Last week the seventh annual United Nations Human Rights Commission Forum on Minority Rights in Geneva heard a submission on farm murders in South Africa by AfriForum and the Freedom Front Plus. The theme for the Commission’s sitting this year was ‘Preventing and addressing violence and atrocities targeted against minorities’. The forum was attended by more than 500 international delegates and the world’s leading media houses. Why, then, asks Ed Herbst, is there a news blackout on the SABC about farm murders?
This article looks at the evidence presented at the recent South African Human Rights Commission hearings in the context of the unconstitutional de facto but undeclared policy of the SABC to deliberately suppress news about farm murders or the few trials that result from these murders. The SABC news management team should explain to the millions people who rely on the state broadcaster for their news why, since the start of the Thabo Mbeki era, they have been deliberately kept in the dark about farm murders by the most powerful medium of communication in the country. The SABC has suppressed the truth on farm murders for a decade and a half and it continues to do so.
Questions on this subject, based on the content of this article, were emailed to Jimi Matthews, the recently-promoted head of news at the SABC, twice over a period of weeks. Neither he nor the spokesperson for the SABC, Kaizer Kganyago, responded. This was in contravention of the undertaking by the ANC in 1994 that, in a break from the past, the “new” “transformed” SABC would, on its watch, be honest, open and accountable. It was interesting to note that shortly after the questions were sent to the SABC, the public broadcaster interviewed Dr Pieter Mulder shortly before he left for Geneva last week to attend the United Nations Human Rights Commission Forum on Minority Rights.
Farm murders at the SAHRC and the United Nations
Dr Johan Burger’s submission to the South African Human Rights Commission national hearing relating to safety and security challenges in farming Communities. “It is obvious that the government no longer considers the ongoing attacks on farms and the murder of persons involved in the farming community as a priority. This is in spite of President Zuma’s statement in parliament during May 2009 that food security is included in priority three of South Africa’s Medium Term Strategic Framework for 2009-2014. The strategic and operational response to the threat of farm attacks and murders is clearly not based on the acknowledgement that the farming community is disproportionally targeted when compared to the victimisation risk of other citizens or groups in South Africa. The economic and other implications such as loss of production and food security are equally underestimated,” he wrote.
Amanda Visser, writing in Business Day in 2013, said, “According to the survey, the farmer murder rate amounts to 220 out of every 100 000 people. This means that the chances of a farmer being murdered on a farm are four to six times higher than the average murder risk rate for the general population.”
After its two-day public hearing on farm murders in September the Human Rights Commission of South Africa has decided to postpone the report on its findings to parliament, to an indeterminate date next year.
In her speech in Geneva last week Alana Bailey of AfriForum said, “We have just been informed that no report or ruling in this regard will be made available by the SAHRC before well into 2015. Meanwhile these violent attacks involving a disproportionate amount of violence, torture and murder continue daily in our rural areas, putting the food security of all South Africans at risk, decimating agricultural expertise in the country and causing this vulnerable minority to live in a state of constant fear.”
In its submission to the SAHRC, AfriForum lists 3 319 verified farm attacks between 1990 and 2012 in which 1 610 people were murdered. Dozens more have been murdered since 2012.
Satanic murders and saturation news coverage
In August 1969 the satanic murder of actress Sharon Tate and six other people by the Manson family in California resulted in books and cinematic and documentary coverage and saturation news reporting reflected throughout the world.
On 22 November 1977 the killers of Dr Robert Smit, and his wife Jeanne-Cora painted the enigmatic sign RAUTEM on a wall of their Pretoria home. I was working for SABC news in Pretoria at the time and interviewed their children. It is a story that reverberates to this day.
Yet when both those elements, a satanic murder of a couple and the painting – in their blood – of a satanic sign on the wall of their home came together in a single court case recently, the SABC did not cover the trial. It did not cover the trial even though it had camera and radio teams at two separate news offices within a short drive of the courtroom. It also did not send a news team to the scene of the murder because the SABC , in what I believe is a matter of undeclared but de facto policy, never sends news teams to places where farmers and their families have been murdered.
“Self-proclaimed devil worshipper Thalami Mkhentane will spend the rest of his life in jail for killing elderly Barkly East couple David de Villiers and his wife Rachel and attempting to kill their son.
“Mkhentane, 23, smeared ‘666 devil’ on in his victims’ blood on the walls of their remote farm home after repeatedly stabbing the defenceless couple, both aged 86, and trying to kill their 53-year-old disabled son, David junior.” Satanist jailed for brutal orgy – Daily Dispatch 12/6/2014
The BBC is somewhat analogous to the SABC and had such murders occurred in Britain it would have given 24/7 live coverage to the murder itself and to live coverage of the trial in much the same way that the Oscar Pistorius trial and his subsequent incarceration is receiving now.
No SABC coverage
There was no SABC coverage of the Grahamstown trial of Mkhentane despite the fact that the murder itself and his subsequent appearances in court had received wide publicity in Eastern Cape newspapers, which are read by reporters and news editors in its Port Elizabeth and Bhisho news offices, each equidistant from Grahamstown – a two hour drive. What the SABC deliberately censored by omission has been covered as far afield as China. There is also no mention of the murders or the trial on the SABC news website. Type the name ‘Thalami Mkhentane’ into the search bar on the site and the response is ‘No result.
What is significant in this context was the constant SABC television news coverage of the trial of teenager, Don Steenkamp, who murdered his parents and his sister on their farm, Naauwhoek, near Griquatown on 6 April 2012. Can news chief Matthews explain why the trial of Steenkamp was relentlessly covered on SABC television news but not once was coverage given to the trial of Mkhentane, who was also found guilty of murdering people on a farm? Can he explain why there are no less than 28 stories spread over four pages about the Steenkamp murder posted on the SABC news website but not a single reference to Mkhentane? Could the difference be because Steenkamp was white and Mkhentane black?
While I am no historian I might be correct in saying that the last time that farmers were targeted on the South African scale was when Joseph Stalin turned on the Kulaks – and farm murders in South Africa are noted for a depraved level of sadistic brutality. In a May 2006 column in Business Day, headlined ‘Evil depth of SA’s crimes calls for drastic measures’ Rhoda Kadalie wrote: “A Bloemfontein farming couple aged more than 80 and 70 years respectively was assaulted by five armed men. The old man was dumped in a scolding hot bath until the soles of his feet fell off and the guys jumped on the chest of the woman, breaking her ribs and damaging her lungs and heart. I read and re-read this story simply because my brain could not absorb such evil.”
Another example of the evil of which Kadalie writes is contained in the AfriForum submission at the Human Rights Commission hearings: “On 1 December 2010 the Potgieter family was killed on their farm in the Free State Province. Attie Potgieter (40) was stabbed 151 times, while his wife, Wilna (36), and daughter, Wilmien (2), witnessed the killing. Thereafter, little Wilmien was executed in front of her mother and thrown in a box. A note, written in Sotho on a piece of cardboard saying ‘We have killed them. We are coming back’, was found on the gate of the farm.”
The SABC television news bulletins quite rightly give constant coverage to the murder of children but, if you type the name Wilmien Potgieter into the search bar of the SABC news website, the response is ‘No result’. In contrast to this there are no less than 40 stories on the SABC news website about Taegrin Morris who died after being dragged behind a car in a botched hijacking. How does the SABC explain the difference in coverage?
The consequences of these attacks on South Africa’s food security are dire, not least because ours is a country where millions of children go hungry each day. The number of commercial farmers has declined from about 66 000 in 1990 to about 37 000 now – that’s 37 000 farmers to provide food for more than 50 million people. This has had a concomitant effect on the number of farm workers employed and the number of farms being cultivated. According to the SA Institute of Race Relations, “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of people employed on commercial farms dropped from 1.1 million to 796 806.”
“The same trend was echoed in the number of farms, which declined from 57 987 in 1993 to 39 982 in 2007, a decrease of 31%.”
I have spoken to the heads of agricultural security in agricultural unions in various provinces and they tell me that, unlike newspapers, privately-owned radio stations and eNCA, the SABC never responds to invitations to press conferences relating to farm murders, does not visit murder scenes and does not cover the few trials that result. It also does not, although invited, attend conferences in this regard even when they have international speakers such as Dr Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch who spoke at a Pretoria conference organised by the Transvaal Agricultural Union in July 2012.
De facto policy
This clearly is an undeclared but official de facto policy and this has long been a matter of record. While it is the daily experience of the approximately 30 million South Africans who rely on the SABC radio and television broadcasts for their news that the Corporation gives saturation, round-the-clock coverage to cases where whites are the aggressors and blacks the victims, the opposite, with specific reference to farm murders, does not occur.
The Mail & Guardian published an enlightening story by Yolandi Groenewald in 2006, ‘Political grazing ground for ruling-party faithful’. Then, as now, the name of the controversial Hlaudi Motsoeneng looms large. The section of the Mail & Guardian article referred to is, “While the focus is often on the SABC at national level, the regions require greater scrutiny.
“James Barkhuizen, regional editor of SABC news in the Free State, and Hlaudi Motsoeneng, executive producer of current affairs, have been put on forced leave pending an investigation after being involved in a brawl last month.
“Sources inside the SABC said a recent punch-up between the two staffers in the corporation’s Free State newsroom underlined the intense pressures on journalists as a result of political interference.
“They said the two were arguing over Barkhuizen’s opposition to a live broadcast of the entire inauguration ceremony of a mayor in the region. Motsoeneng allegedly told Barkhuizen the mayor had paid for the broadcast.
“Barkhuizen is said to have frequently questioned Auckland Park’s instructions. Sources said he was not allowed to cover farm murders and stock theft although black staff believed he focused too often on these issues.” (My emphasis.)
I experienced exactly the same thing as an SABC television news reporter after 1998 and I have kept meticulous records of the farm murder and other trials which I, like Barkhuizen, was denied permission to report on and for the same reason.
Lies and statistics
After the SAHRC two-day hearing in September Dr Pieter Mulder, Freedom Front Plus leader, asked why the national Police Commissioner, General Riah Phiyega, could provide the Commission with statistics on these murders when the police had consistently told parliament that such statistics were not available. There has been no response to his question.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout, professor of criminology at the University of Pretoria, says in Business Day the number of farm attacks in South Africa is estimated to be 700% higher than in any other country in the world and the chances of a farmer being murdered in South Africa are anything between four to six times higher than the average murder risk rate for the general population
According to the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry each farm murder costs the economy more than R2 million
So why does the SABC not cover farm murders or the few trials which result from such murders even though it has carried an article by Dr Johan Burger on its website?
The answer is contained in the AfriForum presentation to the SAHRC in September. AfriForum sets out a chronology which illustrates how, while Nelson Mandela regarded farm murders as something of the utmost gravity, his successor, Mbeki, took a step which had the inevitable consequence of increasing them.
- In 1997 under the leadership of former President Nelson Mandela the South African government officially stated that farmers appeared to be uniquely targeted in violent and murderous attacks. Statistics on farm murders were released annually and the government even appointed a task team with the aim of compiling a plan to deal with farm attacks.
- In 2001 the minister of police directed the national commissioner to establish a committee of inquiry into farm attacks.
- In 2003 former president Thabo Mbeki announced against all expectations that the commando system would be abolished. Mbeki stated that the (commando) structure would be replaced by a structure that would be controlled by the police (this promise has to this day not been fulfilled.) Statistics on farm murders were, however, still released.
- Not long after the abolition of the commandos, farm attacks were on the increase. In 2007 farm attacks had escalated by almost 25%. The reaction of the minister of police was that statistics on farm murders would not be released any more. According to this policy farm murders were, in spite of the sharp increase, no longer a priority.
Farm murders are thus obviously considered by the ANC as not part of its “good story to tell” or Motsoeneng’s “70% good news” policy and so they form one of the pillars of the Luthuli House-controlled SABC’s de facto news gathering approach of censorship by omission.
Ernst Roets, deputy CEO of AfriForum, says: “AfriForum confirms that certain media institutions provide regular coverage to the issue of farm attacks, while others appear to deliberately ignore the topic. This is a matter of concern to us, as this is an issue that affects not only those who are directly affected by these crimes, but the whole country – every single South African is affected by the ripple effect that is caused by farm murders.”
What we seem to be looking at here is broadcast news defined and driven by ethnic considerations. Section 32 of the Constitution reads, “Everyone has the right of access to any information held by the state; and any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.”
The four most important things in humankind’s existence are life itself, air, water and food in that order. Farm murders impact on the first and the fourth needs and it is our children who are most vulnerable in terms of the fourth.
The fact that this censorship by omission contravenes the SABC’s constitutional, legal and ethical obligations to provide “significant news and public affairs programming which meets the highest standards of journalism, as well as fair and unbiased coverage, impartiality, balance and independence from government, commercial and other interests” (Section 2.7.4 of the Broadcast Act No 4 of 1999) seems of little concern to the political party that controls what news the SABC broadcasts and, above all, what it censors by omission.
How apt then, and now, are the following lines by the late Robert Kirby in a Mail & Guardian article published on 15/1/2000.
“Why the SABC in general, and its news departments in particular, continue with their dedicated propagation of racial and social polarisation, the ceaseless aggravation of political dilemma, is one of the saddest facets in the young democracy. The corporation, with its utter paucity of national responsibility, is a sore disgrace.”
Watch this three-minute AfriForum clip and weep.
Weep for them
Weep for us
Weep for our country
Weep for our future
What the SABC has deliberately censored by omission, others have documented:
- The Censorbugbear website gives an alphabetical list of the murdered
- Here is a link to what Sky News reported in 2006
- Here is the 2007 documentary, Bloody Harvest, what Carte Blanche reports on but the state broadcaster does not.
- In 2008 former Sunday Times and Rand Daily Mail journalist Adriana Oosthuysen-Stuijt wrote to the International Criminal Court in The Hague setting out the reasons for her concern.
- In 2011, the 93-minute documentary The War of the Flea was shown at an international conference in the European Parliament in February 2012. In the audience was farmers’ spokesman Henk Van de Graaf and the conference was hosted by Philip Claeys, a member of the European Parliament for the Vlaams Belang-party. Rian van der Walt’s documentary can be purchased.
- In May last year, Kraal Publishers released Treurgrond: Die Realiteit van Plaasaanvalle’ (Place of Sorrow: The Reality of Farm Attacks) 1990-2012. The book reveals that 42.6% of farm attack victims were aged 61 or older and that in some cases they were attacked by as many as ten assailants. A clip from CCTV cameras posted on Politicsweb shows how meticulously these attacks are planned and carried out – but the ANC seems indifferent while constantly proclaiming its commitment to the principle of Ubuntu.
- Roelien Schutte and Eileen de Jager of Crime Scene Clean-up have cleaned up more than two thousand crime scenes in South Africa, of which hundreds were farm attacks. In their book Blood Sisters Roelien Schutte and Eileen de Jager of Crime Scene Clean-up have cleaned up more than two thousand crime scenes in South Africa, of which hundreds were farm attacks. In their book Blood SistersIn June last year Pretoria sisters Eileen de Jager and Roelien Schutte published, Blood Sisters an English version of their 2008 book which starkly sets out the extreme brutality that characterises South African farm attacks. In 2011 alone they cleaned up the crime scenes of 117 farm murders.
- Earlier this year, in a news insert for Russian TV, Paula Slier, former SABC TV news reporter, helped to bring the extent of this truly horrifying and unique rural slaughter to world attention.
IMAGE: The White Crosses Monument on a farm near Pietersburg commemorates the victims of farm murders in South Africa.