By misreading Senekal, South Africa will fail to resolve brutal rural conflicts

Tensions have run high in the Free State town of Senekal since the first appearance of two suspects accused of murdering farm manager Brendin Horner. On Tuesday it was alleged that one of the witnesses in the case has received death threats.
Tensions have run high in the Free State town of Senekal since the first appearance of two suspects accused of murdering farm manager Brendin Horner. On Tuesday it was alleged that one of the witnesses in the case has received death threats.

Much nonsense has been written about Senekal.

Senekal represents a life-and-death struggle between landowners and the landless. There is an ethnic genocide against whites. Farmworkers are treated as slaves. Farmers are the targets of racist blacks.

From the New York Times to the president of South Africa, everybody weighed in on a crisis in this Free State dorpie better known to outsiders for the Wimpy on the short main road passing through town.

What makes the resolution of Senekal so difficult are the simplistic blacks-vs-whites explanations for complex human confrontations in the breadbasket of the country.

To understand the dangerous dance between white and black citizens in rural South Africa, read a mesmerising new book on another Free State town called Parys.

Where in Senekal, two black men are in court for the horrific killing of a young white farm manager, in Parys a group of white men are awaiting sentencing for the grievous assault of two black men who allegedly attacked an older white man on his farm.

One important observation emerges from the compelling story of the Parys murders in Andrew Harding’s book, These Are Not Gentle People - these stories point to much more complex entanglements between whites and blacks outside of the big cities.

Old relations of racial hierarchy remain solidly in place here — farmers are mainly white; farm labourers black. Settlements around the farmlands are as racially enclaved in the 2000s as they were in the 1990s.

Here are two groups of South Africans who both feel they are unseen victims of forces beyond their control. White farmers believe the government has not recognised their plight as they sit stranded in vast, open areas vulnerable to attacks.

If you don’t read Beeld or Volksblad, you are blissfully unaware of the anxiety-inducing headlines day after day about white people massacred on their farms and smallholdings. As a result, these white South Africans sit on their own farms angry, scared and traumatised. The government has failed them, so they make their own private security arrangements, but still the death toll mounts.

Black township dwellers also feel the government has failed them and nowhere is this more evident than in the rural Free State where whole departments of state are regularly placed under administration and the most prominent corruption scandals occur. Scandals like the asbestos audit or the R250m Vrede Dairy Project that was supposed to empower black farmers.

What is often missed in the hasty conclusions of a racial divide in the rural Free State is a shared contempt of both white and black citizens by their government. In a recent television report, a Senekal farmer said even black farmers here had given up on calling the police as their sheep routinely disappeared because of stock theft. The police, locals swear, are part of the corruption.

What happens in this complex dance of mutual victimhood, where the government is invisible in the lives of rural citizens? Blacks and whites turn to each other and then turn on each other. The black labourers in Tumahole or Matwabeng have no choice but to seek work from the white farmers; it’s either that or go hungry or leave home for work in the big cities.

In seeking work, and holding on to it, the black farmworker has no choice but to absorb abuse well out of sight.

But then there is a false accusation (stolen sausages, in the Parys case), or a promised payment not made, and the worker’s resentment grows to boiling point.

The white farmers need black workers on the vast farmlands. It is still relatively cheap and dismissible labour and, though no-one will say it, such control over blacks also satisfies an ideological need, keeping the past in place.

What does not enter the transient media narratives is that farmers are struggling. There have been successive years of droughts; bank loans are due; equipment is more costly; and there is constant government pressure about minimum wages and land redistribution.

The financial pressure coexists with constant political pressure and, in the middle of this distress, another farm attack. Something explodes and farmers converge on fleeing black suspects dancing (literally) on their heads, as in the Parys attacks.

Then something very South African happens. The courthouse in Senekal becomes a grand opportunity for minor elements to gain instant political advantage. The EFF converge in trademark red uniforms. A smattering of Afrikaans right-wing organisations also appear, some dressed in old defence force khakis. A smaller group of ANC activists make their showing in familiar yellow outfits.

It’s a colourful spectacle of mostly outsiders.

What does not work is to tell farmers that more black people are murdered than whites. Of course, that is true when more than 90% of your citizens are not white in a country with a history of violence. That kind of logic is insensitive, even offensive, when your family and friends are being murdered on farms. The president’s response is for farmers yet another example of not being heard or recognised.

What also does not help is to tell black protesters to play by the rules. For desperately poor people who see black elites enjoy lives of privilege while fleecing state resources the rules do not apply.

The answer is not to tell black and white South Africans in the rural areas to be nice to each other. Why should they be when the government screws them both?


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