Tuesday, April 18, 2006

In Farmland, No One Can Hear You Scream

Zenstar and I went away for the easter weekend with my family, spending three nights in a glorified wooden shack on a farm near Velddrif on the West Coast. For those not familiar with the West Coast, there are only two things that happen here: farming and fishing. The land is arid, good for grazing of sheep, cows and ostriches. Close to the ocean the soil and water are high in salt content, and Cerebos produces a large chunk of their salt out here. The coast itself is dotted with fishing villages like Paternoster, tiny dorpies where the only income is the sea harvest, and tourists. Surrounded by so much barrenness, so much open space, the thing that came to mind was: if we were attacked out here, no one would hear us scream.

It may seem a little paranoid as thoughts go, but in SA it's utterly realistic. Just this weekend an elderly couple were brutually attacked on their farm, tortured and left for dead. The man was forced into a bath of hot water, and the soles of his feet were so badly burned that they peeled completely off, and were left by the attackers on the couple's dining room table. The wife was beaten so savagely that she ended up in the ICU for five days and suffered a heart attack. This was all apparently for R250 in cash and a few appliances. No one heard them scream.

A few years ago Interpol ranked South African Farmer as the most dangerous job in the world outside of a warzone, with 313 murders per 100,000 population. That's twice the death toll in Iraq, and four times as high as the murder rate for any other minority in SA. An estimated 1,700 farmers have been killed since the handover to the ANC. Organizations such as the Human Rights Commission and GenocideWatch.org have expressed concern about the death toll, and London's Sunday Times has even run an article detailing the numerous atrocities.

What has the government done about this? Well, for a start they disbanded the army veterans group known as the Commandos, who took it upon themselves to patrol the farms as volunteers, keeping the peace in the middle of nowhere. When residents asked who they should now call on to protect them, they were told to call the police or the army. Government fails to note however that for the majority of farms, the closest police or army are several hours away, whereas the Commandos were usually fellow farmers, only minutes away. Very constructive move.

Until recently, the refrain was always 'At least it's not as bad as Zimbabwe'. Our next door neighbour, celebrating this week it's 26th year of freedom, used to be known as the Breadbasket of Africa. It used to be Africa's greatest producer of grain, exporting all over the world. Today, thanks to the government's land reform policy that saw white owned farms seized and white farmers fleeing the country in legitimate fear of their lives, Zimbabwe does not have enough grain to feed itself. Those farms that were handed over are now being used for subsistence farming, whereas previously they were large scale producers feeding the entire country. As a direct result of the Zimbabwean government's meddling, inflation is over the 900% mark, leading to stories very similar to those heard during the great depression. Zimbabweans carry their cash around in trailers, their salary has devalued between the time they are paid and the time they get to the shops to buy bread, and everyone in Zimbabwe is now a millionaire in Zim dollars.

The only thing keeping South Africa from making the same mistakes has been the "willing buyer, willing seller" policy that had until recently been in place. Naturally, despite farmers being willing sellers, government was never the willing buyer. They demanded sale prices well below market value, and when the farmers refused to sell their farms at a loss, the government eventually gave up. They have now instituted a new, Zimbabwe-like land reform policy, under which they are free to seize farms whenever and however they like, with little to no reimbursement to the farmer.

How long will it be before things fall apart here, I wonder?


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