Magazine article The Spectator

Terror on the Veld

Magazine article The Spectator

Terror on the Veld

Article excerpt

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 arc 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 Mau-Mau 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 Carte 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. …

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