If you hadn’t heard about Senekal – a small town in the Free State province – a week ago, you’d probably be among the majority of South Africans, including myself. However, a march outside of the Senekal Magistrate’s Court has become central to opening a dialogue over farm murders in South Africa.
In a disturbing IOL report published yesterday, Free State ANC Youth League activist Sizophila Mkhize said that, “if they [white farmers protesting in Senekal] want war, we are going to give them war.”
What’s happening in Senekal?
The Senekal march was organised by white farmers, who were protesting the ANC-run government’s denial of what they believe is a contagion of hate crimes, spreading across rural areas throughout the country. In the march, they demanded that the police hand over the two suspects for Brendin Horner’s murder – aged 34 and 43 – to them.
“They tipped over a police vehicle, climbed on top of it, and set it alight in full view of the police.
Once inside the court, the protesters overturned furniture and threw files around, according to police sources and security guards. Three gunshots were also fired inside the court building,” as per the IOL report.
Organisers read out a memorandum which demanded the resignation of Police Minister Bheki Cele and an “end to farm killings”, among other demands.
Brendin Horner, young South African (21), ANOTHER victim of a brutal farm murder! Hung on a pole, stabbed several times, broken fists as he fought for his life. Government denies that these hate crimes (on our minority) are serious. MARCH at Senekal magistrate court, 6 Oct. 11:00 pic.twitter.com/sSXoj9OPDT
— René Krüger (@realReneKruger) October 5, 2020
Protesters were also seen in video footage storming the court building, damaging public property and trying to overturn a police Nyala (an armoured vehicle) while the suspects were inside.
Are farm murders a problem?
A report compiled by the AfriForum Research institute on South Africa’s farm attacks and farm murders in 2019 concluded that “Victims and families of victims are left with severe trauma and emotional and psychological damage. The most horrific details of these crimes are often those which are not reported. It is crucial to provide the much needed support – especially emotional support – to the victims of violent crime.
“Communities are as always encouraged to become involved with security networks in their area. It is essential to make it as difficult as possible for attackers to gain access to dwellings.”
This appears to echo sentiments that farmers are prepared to and are actively forming private militia in the interest of protecting lives and their properties.
And, although we cannot consider it as a credible source or as representative of black South Africans as a whole, a Twitter thread was brought to my attention, which shows that there is a growing sentiment among some black South Africans to be prepared to fight back.
White farmers stormed a court building and set alight a police vehicle in Senekal last week and has exposed the broader issue of farm murder, with opinions over whether farm murders are a prevalent issue in the country. Of 21,022 murders in South Africa in 2019, 57 were farm murders, resulting from 552 reported and confirmed farm attacks.
I think it's time for every black man to get some military training, arm themselves and be ready for anything, judging by the events of Senekal
— Bongz (@Wolfie_Omnyama) October 7, 2020
The Senekal protests turned violent with acts of violence and destruction of property, and little to no police response, which is what has irked the ANCYL and Mkhize.
“Damaging government property is crime and that is not a way to solve a case,” Mkhize said. “It’s not a way to solve the crime or show the anger. White people, by the way, have killed our people in numbers. Some of the people that have been killed never made it to the statistics or made it to the media.
“We are not condoning the killing of the farm manager, but we are saying that the killing that happened cannot be an excuse for white people to do what they did on Tuesday.
“If they want war, we are going to give them war. They killed our people and we have not forgotten. They killed Solomon Mahlangu, Chris Hani – a lot of our people. It’s just that we chose peace over violence.”
And Mkhize’s sentiments are not an outlier. In the same report, Free State ANCYL secretary Reagan Booysen echoed his sentiments.
“What happened this week has shown us that white people are still at war and don’t believe that we are now living in a democratic South Africa. So we have to teach them a lesson and must send them to jail. What these people have done has undermined the elected government and it is upon our shoulders as the young people of the ANC to defend our government,” said Booysen.
In 2019/20, farm murders in the country accounted for 48 of the 21 325 murder cases.
What have the party leaders been saying?
EFF leader Julius Malema urged his own supporters to “attack” in defence of “our democracy and property”, saying President Cyril Ramaphosa was “scared to respond decisively”.
The DA has indicated that they will be referring Malema and EFF MP Nazier Paulsen to Parliament’s ethics committee over their recent social media posts which appear to incite violence, following leader John Steenhuisen’s statements saying that the Senekal violent protest was unhelpful because “the mission should be to bring the perpetrators to justice” rather than “tear each other apart”.
BLF president Andile Mngxitama has called on Ramaphosa to guarantee the safety and right to fair trial of the two murder suspects, adding that “when whites murder blacks, they are assumed to be innocent until proven otherwise”.
On the ground
IOL also spoke to Senekal residents, one of who said “seeing how guns were randomly carried and hearing the K-word hurled at us was very upsetting. I don’t think the trauma can easily be forgotten.
“The manner in which the streets were closed, with no place for us to walk and seeing some street hawkers close their businesses due to the intimidation was proof of how the SAPS is still very selective in how they deal with us. If that amount of chaos was caused by a group of black people, we would be visiting some of them in hospital with rubber bullet wounds and a large number would be in jail as we speak.”
Another resident, Moselantja Dibakwane, echoed that statement, saying “it’s like black people have no rights. I mainly blame the police because they knew a day before that the group was planning to come demonstrate. Why didn’t they prepare themselves? Now we are worried that a similar situation might happen next week again because these people are armed. We are left naked against them,”
Could a full-blown racial clash actually happen?
Let’s remind ourselves that this is a tiny little town, which is by no means representative of the South African population at large and many South Africans have been predicting that a civil war will break out for decades, to some extent or another. So a lot of this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
And while farm murders make up a small percentage of the total murders committed throughout the country, many will argue that there is a greater degree of brutality in the farm murders, with disturbing pictures of dead bodies and gruesome stories being shared across countless social media platforms. But what is this in comparison to? Are the significantly more prevalent murders in townships and the Cape Flats not brutal? Or are the images just not being shared to the same extent? These are important questions in an age of widespread disinformation.
It’s not to say that I condone farm murders or deny that it is a growing issue in South Africa that desperately needs to be addressed. In fact, the ANC’s relative silence and sheer denial that farm murders are a problem makes me more suspicious that it is actually a problem. It would be far more prudent to address the issue head on and either confirm that it’s a problem with official government investigations, or debunk the claims before the misinformation does incite racial violence. It’s a win-win for the ANC to shine a spotlight on the issue. And, in that sense, Senekal protesters are not wrong for taking somewhat extreme measures (burning vehicles, committing arson and damaging property is not uncommon in any of the thousands of protests that occur throughout the country every year).
However, there is rampant distrust for the South African government, likely as the result of unrestrained corruption over the years.
It could take just one protest and one viral tweet to send the country, particularly armed militia, into a downward spiral of racial hatred that has been brewing in the country throughout the democratic era. The events surrounding the Senekal protests and the inevitable social media response that follows will have a ripple effect which we certainly need to draw our attention to. And the ANC leadership needs to meet this head on. They need to deploy the Hawks or conduct thorough research that is apolitical and credible in order to either confirm that farm murders are an issue requiring urgent attention or to debunk these claims.
Following that, all we can do is hope that common sense prevails. But right now, it is up to us to reserve judgement and not allow our identities and political affiliations to compel us to make judgements for which we don’t have enough reliable information.