In South Africa, Plaasmoorde Spells Murder

It’s a strange feeling walking here among the crosses. Hundreds and hundreds of them, staggered about as if their final journey up the mountainside was as tortured and painful as the deaths they represent.

Each of these white crosses stands for a farmer killed on his farm, a victim of the systemic slaughter of whites in South Africa.

The man who owns this land tells me these crosses may represent half the actual number; the mountain can only fit so many, the journey here is long, and the ground is unforgiving.

Broken by her husband’s murder, her own rape and the ordeal of it all, Elizabeth came here to plant a cross in his name. She struggled up the mountainside in the 100-degree heat carrying his steel cross on her back, and hammered it into the ground.

Her friends tried to help her bind her bleeding hands, the menfolk willing to hammer the metal into the rock to spare her the pain. But she would not let them. She was full of suffering anyway; yet more pain was a fair price for her husband’s name to be here on this mountain.

Here and there the crosses have come loose from their rocky bed and lean into each other for support, just as the people they represent did in life. Just as farmers do now. One final hug on the mountainside at this journey’s end.

From the top of the mountain, where the PLAASMOORDE (“farm murders” in Afrikaans) sign screams out into the silence, the view of this monument changes.

As you stagger up here, you pass the crosses that represent individuals and their families, including Bernard’s father who bled out on his front stoop; his son who is no longer able to sleep, his grandson who wants to commit suicide to be with his grandfather.

But from the top what you see is a mass grave of white farmers, crosses all blurred, too many to count, too many to stand out alone, too many stories to be heard one by one.

And this is the truth of perspective, and the danger of it, too.

Journalists and media professionals tell me that stories of white farm murders just aren’t that widely read. There is a lack of appetite for this kind of news because farm attacks happen all the time now. People don’t click on them, they don’t attract attention.

Some media outlets won’t report on these farm attacks at all unless the torture is truly extreme. One such story that made the news was of  a black man who was allegedly trespassing across a white farm and was forced into a coffin and told he would be burned alive. His white attackers were sentenced to multiple years each in prison.

The story ran for weeks, the video went viral, and this one story of white on black violence nearly caused riots. It’s estimated that there were 24 white farm murders in the period leading up to this trial. Black farm attackers are typically released on bail for 500 rand – that’s less than $50 American dollars.

As an example, last week’s farm attack on Piet Els, age 86, and Rilke Alsegeest, 66, went virtually un-reported. They were tortured for two hours: his skull was fractured; their toenails were pulled out; their bodies were branded all over with a hot iron. Then they were left for dead.

Their story barely made page five.

I think back to my recent meeting with the General at the Trans Agricultural Union. We looked at the rigorous statistics, the bare facts that illustrate how farmers really are under attack. Broken down by province and type (murder or attack) it is not just the numbers that are alarming – it’s also the trend.

Farm Murders 2007-2017

What changed in this country for the figures to suddenly rocket to 82 farm murders and 423 farm attacks in 2017 alone?

The perspective from the top of the mountain, where the crosses lose individual meaning, correlates with the statistics on the page, where murders become just another pin on a map, another digit. And that’s part of the problem.

One senior editor has noticed a dramatic shift in the tone of readers. In the comments section, people used to show sympathy, offer prayers, or share their disgust for the attackers. But now, they almost seem to blame the farmers themselves: they know they are sitting ducks so they should just get out, give up, run away.

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I have looked at the lack of coverage on the plight of white farmers here, and I see that what she says is true. This is a story no one wants to talk about because the victims are the wrong color, and global sympathy only comes in one color and that color is black.

Meanwhile, South African politicians and unions are busy stoking tensions and fanning the flames of hate. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) cannot seem to speak about white farmers without labelling them racists or barbarians.

“COSATU calls for swift action against these racist barbarians, who are on a rampage killing black vulnerable workers. The law enforcement agencies need to do their jobs before people are tempted to take the law into their own hands. These unredeemable and unreformed racists need to be arrested because they do not have a monopoly on violence and people are going to run out of patience soon.”

The rhetoric from other quarters is even more direct. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – a South African revolutionary socialist party founded by expelled African National Congress Youth League President Julius Malema – are inciting a new generation of young, disenfranchised black South Africans to fight back with violence.

Their song, “kill the Boer, kill the white man,” was chanted during a protest outside a school just last week, reaffirming their commitment to the rallying cry: “the white man, he must die.”

And dying he is. From the sea of little white crosses on the mountain to the statistics from the General to the everyday stories of torture and brutality on white farms – unreported because they are too mundane to pique the interest of the comfortable classes – around the red zones of Pretoria and Johannesburg, it is clear that if you are a white farmer, there is a target on your head.

But these facts are drowned out by noisier stories like the coffin attack on a black man. The statistics, too, seem less shocking set against the national crime rate in a country where conservative estimates suggest 52 people are murdered a day and someone is raped every 15 minutes. This narrative is dismissed because it runs against the accepted thinking that racism only comes in one color and that color is white.

There are two determined factions at play here.

One is the determined white farmers, who say they will never leave their land – and who have nowhere else to go even if they wanted to. These are the same farmers whose wives bang metal crosses into the hard rock, continuing their defiance even in the face of death.

The other is a disenfranchised band of young black South Africans who see whites as the problem and the death of whites as a solution, who latch on to the EFF’s brand of violence as the answer to the question of why their lives are so poor; their reality so bleak.

Here it sometimes feels like no matter what question you ask: why white farmers must die, why a farmer’s wife was raped with hot coals, why land must be snatched back for “land redistribution” only to be left untended – the answer is always apartheid?

Why do you kill? Apartheid.

Why take farms only to leave them to languish? Apartheid.

Why torture people, why not just kill them? Apartheid.

For these people it is as if more cruelty and suffering is the solution. Like repartition but with hot irons, knives and guns. Vengeance almost, as if more death can be used as a salve on the huge hurt of the past.

I look around in despair. This is a country that wants to burst with life. In places avocados, oranges and macadamias seem to rain down from trees hanging heavy with their bounty. The nights are full of animal noise. Life is everywhere.

But as I look at the white crosses and reflect on the violent lives in black settlements, where one man’s life is worth so little it is not even counted when it ends, it feels like death is all around, too.

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