By nearly all accounts, Gerrit Roos' life as a grain and livestock farmer is much like his counterparts in America. All except one.
"Each night we fear we will be murdered in our beds," he says with an eerie calm in his voice.
The Roos farmhouse is surrounded by high tensile fence, steel gates and barbed wire. Two dogs outside - three inside - warn the family of any pending danger. Alarm systems are all in working order. Gerrit's wife Tharia worries some of the farm's 30 workers will turn against the family. A few employees were dismissed not long ago after a botched robbery.
Welcome to South Africa, where farmers in northern regions increasingly risk their lives to continue producing. South Africa has many problems, and a high crime rate is certainly one of them. But attacks on farmers? That was a hard story for our group of U.S. farmers to swallow. It's difficult to comprehend when you consider the backdrop of this beautiful land where everyone we've met the past 10 days has been hospitable beyond belief.
Gerrit Roos, a grain and livestock farmer in South Africa, worries about his family's safety.In October alone, 12 farm murders were reported, according to Politicsweb.co.za, a website focusing on news and politics in South Africa. Through October over 54 farm killings had been reported, and nearly 4,000 farmers, mostly white Afrikaners, had been murdered in the past 15 years.
Some of the attackers who have been apprehended say the crimes are motivated by suppressed resentment over apartheid, the era of segregation before Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994.
The Roos farm residence is surrounded b high tensile fence and barbed wire.In some regions the police step up efforts to curtail the violence; in other regions, the problem goes ignored.
Steven Pretorius, who grew up on a farm near Babsfontein, says police and the South African army used roadblocks that discouraged the thugs, but around 1992 farmers started being targeted, "as a strategy to try to get people off these farms," he says.
"They will actually target old people who can't fend for themselves," says Pretorius, "and it's very brutal. Some of them are killed with machetes. Some are strangled with plastic bags over their heads. It's nearly always black on white violence."
It is impossible to talk about South Africa's farm attacks without discussing race. As an American journalist I am uncomfortable even writing about race. But in fact, race bedevils every aspect of life in South Africa, including this ongoing tragedy. Instead, consider some statistics. In South Africa you are twice as likely to be murdered if you are a white farmer than if you are a police officer, according to the BBC. There used to be 60,000 white farmers in South Africa; that number has now been cut in half.
Perpetrators will look for people who live in isolated areas, says Pretorius. And they're not necessarily doing it for money.
"If you look at the cases a lot of times hardly anything is stolen," he says. "Sometimes they know farmers have weapons in the house, locked up in safes. Sometimes they go purely for the weapons. Or, sometimes it's pure hatred."
One of Pretorius' neighbors was a commercial farmer with a huge pig farm. In 1990 he was killed in his doorway; nothing was stolen. Across the road, a family named Mulder was attacked –the wife was shot and injured badly, and the husband wounded. Both were taken to hospital. The man was released and returned to the farm, where three days later he was shot dead. In another case, a family was gassed while robbers came and cleaned out the house. Then, close friends of Pretorius had their grandmother living on the farm next to theirs, alone. "Robbers came into her house and beat her to a pulp," says Pretorius. "That was all in a range of two to three miles, in a period of three weeks."
The tipping point for the Pretorius family came not long after. A security guard from a nearby farm stumbled to their door after being beaten and stabbed. "There were a lot of black people nearby who wanted to take over this property," Pretorius recalls. "The owner of the house had hired this black couple as security. This poor guard and his wife were attacked in this house."
The guard, who later died, had been stabbed 91 times.
With that incident Pretorius convinced his father to leave the farm; It is now a shanty town. In those cases, often times the very next day people will move in as squatters. "They will remove the roof, tear up the hardwood floor for firewood and sell off things like bathtubs, sinks or water pumps," says Pretorius.
Then crude shanty shacks pop up around the farmstead.
"Once these guys have moved on to a property it is extremely difficult to get them off," says Pretorius. "It can take months for a court order to make any difference and by then, you have 1,000 people living on the farm."
Food and fear
It is more than just a little ironic that, in a land where food production should be held at a premium, the people who produce the food are in harm's way. It is difficult to fathom why the South African government does not do more to reign in this terror.
Farmers like Gerrit Roos make a living while producing food for himself and hundreds of other South Africans. His father built the farm from nothing some 75 years ago. The original stake of 750 acres has grown to 7,500, with another 1,250 rented for crops and pasture.
With mixed flat and rolling terrain, Roos does a little bit of everything: dryland and irrigated (white) corn and soybeans, alfalfa, hay, and pasture for 4,000 merino sheep and a sizeable herd of Tuli and Pinzgauer cattle. He even has a small soybean crushing facility where he produces oil and soy meal to sell as feed to nearby livestock farms.
About 10% of corn acres are under irrigation, both drip and pivot. His father started with minimum till in 1981 using a shallow chisel plow; two years ago he bought an Orthmann machine to begin strip-till and last year got the best yields he's ever seen. His irrigated yields are around 235 bu. per acre, about twice as much as dryland yields. He'll use about 10% of the corn to feed cattle. The rest is sold on the cash market and at least 25% is sold ahead on contract to companies like Cargill or Noble Grain. Soybean yields range from 41 bu. per acre to 53 bu. per acre with irrigation.
In other words, it's a highly productive farm built with best management practices – and more than a little courage.
"Our government is trying to keep this hush-hush," says Pretorius. "They have recently implemented a law to try to keep journalists quiet on certain things. They want to keep the masses at ease. The police don't go out of their way to catch these perpetrators in certain areas; in other areas with aggressive police they will find these perpetrators."
"The way to go is to get other countries like United States to acknowledge that we do have a problem," says Pretorius. "We need to put pressure on our government to look into this matter. At the end of the day if these farmers start moving off these properties and cannot sustain the local people in terms of food production and safety, we're going to become like Zimbabwe, where they have farmland but no one is producing on it."