SENECAL, South Africa – Earlier this month, a young white farm manager was found strangled and tied to a pole on a farm in the eastern part of the Free State province, police said. Two black men were charged with the murder.
At a busy court hearing on Friday, the police captain investigating the case said the suspects were part of a ring of cattle thieves operating in the area and that the motive seemed to be robbery rather than racial animus.
But the assassination of farm manager Brendin Horner was the latest outbreak of racial conflict in South Africa, where a segregated apartheid regime fell nearly 30 years ago. Tensions are particularly high in rural agricultural areas, where whites still own the vast majority of farms and blacks still serve their impoverished workers.
Groups representing white farmers accuse the South African government of deliberately failing to protect them. Some groups of white activists say what they call “farm killings” is the beginning of a “white genocide” aimed at ousting whites from South Africa.
Critics see this as a deeply distorted story promoted by white apartheid beneficiaries to raise international sympathy. They point out that violent crimes are common in South Africa. The vast majority of victims are black.
Of last year’s 21,325 homicide victims, 49 were white farmers, well below 1 percent of the country’s total, according to police statistics. White South Africans make up about 9 percent of the country’s 58 million citizens.
During Friday’s hearing, white farmers and motorcyclists clashed with black-and-red-black protesters of the left-wing political party Fighters for Economic Freedom (EFF) near a small village court in Senecal, a town on the banks of the Sand River. Police set up barbed wire to separate the groups, but at one point they stood face to face – the situation escalated when volunteer marshals from both sides intervened.
On a hill outside the city, white farmers waved a banner with Mr. Horner’s face and carried white wooden crosses. Some wore bulletproof vests. After reading the Bible and praying, they sang the anthem of the apartheid era in South Africa.
Some farmers said in interviews that the blockade of South Africa in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn that made poor black South Africans more desperate.
“Usually they steal food on the table, now they kill,” said Derek Meyer, a farmer at the protest.
Hani Magubane, a political commentator and journalist, said of white farmers: “They don’t see the big picture of dysfunction in South Africa. They target everyone, they rob everyone.”
Farmers scoffed at buses and minibuses carrying EFF supporters, and some passengers sang the song “Kill the Storm,” a song of the liberation period that has since been hated.
EFF founder Julius Malema, a gun brand expelled from the ruling African National Congress party, addressed a crowd of about 2,500 from a portable stage near the courthouse, saying: “We are here to fight and die against apartheid because South Africa still has apartheid “.
He boiled for a long time, calling for the redistribution of land. In parliament, the EFF controls 44 of the 400 seats and accuses the majority party, the African National Congress, of being too slow and too cautious about land redistribution.
A 2017 government poll found that white farmers control nearly 70 percent of individual-owned farms in South Africa. Much of this land was brutally confiscated from Africans generations ago. Of the vast areas in the Free State where Mr. Horner was killed, three-quarters of farms are owned by white South Africans, while black South Africans have only 3 percent, the poll showed.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of Mr Horner’s assassination on Monday, expressing horror and sympathy, but warning against falsely equating the killings of white farmers with ethnic cleansing. “They are not genocidal. They are acts of crime and should be treated as such, “Mr Ramaphosa said in his weekly address to the president.
“What happened in Seneca shows how easy it is to burn the trick of racial hatred,” he said.
In a country with the world’s fifth-highest homicide rate, Mr Ramaphosa has used his addresses in recent months to name victims of killings, including women killed during the blockade. He noted that three young blacks were shot dead in a car in South Africa the same week Mr. Mr Horner was killed.
But violent protests over Mr. Horner’s murder immediately attracted attention and considerable attention.
On October 6, several hundred white demonstrators gathered near the courthouse in Seneca, where two suspects appeared for a hearing. Some protesters set fire to a police van and stormed a courtroom, demanding that the defendants be handed over to them.
Andre Penaar, a 51-year-old white businessman, was later arrested and charged with attempted murder, malicious damage to property and civil violence. He was denied bail.
AfriForum, a large advocacy group for Afrikaners, descendants of white Dutch and Huguenot settlers from South Africa, has spearheaded international efforts to draw attention to their discredited allegations that white farmers are being systematically evicted from their lands and killed in large numbers.
In 2018, after Ernst Roths, AfriForum’s deputy chief executive, spoke on Fox News in the United States with host Tucker Carlson, President Trump said on Twitter that he was sending his secretary of state to investigate what he called a “big massacre.” white farmers.
In a telephone interview, Mr Ruths said the government was not protecting white farmers: “Obviously, it is not a priority for them to do anything,” he said.
Four armed police officers appeared in the courtroom on Friday, government ministers occupied benches near the front, and journalists packed the premises.
Police Minister Bheki Cele, who visited the city earlier this week to de-escalate tensions, said in an interview that four people – three of them Blacks – had been killed in the area since April.
“One of them is a young white man,” he said.
Lincei Chutel reported from Seneca and Monica Mark from Johannesburg.