with stones, and threatening to kill me. We were fighting until the police came by on a stock theft patrol. They also said I was not allowed to travel at night. I said 'he assaulted me, what are you going to do?' and they said they couldn't help me and I must go home. I went to the police station the next day to report the case, but the prosecutor eventually declined to prosecute." (213)
reported to Human Rights Watch that fear of violent crime had led them
to be more suspicious of black people generally, and in some cases assaults
of farm residents can be directly linked to farm owners' fear and desire
for revenge. At its most extreme, this reaction has led to killings. In
September 2000, farmer Albertus George van Aswegen, from the Paulpietersburg
area of northern Natal, was found guilty and sentenced to twelve years
in prison on charges of murder and attempted murder. He had shot dead Bheki
Bulunga and wounded Teys Simelane in October 1997, suspects apprehended
in connection with a farm robbery. Aswegen had been returning from a funeral
of a farmer who had been killed, when he found other farmers with Bulunga
and Simelane lying on the road. He got out of his vehicle and shot the
suspects, execution-style. At the trial he testified emotionally how robbery
and murders had affected the white farming community, and claimed not to
remember actually firing the shots.
The main problem
in the farming areas is the police that are working on the farms, the private
security and the commandos. Any time there is a dispute, the farmers say
they will call the soldiers.
Some of the most serious abuse of farmworkers is carried out by members of the commandos, a system of reserve soldiers operating under the control of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Human Rights Watch heard credible reports of abuse--ranging from the staging of illegal roadblocks to murder--by commando units in many areas, including several in KwaZulu-Natal as well as the Wakkerstroom commando in Mpumalanga.
According to information received from attorneys acting for the victims, for example, members of the Umvoti commando in KwaZulu-Natal severely assaulted Stofu Dladla, a community leader of local standing, in the presence of the station commissioner of the Muden police station, on October 14, 2000. Dladla was allegedly handcuffed, assaulted, and "tubed" with a rubber bag over his head, after his house was searched for firearms, without a warrant. He had produced three firearms and their respective licenses. The station commissioner denied that he was present during the raid, though he agreed that three other police had been, and stated that one unlicenced pistol had been found. (216) In August 1999, four white men appeared in court in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, facing various charges including attempted murder, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, and malicious damage to property, in connection with a severe assault on four black men in September 1998. S'busiso Hadebe, Thokozane Mdunge, another Thokozane Mdunge, and Mbongi Mdunge had a puncture on the road between Vryheid and Paulpietersburg. While they were stopped, they were approached by a group of men who forced them to lie on the ground while they searched the car, and then beat them with rifle butts. An army-type vehicle with six men dressed in military clothing, presumably commandos, then arrived and joined in the beating. The victims told the police they were taken to a farm dam, made to strip and jump into the water, and subjected to further assaults. When they were finally able to return to their car, they found it burnt out. (217) Three of the accused were acquitted; the fourth, Daniel Van Rooyen was convicted on four counts of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. He was sentenced to a fine of R2,000 (U.S.$264) or one year of imprisonment, and a further two years of imprisonment suspended for five years. (218)
When abuses by the commandos are raised, the response from the police, army, and agricultural unions can be to dismiss such allegations as attempts by criminals to discredit an effective system, while emphasizing the fear of violent crime faced by all farmers and recognizing that there may be individual cases of excessive force. Others point to resentment if members of the commandos are arrested on assault charges when they have been carrying out anti-crime duties--given the perception and reality that many crimes in South Africa go unpunished, and that a high proportion of cases opened with the police are dropped before they reach court. But the perspective from those working with farmworkers is different. As one trade union organizer commented: "The commandos are a law in those areas: you can feel the chill in a remote rural area, you feel threatened there and then as a stranger if you see a bakkie [pick up truck] and the way they look at you." (219)
The most serious
reports of abuse concerning commandos, both in number and type, came from
southern Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal, in the triangle formed
by Piet Retief, Vryheid, Volksrust, and their surrounding districts. This
is an area where the majority of farm residents have historically been
labor tenants and where reports of serious abuse by white farmers and police
date back many years. (220)
It is also an area where white farm owners historically have been highly
mobilized for self-defense.
In recent years, there have been ongoing reports of abuse by the Wakkerstroom commando, one of several commando units controlled by local farmers operating in this border region. These abuses have led to successive attempts since 1994 to engage government action. In early 1995, for example, thousands of labor tenants and farmworkers marched to the Piet Retief magistrates' court to protest evictions, harassment, the impounding of livestock, and alleged assaults by the commando. Among them was elderly labor tenant Joseph Mabulwa Mavimbela, who claimed that members of the commando had evicted him, using electric cattle prods to drive him and his family off the land, then burning their houses. (221) Community representatives attempting to organize against forced evictions, such as the farm residents participating in a short-lived Mpumalanga Land and Labor Rights Committee that brought together farm owners and labor tenants in discussion, have themselves been subject to assault, harassment, and eviction. (222)
During the second half of 1996, the situation was especially bad. In October 1996, members of the commando rounded up more than thirty people and seriously assaulted them. Human Rights Watch spoke to several of the victims. Fana Mthethwa, a twenty-nine year old man now living in Johannesburg, who lived from 1987 to 1996 on a farm owned by Cornelius L. Greyling, working as a "garden boy," was one of those arrested. He told Human Rights Watch how on October 9, 1996, the farm manager collected him, his older brother and his uncle from the farm and took them to another farm owned by C.L. Greyling's son, Barend P. Greyling. When they arrived there they found a group of men from the commando, both white and black, wearing brown army camouflage uniform. Mthethwa knew many of those present by name. The three of them were separated and taken into different buildings. Mthethwa was handcuffed by one of the black commandos and put into a small room, where he was assaulted from early afternoon until late in the evening. "They all had electric cattle prods and were carrying pistols. There were five black guys, first assaulting and then electrocuting, beating me while I was still handcuffed. Towards the end they closed the windows and sprayed us with a canister and left us for thirty minutes. It was difficult to breathe, we were crying, our lungs were burning. I still have a problem with my eyes today.... They were asking me who steals things on the farm, and I gave names of people even though they had never stolen anything. I still feel bad about this today." (223) After the black members of the commando tired, Mthethwa told Human Rights Watch, the white members took over. "At the end of the assault, I was given a document to sign. I didn't want to sign it but had no choice. When I signed it they told me that now I would be on the commando and we would work together." He and others were taken to another room where they slept the night, still in their handcuffs. In the morning, the police from Dirkiesdorp, a nearby town, came to take them away. Mthethwa was kept for three days in the lock-up cells at the police station, and was then released without charge; after reporting the case in Piet Retief, he left for Johannesburg for safety.
was born in 1965 on a farm owned by C.L. Greyling. He was evicted from
the farm in 1999, and Human Rights Watch met him in Johannesburg where
he was living with his brother and working repairing shoes. He was one
of those arrested in the October 1996 incident.
I was accused
of stealing mealie-meal [cornmeal] from the farm. The farm security came
to search my house and arrested me. I was locked in a small house at the
farm and sprayed with tear gas. The security commander choked me with an
iron bar and beat me. I was bruised all over my body and bleeding form
the nose and mouth. When the farm owner, C.L. Greyling, saw me, he said,
'this man is going to die,' because I was seriously injured. I was released
in the afternoon and taken to my house. I reported the assault at police
station, but they never investigated the case. When I asked why this case
was not being taken to court, the police told me that the case had been
closed. I was seriously injured and received hospital treatment.
rounded up during the same incident, suffered more serious consequences.
He lives today and used to work on the Rooikop farm near Driefontein owned
by the Greyling family, where he was born thirty-six years ago.
I was looking
after cattle with another worker, Mnisi, when C.L. Greyling's two sons
came with four black members of the commando, saying they were looking
for illegal firearms and stolen goods. They were all in soldiers' clothes.
The black ones are also from around here, on the farms. They said I should
bring our hands forward, put us in handcuffs, and took us to a different
farm in their bakkie [pick up truck]. At the other farm we were taken into
a small building, and they assaulted us until late at night, always asking
for firearms. They were choking us with electricity wire, hitting us everywhere,
using electric cattle prods to shock us, and spraying something into our
faces. My eyes were full of blood. Then they took us to their father's
place and we slept there, with our hands still tied. The next morning the
father saw that we were hurt and tried to put ointment in my eyes. When
they saw it was not working, after some days, they took me to see a doctor
in Piet Retief. The doctor gave me some painkillers. I asked for a doctor's
letter, but he refused and said he would give it to Greyling. Then they
took us back to his home and I spent three days taking the medication before
the induna [headman] was told to bring me home.
Mayisela is now completely blind. "I went to Greyling for help because I can't work any more, and all they said was they wished the doctors could help me. Then they came here looking for money saying that because I am no longer working I must pay for grazing for my cows, so we have paid for three years now." (226)
Fourteen members of the commando were eventually charged in the Wakkerstroom magistrates court in connection with this mass round-up by the commando. The cases were, however, withdrawn by the state in May 1999, due to "insufficient evidence." (227) Mayisela has filed a R1,467 million (U.S.$193,000) suit in the Pretoria High Court against Cornelius Greyling and his sons Barend and Willem Greyling, claiming for medical expenses, lost wages, and his pain and suffering. (228) Another farmworker, Richard Hlatshwayo, has laid a claim for R300,000 ($40,000) in connection with the same incident. (229) The state is paying for the legal costs of defending these cases, on the basis that they related to actions taken "within the course and scope of their duties" as members of the Wakkerstroom commando. (230) Members of the Mpumalanga Department of Land Affairs are distressed by what they see as their lack of capacity to act in such cases; all they can do is refer complainants to the police. "They do these things in commando uniform, and then the government pays for their defense." (231)
Two of those
rounded up in the October 1996 incident were again assaulted in 1998. Hlatshwayo
described what happened:
In 1998, [one
of the commando leaders] accused me of owning a gun. The farm security
and [the commando leader] came to my house and started beating me. They
ordered me to get into their helicopter, and there was a dog inside the
helicopter. The dog was biting me all the way. When we got to the police
station, [the commando leader] and his farm security brought two boxes
of dagga [marijuana] which they gave to the police, accusing me of being
the owner of the dagga. I did not possess any dagga and I do not know where
they had found these boxes of dagga. The police arrested and detained me.
The following day I was taken to court and when the magistrate asked me
about the dagga, I decided to admit that it was mine because I was tired
of being beaten by the police and [the commando]. The magistrate asked
me to pay a fine of R120 rand [U.S.$16]. I paid the fine and was released
from court. I went back to my home at the farm only to find my house had
been burnt and all the property destroyed. I ran away from the farm because
I was afraid of being killed by [the commando leader] and his farm security.
also told Human Rights Watch about the use of a helicopter, repeating allegations
he had made in a statement to the South African Human Rights Commission
on February 12, 1999:
On July 26,
1998, at approximately 11:30 a.m., a helicopter landed near my house on
a farm at Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga. A group of men got out of the helicopter
armed with guns. My house was surrounded and the men entered my house.
I hid in the wardrobe with the assistance of my sister who pulled clothes
on top of me. I recognized people who were working for B.P. Greyling against
whom I laid a charge of assault. Amongst those I recognized were [several
commando members, black and white], and a known policeman from Wakkerstroom....
The policeman took out a piece of paper indicating that they were allowed
to search for me. They policeman said if they found me they were allowed
to shoot me. A police dog was also used in the search. I was afraid for
my life because I believed that they were only searching for me because
I had laid a charge of assault with approximately 30 others against [several
of the same people].... Most of these defendants had come to my house to
search for me. I am very afraid to return to my home and feel intimidated
because of the fact that I laid an assault charge against these people.
Two of the other complainants who laid the charges with me have already
been shot in suspicious circumstances.
Human Rights Watch interviewed the widow of Jabulani Simelane, one of those other complainants who was shot. In February 1997, Simelane, who lived in Driefontein, visited the graves of his family on the farm owned by B.P. Greyling on which he used to live. During the visit he encountered members of the Wakkerstroom Commando, and was shot and seriously wounded. He was taken to hospital, where he spent several weeks before he died. "A policeman came to tell us that he had been shot at Rooikop farm and taken to hospital in Piet Retief. We went to visit him, and he told us that the soldiers had asked him where he was going, because there was a fence around the farm. He had told them that he was visiting the graves, and then they shot him. He said ... who shot him. A case was opened but we were never called to court. No one ever came here to take a statement from me or anyone else from his family. They didn't even tell us when he had passed away, and they wouldn't let us bury him with his grandparents on the farm." (234) As far as his widow knew, her husband was not interviewed by the police before he died. The case never came to court, despite protests made by the Farmworkers Research and Resource Project (FRRP) at the time.
Some of the targets of assaults by the commando appear to be at random: Human Rights Watch interviewed Sipho Dlamini (not his real name), a kombi taxi driver, who one evening in 1997 was sheltering from the rain in his taxi in Driefontein (tribal land, Piet Retief magisterial district) on the public road. A group of white men wearing military uniform surrounded the vehicle with several bakkies (pick up trucks). The other people in the taxi (six or seven of them) ran away, but the men dragged Dlamini out of the vehicle and assaulted him severely, with sjamboks and fists, for no reason that they explained. They were carrying firearms and shot at those who ran away, though no one was injured. Eventually the police arrived and rescued Dlamini, who assumes they were attracted by the shots fired. Dlamini went to the police station, was referred to the district surgeon for a medical report, and laid a charge. The case was called to court, but as he told Human Rights Watch "when I arrived a policeman called me outside and said, 'since you didn't see who attacked you, who are you going to contest the case with?' And so the case was dropped." (235)
There are also more recent cases implicating the commando. David Nxumalo (not his real name) spoke to Human Rights Watch in Driefontein, near the farm where he has lived for many years. One day in July 1999, "two white people and one black, whom I didn't know, just came and loaded me into their bakkie (pick up truck), accusing me of stock theft. They took all my eight cattle away. They took me into the veld and started assaulting me with sticks. Then they took me to a different place where they put me alone into a railway container, and they kept me for two and a half days, without any food or water. My whole back was raw, and I still can't see properly with one eye because of the beating." (236) Nxumalo, a man of over sixty, was found in the container by members of his community who obtained the help of the Driefontein police, after someone had seen him in the back of the bakkie (pick up truck) with his face badly swollen. According to a community leader, "We laid two charges with the police here at Driefontein, for kidnapping and assault and for the theft of the cattle, and Nxumalo stayed here by the police station for two weeks and didn't go back to the farm, but they didn't take a statement from him. On the sixteenth or seventeenth day, two bakkie-loads of police came from Piet Retief and Wakkerstroom and said that charges of stock theft had been laid against Nxumalo that morning in relation to cattle that had gone missing eight months ago by the farmer who had assaulted him--and yet they hadn't been able to take a statement about the assault for two weeks." (237) The case is still going on, but when Nxumalo has appeared in court in Volksrust, there have been farmers from around the area at the court house intimidating him.
In January 2000, City Press, a Sunday newspaper published in Johannesburg, reported further allegations of brutality over the previous Christmas period by the commando, including the serious assault of a labor tenant, Simon Vilakazi, from a farm outside Piet Retief. (238)
Despite such incidents, a representative of the Mpumalanga Agricultural Union told Human Rights Watch that the commandos were doing a good job. "In Piet Retief and Wakkerstroom the role the commandos play is very good, a positive proactive role. They are visible in the area and it helps a lot in curbing violence. But now it seems to be targeted that those are the areas from which people are reporting human rights abuses. I can't believe that people from outside are saying human rights violations are occurring when the only action being taken is prevention of crime. The national government puts systems in place, but then the provincial and local people are not satisfied and they say there is intimidation: what do they want? Do they want crime to get out of hand so anyone can do what they want, or do they want crime to be prevented? And where they are operating there were attacks a number of years ago, but now the figures show that crime has dropped in those areas." (239)
In July 2000,
in response to these allegations of abuse, Defense Minister Mosiuoa "Terror"
Lekota visited SANDF Group 12 headquarters near Ermelo, to which the Wakkerstroom
commando reports, together with Correctional Services Minister Ben Skosana
and Intelligence Minister Joe Nhlanhla. The delegation spoke to SANDF Colonel
Anton Kritzinger, and also to representatives of farm residents who came
to Ermelo to meet the minister.
(240) The Mpumalanga Department of Safety and Security, under
the direction of MEC (provincial minister) Steve Mabona, has also conducted
an investigation into violence on farms, including crimes allegedly committed
by the Wakkerstroom commando.
(241) A team of policemen based in Middelburg has been appointed
to reinvestigate outstanding cases and follow up on any new cases involving
farm violence. Since the visit of Lekota and other government ministers
to Ermelo, there are no further reports of serious assaults committed by
members of the Wakkerstroom commando.
Many farmers, especially in the wealthier farming areas, are turning to private security companies to protect their assets from theft and their families from violence. Security companies vary considerably, but there are many reports of assaults by private security operatives, and in some areas the same company is repeatedly named. In Greytown, in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, the police have charged a few private security guards for assault, including one case of attempted murder after a guard had brutally beaten up a teenager. The guard was released on bail following the charge, on condition he remained office-bound. (243) In another case, a man reported that he had been badly assaulted, but he did not lay a charge, because he said he feared reprisals. (244) A district surgeon in a village nearby commented that he saw about thirty patients a year who had been victims of assault committed by private security companies. (245) An inspector at Mid-Illovo police station, also in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, commented, "We've had allegations of assault, but nothing seriously overstepping the lines, no case for which we would consider charging them so far. If there were a serious allegation we would investigate and leave to the court prosecutors to decide whether to prosecute. But there is a case against [a private security company] that is going through court from this area, when they used tear gas to disperse people at a compound and someone also alleged an assault." (246) In May 1998, a security guard on a farm near Kroonstad in the Free State reportedly shot dead a teenaged boy, Lethusang Mohloane, who was shooting birds on a farm belonging to Theo Delport, after beating him and three other younger boys he accused of stealing sheep. The security guard, James Morungo, was arrested and released on R5,000 bail (U.S.$660), paid by his employer. (247)
The use of military-type uniform by private security operatives (many of whom are ex-soldiers) causes particular problems, even though camouflage is supposed to be worn only by the army. (248) As one police officer from the detective branch noted, "it can be hard for victims to tell if they people who attacked them are private security or the commandos, since everyone wears camouflage uniform." (249) Some of those running commando units acknowledge that the unauthorized use of military uniform is a problem, noting that abuses committed by criminals who have stolen uniform can be attributed to the commandos. (250) A paralegal working with farm residents was more forceful: "The situation with assaults is terrible, in most cases during the night. You can't even say who the person is. The assaults have got worse since private security have become involved. You can't even walk at night.... It's got worse especially since 1998. These people are wearing old SADF [the pre-1994 army] uniforms; if they come to your place you can think they are soldiers. They are mostly black people; but some of them can't speak Zulu" (meaning they are not local people). (251)
Some private security companies appear to be particularly abusive, and to be able to function despite repeated accounts of assaults and worse. Human Rights Watch interviewed a range of witnesses, from police to court officials to victims of assault, who complained of the behavior of employees of a private security company based in Levubu, near Louis Trichardt, Northern Province. The company employs seventy people, and offers a variety of security services to commercial farmers, including comprehensive armed security, patrolling fences, or simple installing of alarms. Most of the crimes the company responds to are burglaries and theft, with the majority of suspects in theft cases being people resident on the farm itself. According to the co-proprietor, the security company works closely in coordination with the police and (in accordance with the law) does not carry out any arrests on its own account, rather waiting for police to arrive to arrest suspects, after conducting a preliminary investigation. She noted that the farmers the company deals with have complaints about the slowness of police response. (252) Local police also note that some farmers tend not to rely on the police for security since the white station commissioner was replaced with a black officer, preferring to rely on the private security company, who would begin the investigation and then hand over any suspect to the police. However, the security company would continue to monitor the case closely and would attend court with the farmers when their cases were heard. (253)
The control prosecutor at the magistrates court in Louis Trichardt noted that the court was seeing an increasing number of cases of assault involving private security companies, protecting both businesses and farms. The same Levubu company, in particular, had figured in many complaints relating to intimidation, and techniques such as keeping suspects in a dark room for a long time until they confessed. There had been more than one prosecution in relation to those cases, and one admission of guilt and R1,000 (U.S.$132) fine for pointing a firearm. (254) A murder case against the proprietor of the company had also been opened in Messina, in connection with the death in early 1998 of one of the guards employed by the company. (255) In another case, a police officer told how a white employee of the company had kicked a pregnant woman outside the Levubu police station and seriously injured her; a case of attempted murder had been opened and was still pending in April 2000. (256) Again, a former farmworker reported to Human Rights Watch that he had seen a co-worker accused of stealing bananas after he had been badly assaulted by members of the same security company. He was able to walk following the assault, but was badly swollen around the face. "I don't believe he reported the assault; many farmworkers don't know there is a right to report a case." (257)
In KwaZulu-Natal, several different sources mentioned problems concerning one large private security company. One farmer based outside Howick, in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, described to Human Rights Watch how he was approached by the company to join a scheme that was presented to him as a conservation effort, to stop poaching. He refused to sign up, because of fears that his staff would be harassed. "My fears came true. About a year or eighteen months ago one of my workers was beaten up just outside my farm. He was accused of stealing compact discs, and this was a guy who probably doesn't even know what a CD is. They came and hauled him out of his house at night time, took him to another place, beat him up and left him there. He couldn't work for six weeks. We went to the police, who just laughed [when we named the company].... They knew all about them." (258) The farmer and his worker laid a charge against the company, and the police came to the farm and asked the worker if he could identify the people who assaulted him. "He said he couldn't identify all eleven, but they were all wearing [the company's] uniform. The police took down the details, but we've heard no more." (259)
Serious reports of abuse were also made against a private security agency operating in the Commondale area in Mpumalanga, on the border with KwaZulu-Natal. Commondale borders the Piet Retief and Wakkerstroom districts, where commandos are also accused of serious abuses, and appears to benefit from the same impunity from the criminal justice system. "Since 1995 when [the security company] came to our area they have been assaulting people. Three have been killed. But nothing has happened. Some people say to me that they won't report an assault to the police because there is no use. They say they are looking for firearms or for stolen cattle, or if the farmer doesn't want someone on his farm he just sends them to chase the people away." (260)
Human Rights Watch spoke to relatives of one man who died following an assault by employees of this company. Moses Hlatshwayo (not his real name) was assaulted in February 1997, and later died of his injuries. His son told Human Rights Watch: "They came to the house during the night, at about 9 pm. There were four of them, two whites and two blacks. They kicked the door down, and asked for my father. We said he wasn't there, but they went to the other rondavel [traditional dwelling] and the dog found him at the back of the door, and they took him away, naked.... He came back about 8 pm the next day. He had been badly beaten. His whole body was swollen, as though he had been beaten with an iron. He said that the security people had said he had stolen cattle. We gave him muthi [traditional medicine] and took him to hospital in Piet Retief and then to Johannesburg, but he died two months later." (261) The family laid a charge at Piet Retief police station, but no police ever came to take statements from family members and other witnesses, and the case has not gone forward.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a schoolboy, Sipho Khumalo (not his real name), who was assaulted in June 1999 by members of the same company. "Five of them, one white and four blacks, came to our house at night, 2 or 3 am, and kicked the door down. My mother asked them what they were looking for, and I tried to run away, but they caught me, shone a torch in my eyes and beat me, asking me if he had a firearm. I asked to put on my clothes but they refused, and they took me outside into the forest naked and they beat me, using a gun butt and a stick from the forest. They took a twenty liter container of water and poured it into my nose. Then they left me in the forest after it was light. They were wearing camouflage uniform and driving a 4x4." (262) The boy's father complained to the owner of the farm where the family was living, who employed the company to provide security. The farmer said he would report the case to the police, but the police had not been to take a statement, and no case had been opened so far as the boy knew. Following further intimidation of the family by the farm owner, who threatened to send the same security company to evict them, they left the farm where the boy had been born, and moved to live in a forest site owned by the large wood and paper company, Mondi.
(not his real name), a young man living in a forest area near Commondale,
said he had been picked up on the road in 1998 by employees of the same
company, who questioned him about where he lived and asked him about illegal
firearms. He was taken to the farm owner, who did not know him, and then
severely assaulted. "They kicked me and beat me with gun butts and left
me for dead. There were five of them, four black and one white, all wearing
camouflage uniform. I came back here, though it was difficult to walk.
I went with my father to see a doctor in Piet Retief, and we reported the
incident to the police, but we've heard nothing since, although they said
they would contact us." (263)
Human Rights Watch also spoke to family members of Kumisani Hlatshwayo,
a middle-aged man who was killed in 1998, apparently by members of the
same company. He was seen being taken from his place of work (a security
guard at the CTC timber company) by employees of the company, and his body
was later found in their vehicle, although they claimed that they had only
found the corpse. CTC stated that they had reported the case to the police,
but family members are not aware of any progress on the case since then.
Mapogo a Mathamaga, "colors of the leopard" in Northern Sotho (SiPedi), is a vigilante group formed in 1996 in Sekhukhuneland, Northern Province, in the former homeland of Lebowa. The group was formed by John Monhle Magolego, a local businessman, in protest at attacks on local businesses to which he felt the police response had been inadequate. Immediately successful in attracting business people to its ranks, across Northern Province and beyond, the association also accomplished the rare achievement in South Africa of uniting whites and blacks in a common approach. By the end of 1999, Magolego claimed a membership of 35,000, including about 10,000 white members, in ninety branches in Northern Province, Mpumalanga, North West Province, and Gauteng. Fees are levied on a sliding scale from R50 (U.S.$6.50) up to R10,000 (U.S.$1,320) for large businesses with fleets of trucks. Members, or black members at least (most whites are passive members), are expected to take part personally in exacting punishment on alleged criminals. (265)
The police do not like Mapogo or other similar vigilante groups, though they recognize at senior level that these vigilante structures are a response to the inadequacies of the state law enforcement agencies on the ground. Commenting on Mapogo's methods, a spokesman for the Northern Province Department of Safety and Security (responsible for the police) noted that, "if I assault you badly enough, you will be anything I want you to be, even if you're not guilty." (266) As a result of their methods, Mapogo members have faced more than 300 criminal charges, including thirteen of murder and nineteen of attempted murder; more than twenty people have reportedly died at the hands of Mapogo since 1996. (267) A large number of assault charges have been filed by people who claim mistaken identity and other errors in Mapogo's choice of victim. Among these are several cases involving farmworkers. (268) In June 1999, three Mapogo members were convicted of assault and illegal possession of firearms at the Groblersdal magistrates court, and sentenced to a R10,000 (U.S.$1,320) fine and three months imprisonment. (269) In August 2000, twelve members of Mapogo, including Magolego, were acquitted on charges of murder and assault; the police claimed the acquittal was due to Mapogo's intimidation of witnesses. (270) In 2000, stories of a split in Mapogo, over its brutal methods, involvement in protection rackets, and the dictatorial style of Magolego, surfaced in the press. (271)
Among the issues reportedly dividing the group were Magolego's decision to sign up large numbers of right-wing farmers, symbolized by the decision to launch a branch in Ventersdorp, North West Province, stronghold of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB, Afrikaner Resistance Movement). Many farmers in Northern and North West Provinces display the distinctive Mapogo symbol of two leopard heads on their gates, and some are enthusiastic personal participants in the organization: one farmer went to Mapogo's inaugural meeting in his area, ordered all of his sixty workers to pay the fee and join the group or leave the farm, and now supervises the beating of alleged thieves and other criminals all round the neighborhood. "The thing that shocks me, is that I'm degraded to the level where I actually have to go out and lynch these people. I don't want to have to degrade myself like that. It's the government's job." (272)
In March 2000,
the Congress of South African Trades Unions accused Mapogo of targeting
its members, following the death of a Mozambican farmworker and severe
beating of another near Brits, North West Province. The two Mozambicans
were reportedly assaulted and kept in closed sacks overnight, and one of
them was found dead the next day. They had been accused of stealing tomatoes,
but COSATU spokesman Solly Phetoe alleged that the vigilante group had
ignored previous allegations of theft made against others who were not
members of a union. The farmer on whose farm the incident took place was
arrested by the police, and released on R30,000 (U.S.$3,950) bail the next
day; four members of Mapogo were also arrested.
(273) The case had not been brought to court by March 2001. Lawyers
acting for farm residents and others reported several cases to Human Rights
Watch in which Mapogo had been involved in carrying out illegal evictions
of farm residents. (274)