SENEKAL, South Africa – A young white farm manager was found earlier this month strangled and tied to a pole on a farm in the eastern Free State province, police said. Two black men were charged with the murder.
At a packed court hearing Friday, the police officer investigating the case said the suspects were part of a ring of pet thieves operating in the area and that it appeared the motive was robbery rather than racial animus.
But the assassination of the farm manager, Brendin Horner, has become the last flashpoint of racial conflicts in South Africa, where the segregationist apartheid regime fell almost 30 years ago. Tensions are particularly high in rural areas, where whites still own a large majority of the farms, and blacks still function as their often poor workers.
Critics see this as a deeply distorted narrative promoted by the white recipients of apartheid to drum up international sympathy. They point out that violent crime is common in South Africa. The vast majority of the victims are black.
Of the 21,325 homicides last year, 49 were white farmers – equivalent to much less than 1 percent of the country’s total, according to police statistics. White South Africans make up approx. 9 percent of the country’s 58 million citizens.
At Friday’s hearing, white farmers and motorcyclists faced black protesters in the left-wing political party Economic Freedom Fighters or EFF outside the small rural house in Senekal, a town on the banks of the Sand River. Police raised barbed wire to separate the groups, but at one point they stood face to face – a situation cut off when volunteer marshals from both sides intervened.
On a hill outside the town, white farmers waved a banner with Mr. Horners face and wore white wooden crosses. Some wore bulletproof vests. After reading the Bible and praying, they sang South Africa’s national anthem for the apartheid era.
Some farmers said in interviews that South Africa’s lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent economic downturn have made poor black South Africans more desperate.
“Usually they steal for food on the table, now they kill,” said Derek Meyer, a farmer at the protest.
Khanyi Magubane, a political commentator and journalist, said of the white farmers, “They do not see the bigger picture of dysfunction in South Africa. Everyone gets targeted, everyone gets robbed. ”
Farmers cheered as buses and minibuses ferrying EFF supporters drove past, some passengers sang “Kill the Boer”, a liberation song that has since been declared hate speech.
The founding leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, a firefighter who was expelled from the ruling African National Congress party, spoke to the audience of around 2,500 from a portable stage outside the courthouse and said: “We are here to fight and die apartheid because South Africa still has apartheid. ”
He has exploited prolonged anger by calling for land redistribution. In parliament, the EFF controls 44 out of 400 seats and accuses the majority party, the African National Congress, of going too slow and too careful with land distribution.
A 2017 government survey showed that white farmers control nearly 70 percent of farms owned by individual owners in South Africa. Much of this country was brutally confiscated from African residents generations ago. Of the great funnels of the Free State, where Mr. Horns were killed, three-quarters owned by farms white South Africans, while black South Africans own only 3 percent, the study found.
The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, spoke about the murder of Mr. Horner on Monday, expressing horror and sympathy, but warned against mistakenly equating the killings of white farmers with ethnic cleansing. “They are not genocide. They are criminal acts and should be treated as such, ”Ramaphosa said in his weekly presidential speech.
“What happened in Senekal shows how easily the tin box of race hat can ignite,” he said.
In a nation with the world’s fifth highest murder rate, Mr Ramaphosa has in recent months used his addresses to name murder victims, especially women killed during the shutdown. He pointed out that three young black men were shot dead in a car in South Africa the same week that Mr. Horns were killed.
But the violent protests over the murder of Mr. Horns caught instant and excessive attention.
On October 6, several hundred white protesters gathered outside the courthouse in Senekal, where the two suspects met for a hearing. Some protesters fired a police car and stormed the court back into cells, demanding that the defendants be handed over to them.
A 51-year-old white businessman, Andre Pienaar, was later arrested and charged with attempted murder, malicious material damage and public violence. He was denied bail.
AfriForum, a large advocacy group for Africans, the descendants of the white Dutch and Huguenot settlers in South Africa, has led international efforts to draw attention to their discredited claims that white farmers are systematically forced from their land and killed in large numbers.
In 2018, after Ernst Roets, Deputy CEO of AfriForum, appeared in a segment on Fox News in the US with host Tucker Carlson, President Trump said on Twitter that he instructed his Secretary of State to investigate what he called “large-scale killing ”of white farmers.
In a telephone interview, Mr Roets said the government does not protect white farmers: “It is very clear that this is not a priority for them to do anything,” he said.
In the courtroom on Friday, the judge was flanked by four armed police officers, government ministers occupied the benches near the front, and journalists packed the room.
The country’s police minister, Bheki Cele, who had visited the city earlier this week in an attempt to decalate tensions, noted in an interview afterwards that four people – including three blacks – had been killed in the area since April.
“One of them is this young white man,” he said.
Lynsey Chutel reported from Senekal and Monica Mark from Johannesburg.