“Our sympathy,” said Gibbon with his usual acuity, “is cold to the relation of distant misery.”  You do not need to know very much about human nature to agree with the great historiographer that it is often very difficult, or even impossible, to sympathize with the woes of strangers.

And if it is difficult to feel other people’s pain, how much more difficult is it when the unfortunates in question have for long been demonized and disregarded by the world’s bien-pensants?  There will be a surprisingly large number of otherwise kindly, well-meaning people who will be stolidly indifferent to this book, because they have come, over their lives, to believe that Afrikaners are, to a man, ultraconservative, verkrampte, racist, slave-driving, sjambok-wielding bigots.  A book that details the violent attacks on, and relentless dispossession of, Afrikaner farmers by black criminals will accordingly fail to incite the same levels of passion that it would were the relentless dispossessions the other way around.  For all too many people, reared as they have been on a media diet of cartoonish Afrikaner stereotypes and schmaltzy Mandela worship, it will seem as if what is now happening in South Africa is merely a kind of redress for historical wrongs.  Yet the stories contained in this volume are as harrowing as any that can be found in the woeful story of postcolonial Africa.

The conservative British press has featured many stories about white Zimbabweans victimized, and often murdered, by Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF thugs.  Such tales will not affect British-government policy; events like these were always likely to be considered unimportant by a government that includes Peter Hain, a former Mugabe groupie, in its ministerial ranks.  Yet there has been genuine concern expressed on behalf of these luckless whites who, for some reason best known to themselves, were happy-go-lucky enough to entrust their country’s future to black-majority rule under an avowedly Marxist president.  There have been no comparable campaigns in the British press on behalf of South Africa’s farmers, although more white farmers have been killed in South Africa than in Zimbabwe.  Since the ANC came to power in 1994, over 1,600 white farmers have been murdered, and many others wounded or even tortured, and there have been over 8,000 attacks on farmers and their families.  Mandela’s “rainbow nation” is developing a shade of blood-red to replace the white.

Philip du Toit is an attorney who practices in Pretoria.  His farming background and professional training in agricultural and labor law have given him special interest in, and insight into, the deteriorating situation for South Africa’s farmers in postapartheid South Africa.  This is not just a devastating and highly detailed critique of the ANC’s childlike belief in ideology over experience but an elegy for a fast-disappearing way of life of a people, the literal Boere: a shrinking white tribe surrounded by the cruel, uncomprehending mass of Africa.  As with all such cris-du-coeur, the book is untidily written, and production values are pedestrian.  It lacks an index and bibliography, although there are sources given for many of the figures and direct quotations.  More detailed maps would also have been helpful.  Yet there are literary compensations, such as the extracts from a British settler’s 1820 diary and part of a short story from 1906.  The blemishes merely emphasize the passion with which every word is invested.

Part of the ANC’s policy platform included “land redistribution,” whereby farmland was to be taken away from commercial farmers (almost entirely white) and given to poor blacks, especially if those blacks could prove they had a previous claim on the land on account of their ancestors having lived there.  An estimated 20 percent of all South Africa’s farmland is now under claim.  Farmers (many of whom had opposed power-sharing in any case) clearly did not welcome this policy but seemed generally prepared to make the best of it, merely hoping that they could obtain a fair price from the government for whatever portion of their properties was claimed by tribes or otherwise sought by the government.  But—quelle surprise!—it did not quite work this way.

Almost immediately after the ANC takeover, the police service began to be Africanized, with white officers leaving or being made redundant, to be replaced with often inexperienced black personnel.  Predictably, crime, which had been at remarkably low levels by African standards, went through the roof.  The effect of this was felt especially in rural areas, far from police stations, where whites are few and far between but blacks are numerous.  And the latter were often restive and resentful of their white neighbors’ belongings, which, they had been told, were merely the fruits of racism.  That at least some of the whites’ prosperity was attributable to their hard work and technical knowledge does not seem to have occurred to many of these gangs—nor, for that matter, to local ANC politicians.  White farmers began to experience a rising tide of theft, criminal damage, and squatting, shortly followed by violent attacks and even murder.

The newly politicized police force has often ignored farmers’ complaints and failed to take any action to protect farmers or their livelihoods.  Local ANC dignitaries who were appealed to by increasingly desperate farmers seem often to have taken the view that such things do not really matter, because “they stole it from us in the first place.”  On top of this, many ANC bosses are corrupt and connive at the excesses of local tribal leaders and gangsters.  Farmers who had established profitable farms, and whose family roots in particular areas often went back a century or more, found themselves facing massive debts as their crops and machines were damaged or stolen, having to install massively expensive security equipment, and, finally, selling their land at enormously discounted prices to often spurious land-claimants or squatters.  Said land-claimants-and-squatters-turned-yeomen often did not have the first idea how to run a modern farm, with the result that thousands of acres of productive farmland swiftly turned into dustbowl or reverted to bush.  White farmers who offered to share their expertise with the new farmers were often rebuffed, presumably out of a sense of mistaken racial pride.  One example of many possible ones will suffice.

In the Letsitele Valley in Limpopo Province, a group of farms had been founded in 1956, after the government took action to help the land recover from the black inhabitants’ “slash and burn” methods.  The inhabitants were compulsorily moved to better properties nearby; most went willingly.  Farmed by the white Amm family for 43 years, the farms had complex irrigation systems and state-of-the-art equipment and generated a turnover in excess of 15 million rand per annum, through production of mangoes, bananas, macadamia nuts, tomatoes, and other vegetables.  As a sideline, Mrs. Amm had created a world-famous arboretum of indigenous trees.

Upon the ANC’s accession to power, those who had been removed from the land, and their descendants, made a land claim against the white farmers, supported by the government.  A claimants’ committee was formed, and the government gave 4.5 million rand as operating capital.  One Chiko Letsoalo, chairman of the committee, replied to the offer of technical assistance made by some of the outgoing white owners as follows:

We are surprised about stories that we or the government would enter into partnership with the current owners so as not to lose the benefit of their expertise.  We have already sent people to agricultural colleges to learn about farming.  We will run these farms through our own expertise.

Mr. Letsoalo then moved into the farmhouse (while keeping his day job working for a publisher), and the self-styled “management team” awarded themselves high salaries.  These important steps having been taken, they proceeded to run the farm into the ground.  Machines fell into disrepair.  Then, there was no money available for spraying, and, by February 2003, the farm workers had to march to the farm office to demand their salaries.  Researchers for this book visited the farm in 2003 to find broken machinery lying around, the irrigation system broken down, crops unharvested and unwatered, and the river filled with rubbish.  The electricity had been cut off, the famous arboretum had all but disappeared, and the farmhouse sat neglected in a weed-infested garden.  In January 2003, the farms were placed “under judicial management.”  As Toit says passionately,

This thought is echoed throughout South Africa.  Why in Heaven’s name hand over a productive farm to those who don’t really want to farm it and, in many instances, to people who firmly believe the operation will continue producing a healthy income without any hard work, risk or capital input?

Far worse than these stories are those of actual attacks on farmers, their families, and their employees—like that of Gunther Gathmann, a farmer in KwaZulu/Natal, who lost his brother, aunt, uncle, and cousin to attacks by murderous thugs.  In his area, 11 farmers have been killed in recent years.  None of these murders featured robberies, which suggests that the crimes were politically or racially motivated.  Some farmers have simply abandoned their farms, while others have committed suicide under the stress.  Nationally, since the ANC came to power, a farm murder has occurred, on average, every two days.  The murder rate among South Africa’s commercial farmers is the highest for any specific group in the world—313 per 100,000.  Genocide Watch has gone so far as to term the campaign genocidal.  With all due caution toward a group affiliated with Amnesty International, it is difficult to dispute this analysis.  To make this an even more powerful book—one that might even yet shame the world into action—the author should have devoted more space to murder than to mismanagement.

To date, only the South African government has responded to the book by—naturally—denouncing Dr. Toit as a “racist.”  Yet, if there is anyone of sense within the ANC administration, he would be well advised to read and assimilate this book—for who will feed South Africa if her remaining commercial farmers are  thrown to the dogs?  Will it be, as with Zimbabwe, yet another case for the aid agencies?  Will the proud farmers, who defied the British Empire and created prolific farmland where there had been desert and jungle, give way to Red Cross food parcels and convoys from Médécins Sans Frontières?  If South Africa’s farmers do not find some way of restraining the dogmatic excesses of the ANC and reining in the violent criminals, that is what will happen—to everyone’s detriment.  Unlike the white liberals who subverted apartheid, only to move overseas when black rule became too much for them, Afrikaner farmers do not generally enjoy dual nationality, or close family overseas, or supporters in the media.  If there is to be a solution, it will have to come from themselves alone.  Those of us who retain a little fellow-feeling for our civilizatory cousin should at least keep abreast of what is happening in South Africa.


[The Great South African Land Scandal, by Philip du Toit (Centurion, South Africa: Legacy Publications) 271 pp., $26.00]