Claims of kingpins in charge of well-planned crime operations with connections in government, highly trained hit squads using children to secure intelligence in farm attacks, occasional acts of intimidation to force land owners off their property and inhuman physical trauma inflicted on victims of such heinous crimes speak of the evil that characterises incidents committed against inhabitants of some of the remotest locations in South Africa.
Limpopo is no exception and when embarking on research into farm attacks University of Limpopo (UL) research assistant Cristopher Gumbi couldn’t possibly have been prepared for unearthing the sorrow bottled up in recollections of physical trauma shared by victims of such crimes. Shedding tears with survivors as they revisited the horrors of the past, he got a glimpse of a form of crime that threatens food security and, in turn, the economy of the country.
His findings were consolidated in a 117-page thesis for a Master of Arts degree from the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at UL, which he obtained in September this year. Gumbi’s investigation of the motivational factors for farm attacks and its consequential injurious phenomena looks into such crimes committed in parts of Limpopo and Mpumalanga between 2005 and 2015, bringing him into contact with 23 individuals and groupings who have all been survivors.
Before getting started with the interview Gumbi pointed at his predominantly monotone outfit in solidarity with scores of South Africans commemorating Black Monday, the countrywide action commemorating lives lost in farm attacks and survivors thereof.
From the study the reader gets varying perspectives of the situation as Gumbi delves into a decade of attacks through conversations with survivors from both genders, who varied in age from 38 to 88 years.
Harrowing accounts made him question, among others, the need for inflicting physical trauma upon victims during the orchestration of attacks, he remarked during the interview. “The violent nature of attacks is amply demonstrated by such actions as beatings, tying victims down with cable ties, threats of burning victims with hot water or poisoning them and shooting at first sight,” he notes in his study.
Without exception all respondents stated that attacks which occurred on their farms were well-planned, mentions Gumbi. “There is a clear indication that attackers conduct thorough surveillance of their target and surroundings before they pounce. This shows the high amount of intelligence and patience they put in, in making sure their plan succeeds.” He quotes a victim who stated that the assailants were picked-up by a vehicle after the attack. “This confirms the idea of a hit squad and a getaway car as a form of organised attack,” he states.
He further writes that all of the surviving victims mentioned that the attacks against them were linked to a crime syndicate, with the chief aim of robbing farmers of their money, valuables and weapons in order to fund their operations. In one instance he quotes a victim saying “One of the attackers informed my son that he is part of a crime syndicate and that they cannot remain in custody… These cell groups have kingpins in every town who use kids for stealing because the kids cannot be prosecuted… This is a well-planned operation involving Police, public prosecutors, judges, magistrates to high ranking officials of the government…”
Attackers with military training
Some of the victims maintained the belief that their attackers were a mix of South African and Zimbabwean with military training, according to the information contained in the study. In one incident a victim recalled that the attackers collected all spent cartridges on the scene. In another attack the assailants allegedly ran more than 4 km while carrying rifles to their getaway vehicle and changed clothes in order for them not to be recognised. Gumbi reaches the conclusion that an attack on a farmstead from four sides during one such incident, which resulted in the farmer being shot in the head, indicated a form of formal training on the part of the assailants.
In 47% of the cases money and jewellery were not targeted while 65% of the respondents stated that their attackers were not very interested in other items but their weapons. What the researcher had established though, was that attackers always knew the arrangement of the targeted farmsteads, where the safes were and the weapons kept. It led to the inference that the attacks should have been orchestrated with the help of insiders, who allegedly included teens living on farms.
Attacks believed to be form of intimidation
According to Gumbi’s research 78% of the respondents who reported farm attacks related a form of intimidation, aimed at driving farmers off their land. A female victim informed him that she had believed the attack on her farm was a form of intimidation, because the attackers never stole anything but just started firing through the windows of the house without prior warning. “More than 60 shots were fired. My husband shot back with a .38 revolver. He (name withheld) tossed (the) phone to me to call for help. They shot him (name withheld) in the head. They never came inside. The attackers shouted that they will kill all…”
A farmer who reported that he was attacked by twelve men informed the researcher that one drew a gun and started shooting. “When asked what their primary objective of attacking the farm was, they responded that it was not about cattle, money, guns or jewellery, but about taking control of the farm.”
Thirty-nine per cent of the respondents stated that they knew the attackers. A respondent who was attacked twice, in 2007 and 2014, said his wife knew one of the attackers because she recognised his voice during the initial attack.
Gumbi quoted survivors who were asked whether farms with poor security were singled out for attacks as saying “Poor security is not a contributing factor; it is all about brutal revenge and financial purposes” and “I don’t think poor security is the point here. These attacks are orchestrated by some leader somewhere who wants to drive farmers off their land.”
Gumbi further remarks that farmers do not feel that they are receiving the necessary service delivery from the South African Police Service. From the responses it is clear that the Police are not doing enough to assist the farmers during and after an attack, he writes. “Negligence and dereliction of duties are evident from the responses of respondents. Serious allegations concerning negligence with firearms raise concerns.”
Farm attacks need to be addressed holistically hence, the researcher concedes, more role players such as all government departments and non-profit organisations need to play a more active role in improving security on farms to protect food security.
Gumbi points out that unless security on farms is made a national priority, farm attacks will continue to increase. He recommends that it gets prioritised and discussed as part of South Africa’s national agenda, particularly in Parliament. He also recommends that racial stereotypes in farming urgently get addressed. “The South African justice system needs to recognise farm attacks as a criminal charge of its own with a strict mandatory minimum sentence applied; this will serve as a form of deterrence to attackers.”
Gumbi expresses great concern over farm attacks in South Africa not being given the necessary attention by the government, considering the effects such crimes have on the economy and the well-being of victims, families and communities.
According to him South Africa has the responsibility to view farm attacks as a violation of human rights and a threat to the country’s economy and food security. “The rural farming community contributes substantially to the growth and development of the South African economy.”
Story: YOLANDE NEL