The Farm Killings
Jonny Steinberg , Political Science, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
Research Grant, 2000
Shortly after South Africa’s first democratic elections were held in 1994, white agricultural associations raised the cry that their members were being killed in increasing numbers by predatory criminals. A moral panic followed. The killings were dubbed “farm murders” and were said to be orchestrated by shadowy forces, possibly connected to the new government, and aimed at driving white people off the land.
I spent eighteen months conducting intensive ethnographic work in several farming districts around the country. My research findings were presented in two forms. The first was a research monograph (published by the Institute for Security Studies) as well as a string of newspaper and magazine articles. The idea that there was an epidemic of “farm murders,” I argued, was mostly manufactured by the creation of the category “farm murder” as a specific recordable crime. When the murder of farmers is placed back in its proper context and compared to other rural murders, it becomes apparent that middle class rural people in general, and not just white farmers, became highly vulnerable to predatory crime during the transition to democracy. The idea that white farmers were targeted in particular had no empirical basis.
When the murder of farmers is placed back in its proper context and compared to other rural murders, it becomes apparent that middle class rural people in general, and not just white farmers, became highly vulnerable to predatory crime during the transition to democracy.
The second research product was a book titled Midlands, which won South Africa’s premier nonfiction award, the Sunday Times‘s Alan Paton Prize. It documented a single killing of a white farmer and analyzed the motives of the killers. I argued that a series of unwritten rules governing the relationship between the landed and their tenants was being renegotiated by a combination of cunning, wits, and violence, and that the murder was an extreme and tragic moment in this process of renegotiation.
Jonny Steinberg, Midlands, Johannesburg, 2002.
Martin Schönteich and Jonny Steinberg, Attacks on Farms and Smallholdings: An Evaluation of the Rural Protection Plan, Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies, 2000.