9 Dec 2013

Why, after Mandela, many Afrikaners fear a Boer bloodbath

Lettie Nel’s face told a story. She’d been repeatedly pistol-whiped with a Magnum revolver, then punched in the face and then hit over the back of the head as she lay on her floor, wrists tightly bound by electrical cable. You can pick out the individual finger and knuckle marks in the photographs on the old lady’s cheeks.


Lettie Nel is an 86-years-old widow who lives alone on the 1,800 hectare family cattle farm she still manages – with the help of a few local farm hands. She was attacked in her own home early on Tuesday 11 November, when intruders burst in as she powered off her eight-foot-high electric perimiter fence.

“They threw me down on the ground and they tried to pull my pants down and I started screaming and the next thing, they took out their knife and put it next to my throat,” she told me. “When I screamed, the one hit me on my face and they hit me with a revolver on my head.

“They told me they were going to kill me. I was sure it was going to happen. I knew they would do it because they would do it with other people without any reason whatever.”

“They” certainly have. Across South Africa, more than 10 farms are attacked every week. Afrikaner farmers are being killed at four times the national murder rate – which is already one of the highest in the world. Over the two decades since Nelson Mandela was elected this country’s first black preseident, around 3,500 have been killed. On the very day he died, an 84-year-old Afrikaner woman was murdered in her own home, held down and drowned in her bath.

‘He can’t control the people any more’

Now that Nelson Mandela’s dead too, many Afrikaners fear a Boer bloodbath.

I asked Lettie Nel whether she felt less safe since his passing. “Definitely,” she said. “He had contol over the whole country,” she explained, “and people respected him. And now he’s not there, he can’t contol the people any more.”

About a million whites are said to have upped and left South Africa for good over the past two decades, many believing the country was going to the dogs. About 4.5 million remain, just over half of them Afrikaners.

Today, they feel about as unloved and vulnerable as their voortrekker ancestors must have done in the mid-19th century. At the vast monument to the voortrekker “heroes” built with black labour by the apartheid regime just outside Pretoria, I met a man who believes farm attacks are an orchestrated, racially motivated attempt to drive whites from the land.

Like many Afrikaners I’ve talked to, Willie Cloete uses terms like “genocide” and “extinction” – but offers no evidence at all that there are any dastardly plans afoot to dispatch the Boers. Last weekend Mr Cloete set up a new party, the Front Nationaal, which already claims 66,000 members. They want to address Afrikaner concerns constitutionally and get MPs into parliament.

The FN’s manifesto is predicated on apartheid of a new-old variety: they want to establish a separate Boer republic so they can live in peace. “Would black people be allowed to live there?” I asked. “They’d be welcome,” he said. “We are not racists.”

Isolated farmsteads

But the fears articulated by Afrikaner conservatives are not borne out by the facts. Independent studies have concluded that 90 per cent of attacks on white farms are just robberies.

Dr Johan Burger, of Pretoria’s Institute of Security Studies, is South Africa’s former commissioner of police. An Afrikaner himself, he disparages any notion that racism underpins the attacks on white farms. Isolated farmsteads are soft targets and offer rich pickings for thieves, he says, and because the vast majority of South Africa’s 32,000 commercial farmers are white, that’s why they’re the victims.

He says that when you delve deeper, it turns out that most of the victims of violence and rape are actually the black farm workers themselves.

“People are murdered and families destroyed,” Dr Burger says. “A lot of emotions are invoked and this creates the opportunity for those who wish to project for political purposes.”

Resentment runs deep

Among those accused of the sort of incendiary rhetoric which fuels the perception that the Afrikaners are under attack is Julius Malema, a firebrand populist politician who was expelled from the ruling African National Congress. Today, his Economic Freedom Fighters advocate the sorts of land repossession, redistribution and nationalisation policies advocated by his self-proclaimed hero, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

One of his policy strategists is the radical writer Andile Mngxitama, who says resentment of rich whites runs deep among those who believe they’re entitled to reclaim what was stolen from them in the first place. He laughs when I tell him that Afrikaners fear genocide.

“There has been genocide and violence against black people, created by white people,” he says. “South Africa was created on blood, mass murder, and dispossesion of farms or of mines.

“You are going to have to go back to the original programme: land redistribution, nationalisation of the mineral resources, democratisation of the economy. You have to take from white people to distribute to the black majority.”

I said he sounded like Robert Mugabe.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Robert Mugabe is a great example of what you must do, with some lessons of course.

With South Africa’s Great Reconciliator, Nelson Mandela, now gone, there are those who say the honeymoon’s over for South Africa’s Afrikaners. Today racial fault-lines lie exposed again, but the spectre of a Mugabe-style future is actually the stuff of both black and white nightmares.

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