22 NOVEMBER 2003, Page 24

Terror on the veld

More than 1,000 South African farmers have been killed since the end of apartheid: Andrew Kenny stares into the heart of darkness

Cape Town

Heart of Darkness has claim to be the most famous novel of the 20th century. Conrad, whose writing is often boring, often obscure, but often filled with passages of breathtaking beauty and surprise, is the most piercing of novelists. Nothing more acute than Heart of Darkness has ever been written about colonialism. To my mind, it has this central thought: if you look too deeply into the dark heart of an alien, you will find yourself looking into your own dark heart and discovering all sorts of nasty things there.

Nasty things are happening in the South African farmlands 2,000 miles south of Conrad's horror. South African farmers and their families are being slaughtered. The murders are accompanied by torture and rape. The sadism of the attacks suggests either dark perversion or systematic terror. Dr Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch has even suggested that the killing could be classified as genocide.

The numbers are these: in the entire MauMau emergency in Kenya in the 1950s, fewer than a dozen white farmers were killed (32 white civilians in total, fewer than those who died in road accidents in Nairobi in the same period). In the entire 14-year civil war in Rhodesia, which ended in 1979, the number of white farmers killed was 269. In the three years of Mugabe's terror since 2000, it was 11. In South Africa, in the nine years following the end of apartheid and the 'miracle' of South Africa's democratic election in 1994, more than 1,000 farmers have been killed. The death rate by murder for South African farmers is 313 per 100,000, perhaps the highest for any group of people on earth who are not at war.

In 1997 four young men invaded the farm of Beatriz and Jose Freitas in the north-east of South Africa. Jose, who is disabled, was tied up while they ransacked the house. They asked Beatriz where her iron was. Then they dragged her to the laundry, took off her clothes, kicked her to the ground, raped her, poured oil over her, switched on the iron and applied it to her body. Her skin came away in flaps. Three years later Jose was shot dead. This attack, reported by the South African TV programme Cane Blanche, is not unusually gruesome. There are hundreds that are as bad or worse. Old men are forced to watch their wives being raped before the couple are painfully killed. Farmers and farmworkers are tortured over many hours. What is happening?

There are two opposing theories. At one extreme, these attacks are seen as being directed as part of the 'Second Revolution'. The First Revolution was the takeover of South Africa by a black government. The Second Revolution, using terror, is the establishment of a radical black communist society and the expulsion of whites. Driving the white farmers off their land is part of this process. At the other extreme, the attacks are seen as being purely criminal and without political guidance or motives. The white farming lobby is inclined to believe the former; it points to Peter Mokaba, a prominent young ANC politician, who chanted, 'Kill the Boer! Kill the farmer!' to cheering black crowds. The ANC government says that it believes the latter.

I have no experience or knowledge of farming or farm murders, but looking at the problem from the outside, with my experience of living in South Africa and my observations of human nature, I do not doubt that the latter theory is right and that the attacks are essentially criminal. However, this needs to be qualified.

To explain the sadism, violence and the rape in the farm attacks, you need to understand only two things: the attacks are happening in an extremely violent country with very high unemployment, and the attackers are poor, ill-educated, fatherless, jobless, rootless young men — who happen to be black. South Africa's murder rate is 58 per 100,000, perhaps the world's highest. (The rate for England and Wales is 1.3.) I have lived a sheltered life, but a man was shot dead across the street from me; a motorist was clubbed to death with a hockey stick by another motorist at a crossroads near me; in the bushes outside the nearest pub, a young girl was gang-raped, had one of her nipples bitten off and her mouth wedged open with a wooden stick so that they could rape her again in the mouth; I saw the mortuary photograph of a young man who had been tied to a railway line by two friends so that the train had cut off his legs at the shins and his head between the upper and lower jaws. Every South African can give a similar account.

Why is South Africa so violent, far more so than, say, Zimbabwe? I do not know. The violence predates apartheid by at least 100 years, and probably reached its nadir in the appalling Mfecane massacres between black tribes in the early 19th century, before the white man arrived in those parts. During apartheid, criminal violence was at very high levels, but it was underreported because of the attention paid to political violence, which actually claimed far fewer lives, The violence seems to have increased somewhat as apartheid fell away, probably because the confident and oppressive police force was replaced with a fearful and inadequate one. The murder rate in the 1970s and 1980s was about 30 per 100,000, and from then rose to its present levels. (Since the start of the Iraq war in March this year, between 7,000 and 10,000 Iraqi civilians are reckoned to have died. In the same period more than 15,000 South Africans have been murdered.) Farm murders have certainly increased dramatically with the ending of apartheid, but brutality in South Africa existed before, during and after apartheid.

In such a bloody atmosphere, imagine a gang of aimless, hopeless young men stumbling into an isolated farm, where they will not be resisted and can do what they want. The rape scene in A Clockwork Orange gave a convincing picture of unleashed male adolescents enjoying themselves with sex and violence. We are ordered by the feminists to believe that rape is only about power. Nonsense. Rape is sex, and sex is fun (for men, anyway). Other things, such as revenge and dominance, may well come into it, but no man can commit rape to the point of ejaculation without pleasure. The lingering violence and torture? Again, I am afraid, this is part of our dark nature. English schoolboys thought it fun to stick a pipe up a frog's anus and blow it up until it burst. No doubt those young men applying a hot iron to a naked woman thought that was fun too. In the old days, we loved public executions, including drawing and quartering; today we love violence in the cinema.

But of course there is a political background. Three hundred years ago, black people owned all South Africa north of the Fish River. White people invaded and took it from them. Black people living around the white farmlands have been brought up with assorted facts and legends of the dispossession of their ancestors. To give a poor historical analogy, picture yourself as a native Briton living in desperate poverty in a fetid slum in Roman-occupied Britain in the 2nd century. In the distance you can see the magnificent farm your family owned before the Romans stole it from them. Today you see the Roman owner and his wife living in luxury. Occasionally, as she passes by, she gives a patronising smile and throws you a crust. What would your feelings be if a gang of young British thugs murdered the Roman and gang-raped his wife? Would you help the Roman authorities to catch them?

The young black attackers imagine that the white farmers are all very rich and that their farmsteads must be bulging with good things. So robbery is a major motive, although it cart be displaced when they discover that the farmer has not got much to steal. A rarer motive is grievance, real or imagined, against the farmer. The surrounding black community, desperately poor, might know the killers but it seldom volunteers information to the police. Both the white farmers and the poor black families see conspiracies from the other side; both imagine things in the shadows. The best account of this is Midlands by Jonny Steinberg, a farm-murder investigation converted into a novel to provide anonymity to witnesses and to allow Steinberg to speculate, which he does mainly with interesting effect. In a newspaper article Steinberg wrote, The profile of the typical perpetrator was that of a young drifter; he was generally born in the district where he committed the crime, migrated to the city in his late teens, failed there, and drifted back to his ancestral home. He had seldom met his victim before the robbery.'

The ANC government's reaction to the farm murders is uncertain. On the one hand, it just loves stories of evil white men persecuting innocent black men and getting their just deserts. This is why the South African government supports and applauds Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The fact that Mugabe has killed, raped and tortured tens of thousands of black people means nothing to it. The fact that he has killed a small number of white farmers and seized a few white farms delights it. But, on the other hand, the ANC wants white investment, expertise and trade. Essentially it is saying, 'Please invest here, you white bastards!' So while it might be tempted to pander to the killing of white farmers, while Peter Mokaba may have chanted. 'Kill the Boer! Kill the farmed', while the South African Human Rights Commission (whose main job is to promote the ANC's racial ideology) may thunder against cruel, patronising and exploitative white farmers, its official position is to support the rule of law, condemn farm attacks and declare them to be purely criminal.

But it does not do much about enforcing the law. The police force, especially in the rural areas, is woefully incompetent and there are precious few signs of improvement or any will to achieve it. Combating crime is very low on the ANC's list of priorities. This month the ANC made Robert McBride the chief of a metropolitan police force. McBride has no experience or qualifications in policing, but in 1986 he murdered three innocent women by placing a bomb in a Durban restaurant (at a time when apartheid was in retreat). This makes him an ANC hero and explains his appointment. Senior ANC politicians protect themselves against violent crime with fortified houses and phalanxes of bodyguards, but do nothing to protect the ordinary people of South Africa. Mention of South Africa's appalling crime levels just irritates them and any opposition politician who brings up the subject will be called a racist.

Ideologues try to make farm murders into an issue of land rights. There is little evidence of this. No black killer, to my knowledge, has expressed a desire to run a farm of his own. In fact, very few South Africans, black or white, want to farm at all. Migration from the countryside to the cities continues apace (and should be thoroughly welcomed). However, it is certainly true that land reform and property rights for everyone are of fundamental importance to South Africa's future prosperity and stability. Every black adult in South Africa should be given full, tradable rights to a piece of land. There is plenty available. If a black man wanted to sell his land to a white property developer for the price of a crate of beer, well, that would be for him to decide. That is how liberty works. Such sentiments are anathema to the government, which hates the idea of individual black men controlling their own lives, and this probably explains the dreadfully slow pace of land reform in South Africa, I have heard only one first-hand account of a farm attack, a mild one. It happened to two white friends, George and Jenny, who had a small farm near Bronkhorstspruit, east of Johannesburg. They had some cattle and grew indigenous plants for nurseries. Both are gentle liberals in their late fifties. They had black families on the farm and looked after them well. At 8 o'clock one morning, as Jenny was opening the gate to leave the farm, two black youngsters, aged 19 and 13, both known to her, attacked her. The 19-year-old grabbed her from behind, forced her to the ground and twisted her jaw, pulling it out of its socket (she could not recognise herself in the mirror afterwards). She screamed. The 13-year-old leant down to her and pleaded gently, 'Shhhh, Jenny, don't make so much noise!' Then they ran away and left her.

They were arrested and explained that they had wanted to kill George. They were going to smash in his skull with a four-pound hammer which they had left in the bushes. But when George drove by at 7 o'clock, his car had tinted windows and they were not sure if he had other people with him. So they left him and attacked her instead. They had intended to steal the car, but neither of them could drive so they had arranged for two accomplices to join them, but these had not pitched up. The 19-year-old had been in trouble in the past and George had warned local farmers against him, perhaps a motive for the murder plan. The parents of the two attackers were distraught.

The sheer vagueness of the murder plot, its woolly motives and its haphazard enactment are probably typical. With a slightly different sequence of events, George could have had his brains dashed out and Jenny could have been raped. Indeed, just such murders and rapes have happened in the locality in recent years. There's no conspiracy; just feeble human beings following dark and incoherent urges amid grinding poverty in a lawless land.