Crime growing on farms in rural South Africa Urban fears spread to the countryside

October 20, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BLOEKOMSPRUIT, South Africa -- Maurice Leonard has the sort of job in which he feels he needs to be armed at all times. He is a farmer in South Africa.

Wherever he goes on his 6,000-acre corn and cattle farm, he carries a loaded 9 mm pistol. On his belt, in a leather pouch, is a second five-bullet clip. He has a rifle and a shotgun in the house.

"I'm armed at all times," Leonard said, standing on the land that has been farmed by his Afrikaner family for three generations.

These are dangerous days for farmers, as the urban crime wave that holds much of the country in fear spreads to the countryside.

Farmers are experiencing a 53 percent increase in murders over last year, and are four times more likely than other citizens to be killed by criminals, said Chris du Toit, president of the South African Agricultural Union.

Recently, a neighbor of Leonard's saw a cow lying in the road that skirts the farm. He stopped to see what was wrong. Just as he noticed that the cow's legs were tied, three men overpowered him, beat him and hijacked his truck.

Earlier, an elderly farmer in the area was shot but escaped with his life.

Theo Pieterse of Bulfontein in the Free State was slain this month during a robbery attempt. His neighbors beat the suspects, one of whom died in a hospital.

"I think it's definitely worse," said Leonard, who keeps two guard dogs behind the electric fence around his house.

Inside, he has three two-way radios -- one permanently tuned to the local emergency center, another linking him to his 26 employees, the third tuned in for a daily security check with neighbors. All of the systems, including the fence, have back-up battery power.

"I believe prevention is better than cure," he said. "We know we have to survive until someone can come to help." His nearest neighbor is more than a mile away.

"In the old South Africa, you took your rifle with you if you went anywhere," he said. "Then things calmed down. Now, it's back again. It's just a way of life.

"The impression I get is, it's people from outside, not local people. They are well-prepared. They do quite good planning. Like a military operation, they send in reconnaissance people to see what's happening, or they get a local guide to tell them where the soft points or vulnerable points are."

At the Agricultural Union's annual congress in Pretoria this month, farmers expressed outrage at the worsening threat and demanded the immediate return of the death penalty, which was outlawed by President Nelson Mandela's ruling African National Congress. They called for the dismissal of all provincial safety and security chiefs if crime is not brought under control in three months.

"They must bring back the death penalty," said Jan Human, deputy manager of the Transvaal Agricultural Union. "There is no alternative. If this violence is going on and they don't bring back the death penalty, the people won't be afraid to kill somebody."

Piet Gous, president of the Free State Agricultural Union, warned that farmers are on the verge of organizing vigilante groups to confront criminals.

In the past two weeks, three union members have been murdered on their farms, compared with an average of one Free State farmer killed per year during the liberation struggle of the 1980s.

"If we don't get a solution from government, there is only one way," Gous said. "If [farmers] must kill first to stay alive, they must do that.

"This is not America, where we are talking about a civilized country. We are talking about a totally Third World situation where you have to fight for survival."

Farmers, he said, are convinced that the motive behind the killings is political: an attempt to drive them off their land to allow its redistribution to blacks.

"It's all associated with land," said Gous. "Get them off the land."

Grim-faced Free State farmers assembled Friday in a church hall in the small market town of Frankfort for a briefing on security.

"If it was just about theft, they would steal what they wanted and go," said Cassie Muller, a tough, bearded farmer. "But now they wait for the farmer and his wife to get home. They just kill the farmer, not his wife, because the ground normally belongs to the man. They want us off the land."

For Hennie and Monica Gouws, the house on their 600-acre farm has become too dangerous. They have moved into town.

"I am so worried every morning when he leaves for the farm," said Monica Gouws. "I never know what is waiting for him."

Hennie Gouws is not usually armed. This bothers Fanie Van Heerden, commander of the local military reserves.

"A farmer should be armed at all times," he said. "If they know he is well-trained, they are not going to take a chance with him."

Van Heerden has divided the Frankfort district into 12 self-defense zones and appointed a military coordinator for each.

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