Killing fields

South Africa: As fatal attacks increase, white farmers fear unrest is spreading from Zimbabwe.

November 19, 2001

MORE THAN 10 white farmers a month have been murdered in South Africa this year, prompting fears that unrest from neighboring Zimbabwe is spreading to the continent's breadbasket.

"If you are killing the farming community, you are killing the country," says Steve Tshwete, South Africa's safety and security minister.

The assaults have alarmed whites, who control 85 percent of the best agricultural land.

The violence has already reduced grain production and could threaten South Africa's position as one of the few food exporters on the continent.

The government insists criminals are responsible for the attacks. White farmers suspect agitators are behind the bloodshed.

They refer to statements by the militant Pan Africanist Congress, which defends assaults as "politically motivated" and not criminal.

Black landlessness and poverty are so endemic they could well be contributing factors.

If so, the violence is likely to be homegrown. But continuing, government-sanctioned violence against white farmers in Zimbabwe could be an inspiration.

In recent months, the South African government has expelled more than 15,000 illegal Zimbabwean refugees.

They are not suspected of violence. But because they are willing to work at lower wages than locals, they have created tensions in a country where joblessness is widespread.

In Zimbabwe, embattled President Robert Mugabe continues his campaign to expel white farmers from their big holdings, even though such hounding is causing food shortages.

By contrast, South Africa recognizes the critical role of the white farmers and wants them to stay.

But even those farmers recognize that peace in rural areas can be secured only if the government speeds up its program of redistribution to the landless.

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