International outrage about a “genocide” against white farmers in South Africa ignores the data

Punditry is stoking fears.
Punditry is stoking fears.
Image: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
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South Africa’s reputation for crime extends beyond its borders, but attacks on white farmers in particular have captured the attention of international audiences, especially in conservative circles. But data in a new report indicate that farm attacks have actually been on a steady decline.

Isolated and believed to be wealthy, South African farmers have historically been the targets of attacks in South Africa. In some cases the attacks and murders have been so brutal that many believe there is an element of race-based vengeance for apartheid. White farmers’ vulnerability has increased along with the rest of the country as South Africa struggles to contain crime, especially violent crime.

Some farmers have chosen to fly the old apartheid flag to express their belief that they are being persecuted. The Afrikaner cultural group AfriForum (which calls itself a civil rights group) organized a protest dubbed Black Monday to call attention to farm murders, which they say the African National Congress government is willfully ignoring.

After a peak in 2001/2002, the number of farm attacks—rape, robbery and other forms of violent crime short of murder—has decreased to about half. Similarly, the number of murders on farms peaked in 1997/1998 at 153, but today that number is below 50. The South African Agricultural Industry, AgriSA, released a report in the hope that a sober look at the numbers would lead to a practical solution in rural South Africa—despite it having become an international hot-button issue. The AgriSA report avoids the racial aspect of the conversation by not differentiating the races of the victims of farm murders and attacks.

“Farm attacks are already an emotional aspect and for this reason statistics must be applied with circumspection,” wrote Kobus Visser, the author of the report and AgriSA’s director of rural safety.

In Gauteng, South Africa’s economic hub, murders were the highest, at 644 over the last two decades. Many of these took place on homes of a few acres, just outside cities such as Johannesburg and Pretoria. The North West province had the highest number of non-fatal attacks, 722 between 1996/1997 and 2017/2018. The province also saw the most infamous farm murder, in which an apartheid loyalist and Afrikaner nationalist, Eugene Terre’Blanche, was bludgeoned to death by his workers in 2010.

For its part, AfriForum claims much higher rates of attacks—an average of an attack a day in 2018 alone—but its data has been called into question. This hasn’t deterred international sympathizers. Last month, AfriForum’s CEO Kallie Kriel and his deputy Ernst Roets traveled to the US to “garner support and lobby against racist theft (land expropriation) and farm murders,” Roets tweeted. The two scored an audience on Capitol Hill and appeared on Fox News (video), where host Tucker Carlson called the attacks “barbaric.”

Pundits have picked up AfriForum’s message, some going as far as to label the farm attacks a genocide. “If it continues, I fear there is going to be the beginning stages of what many would call genocide,” the Canadian far-right political commentator Lauren Southern said on the Breitbart News Sunday podcast.

In its definition of genocide, the United Nations says “there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” There’s no doubt that South Africans—black and white—living on remote farms and far away from law enforcement, are vulnerable to the country’s already high crime rate. It’s a leap, however, to claim racial targeting, much less genocide.