Farming. What do you think of? Amber waves of grain? OshKosh B’gosh overall-clad children rolling in hay? The pitchfork-in-hand puritanically dressed couple of Grant Wood’s American Gothic? A pastoral way of life?
On a recent trip to South Africa, I learned farming had a different look. There, farming looked like 10-foot chain-link fences topped with razor sharp barbed wire as far as the eye can see. It was attack dogs who look like they’d just as soon take a chunk out of your thigh as look at you. And it was ubiquitous security gates, guards and cameras. It was fear.
Why? Because farming in South Africa is the most dangerous job in the world.1 Not by the way we Americans consider farming dangerous. Not by accidents caused while working with hazardous equipment like combines, or by toxic chemicals or from tractor overturns. This was danger in the form of murder.
According to the UK’s Daily Mail, South African farmers are twice as likely to be murdered than police and are killed four times the rate of the community as a whole. In a 2017 debate in South Africa’s parliament, the attacks were described as “extremely violent and often accompanied by brutal torturing in the most barbaric way.” These acts also don’t take into account the all-too-frequent “indirect acts” against farmers, such as intimidation, arson and malicious damage to property, which are included in a 2016 police presentation in parliament.
So as our VALOR cohort visited farm after farm during our two-week educational tour, we repeatedly asked ourselves, “How can the people who produce food to feed hungry mouths be such a reviled target for so many?”
We learned the answer, as it is so often, is deep-rooted, multi-faceted and steeped in history.
Like many things in South Africa, the problem can be examined by looking how it affects the white population (9.1%) and the black (76.4%) and colored (8.9%)2, with some causes unique to each and others transcending both.
Let’s start with common causes. Crime is a huge problem in South Africa, as we learned. And crimes against farms, usually in the form of crop or livestock theft, are common. Many farmers are simply attacked when they try to deter a crime in action.
Then there’s jealousy. Not my word, but theirs. When we met with Solomon Maseou, an emerging black farmer in the Free State Provence, he explained that his neighbors get jealous when he appears more successful than them. Many of his neighbors are homeless or un- or under-employed, so appearing more successful is not very difficult. In situations like this—whether the target of jealousy is a white farmer or a black farmer like Solomon—violence, theft and destruction of property often results.
And lastly, there’s the hot-button topic…land reform, also known as land re-appropriation or expropriation. In December 2017 the governing African National Congress party and in turn Parliament, gave a nod to land expropriation without compensation. According to Bloomburg News, this will result in “…redistributing land to the country’s black majority from the more affluent white minority….”3
This is an issue because under the rule of European colonists, South Africa’s Natives Land Act of 1913 stripped most black people of their right to own property, a policy reinforced decades later by the National Party and its system of apartheid, or apartness. A government land audit released last month showed that farms and agricultural holdings comprise 97 percent of the 121.9 million hectares of the nation’s area, and that whites own 72 percent of the 37 million hectares held by individuals.4 So to rectify past wrongs and to make more equitable the current distribution of land, government has concluded that it will seize land from white farmers without compensation and give it to black farmers.
This violence has ripple effects back home, as well.
According to Newsweek5, more than 12,000 people have signed a petition calling for U.S. President Donald Trump to allow white South African landowners, who have their land stripped as a result of the country’s expropriation vote, to immigrate to our country. The petition calls on Trump to “take the steps necessary to initiate an emergency immigration plan allowing white Boers to come to the United States.” Boer is the term used to describe South Africans of Dutch, German or Huguenot descent, and who are also commonly referred to as Afrikaners. The petition from white South African farmers also urges Trump to stop admitting refugees from Somalia and the Middle East, because they “cannot be properly vetted,” and instead welcome white South Africans into the U.S. The petition explains that white South Africans “can be easily vetted and also possess skills that make them compatible with our culture and civilization,” the petition says.
So, as we learned through our international VALOR seminar in South Africa, a career in farming takes on different perspectives, including different risks, depending where on the globe you stand. There are, of course similarities that we heard. Securing good labor and farm loans, especially for emerging farmers, was a constant issue for South African farmers, like us. There, like here, consumers now think their food comes from grocery stores instead of farms. And farming continues to be a family affair regardless of what hemisphere the farm is in.
But despite visiting countless farms in Virginia in our first 10 VALOR sessions, I can assure you murder, torture, rape, and arson were not words that were part of any dialogue we had with farmers on U.S. soils. It was only through our international VALOR seminar that we were enlightened (and disheartened) to see that it was elsewhere and that agriculture does, indeed, look differently depending on where you stand.
2Population figures are from the 2011 census. (http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/south-africa-population/)
More information and statistics on farm attacks: