top of page


Updated: Sep 20, 2023

On the sprawling maize fields outside Johannesburg, the Engelbrecht family know the full horror of the South African farm attacks that are so common they no longer rate a headline.

The scene inside the house was chaos. A door broken with an ax. Blood everywhere. And in the bedroom, his parents lying together, their hands tied, their throats slit, the cord of an iron tied around his mother's neck. Her body was still warm.

"My father always said, 'It's not if, it's when'," says Jo-an Engelbrecht, standing where he found the bodies. "He knew it's coming," he says, tears choking his words. "We all know it's coming. It's just a question of when."

Only weeks have passed since Jo-an's horrible discovery on a Sunday in May - Mother's Day. Jo-an and his wife Sua had been expecting his parents - 78-year-old Fanie and 74-year-old Colleen - to drop by for lunch. At noon, there was no sign of them.

Jo-an walked down the path to his parents home, where the family have lived amid the chessboard maize fields south-west of Johannesburg for 40 years.

Fanie's car was parked in the normal place, "like he was already back from church. Nothing unusual". But Jo-an says the memory of what he found inside the farmhouse, he will carry to his grave.

Jo-an Engelbrecht found his parents' bodies in their farmhouse

"My dad was lying on his back, my mother was lying face down, hands tied behind her back," he recalls. His body was cold. She was still warm, but I couldn't find a pulse.

The killers had taken some firearms, some cash, a laptop, a tablet and a couple of mobile phones. The haul that cost two innocent lives.

Jo-an doesn't believe the murder of his parents - or of the 20 or 30 of his neighbors killed in the past decade or so - can be written off as mere robberies.

"Not only do they kill, but the way they kill, they torture you," he says. "This is hate. This is political hate."

A white farmer 'genocide'

On a bare hillside near Polokwane, in South Africa's Limpopo Province, stand more than 2,000 white crosses. From the air, they can be seen to form a giant cross.

At the top of the hill, in huge letters visible from the highway a kilometer away, is the word PLAASMOORDE - Afrikaans for "farm murders".

Each cross represents someone murdered in the course of a farm attack since 1994. The private landowner who owns the site has added 75 crosses in the past 12 months. It's a controversial figure.

The country's largest commercial farmers union, Agri SA, announced recently that there were only 47 farm murders in the past 12 months — the lowest figure for 19 years. AfriForum, an outspoken Afrikaner lobby group, says that figure is "certainly wrong".

"During the calendar year of 2017 there were 84 farm murders that we could verify," says Ernst Roets, AfriForum's deputy CEO.

"And by that we mean we have the actual names of the people who were murdered."

In recent months, thanks largely to publicity drives by well-funded Afrikaner pressure groups like AfriForum, there has been an international outcry about the killing of white farmers in South Africa. Right-wing websites and radio shock jocks in the United States, and in parts of Europe, talk freely about "genocide". The term has been echoed by fringe politicians in Australia.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has never used the word "genocide". But he did say in March 2018 that white South African farmers are facing "persecution" and has asked his department to consider granting humanitarian visas to any who want to come to Australia.

The South African Government is dismissive of Mr Dutton's comments.

"It was like (Dutton) was speaking about another country," says Ronald Lamola, a senior member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

"Because in South Africa, there is crime. It's happening to all races - whites, blacks, Indians, coloreds, and everyone in society.

There is no crime which is specifically targeted at white people. It's certainly true that farm murders are dwarfed by the sheer scale of violent crime in South Africa.

No-one claims that there were more than 100 farm murders in 2017, a year in which the South African police recorded more than 19,000 murders in the country as a whole. Most of those victims, of course, are black.

According to Gareth Newham, head of Justice and Violence Prevention at the internationally-respected Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, there has been a 40 per cent increase in all kinds of armed attacks since 2012 — hold-ups of armored security vans, home and business invasions, street muggings.

"We have a real problem with violence," Newham says.

"And so for us, sitting in South Africa looking at these 19,000 murders — suddenly there's international attention on the murders of white farmers, it just seems completely disproportionate. To classify farm attacks as genocide is utter nonsense. There's absolutely no evidence of that, it's fearmongering.

"There is evidence that attacks on white farmers in South Africa are largely driven by criminal intent, greed."

Poverty and mob vengeance

Just an hour's drive from Jo-an Engelbrecht's farm is one of the so-called "informal settlements" that cluster around Johannesburg. Home to around 200,000 people, Diepsloot is a maze of alleyways and corrugated iron shacks. Water is scarce, sewers non-existent; unemployment, poverty and crime are all-pervasive.

Local journalist Golden Mtika's guided tour makes for grim listening, with tales of violence every bit as harrowing as any farm attack. He talks of two- and three-year-old children raped and murdered; women attacked when they leave their shacks at night to go to the few portaloos in a township without streetlights.

Mob justice has usurped the functions of a corrupt and under-resourced police force. "Last year, just here," he says, gesturing beside a rubbish-strewn stream, "the mob caught four men suspected of rape.

"There was a multitude of people here. The men were stoned, cut with sharp implements, then they had petrol-filled tyres put round their necks. "The petrol was set alight and they burned alive."

Mtika was there, he says. The police were not, until it was too late.

On any number of fronts - wealth, education, health services and living standards - South Africa is one of the most unequal societies on the planet. Over half the residents of Diepsloot — many of them undocumented migrants from countries to the north — have no work.

It's not surprising, says Mtika, that crime is so prevalent here.

It's from places like this that armed robbers go out to attack isolated farms. Golden Mtika says he knows several such farm attackers. They take with them the brutality that is commonplace in Diepsloot.

"Often they end up killing the residents, sometimes because the farmer does not want to give them what they want. "Whether or not he has money on the premises, they use force on him and end up killing the person."

But Mtika confirms that some of the attackers he's talked to are motivated by more than just greed.

"Some of them have that ideology of saying, 'You know, the farmers took our land for free'. And when they go there they take out their anger on them," he says. "It's resentment of the past that is still continuing in the form of robberies. It is there. It's there."

'The white minority took our land by force'

Land - who owns it, who took it, who should get it - is a bitterly contested issue in South Africa. And it's become more so since the rise of a new political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, or EFF — now the third biggest party in South Africa.

At an EFF rally in the mining town of Klerksdorp, there's no hostility towards a white film crew. The atmosphere is more like a festival. Red-clad EFF supporters are dancing in the stands of the football stadium, and singing in the streets outside.

But before long, the politics of South Africa's inequality are on display, and the dividing line is racial. The white minority took our land by force," the speaker tells the crowd. "You must say enough is enough. We are taking the future into our own hands."

The man on stage is Julius Malema, a former ANC youth leader, now the self-styled Commander-in-Chief of the EFF. Expelled from the ANC in 2012 after being convicted of hate speech, Malema recklessly sets race against race.

At the end of almost every speech, he breaks into an old ANC war-song: "We have taken our land back! Shoot to kill!"

Under apartheid, in most of the country, blacks were not allowed to own land. They were crowded into townships where they rented shacks, or into overcrowded and impoverished "Bantustans". When Nelson Mandela's ANC took power in 1994, it undertook to return 30 per cent of the country's land to black owners by the year 2000.

But under the corrupt rule of Jacob Zuma, the land reform program stalled. According to most estimates, only 8 per cent of arable land is owned by blacks. Unemployment and poverty are as bad as ever.

Into this vacuum stepped Malema, a shameless populist offering old-fashioned communist remedies. The land will be nationalised, he promises, and distributed to the poor and needy.

It is partly pressure from Malema's EFF — which garnered 6 per cent of the vote at the last election and has 25 members in the national parliament — that has pushed the ANC Government, under new President Cyral Ramaphosa, to adopt a policy of expropriating land without compensation.

The country can't afford any longer to pay white farmers market price for land, the ANC's Ronald Lemola explains: "And anyway, historically, the land was dispossessed by violence. It's not like they paid for the land."

Jo-an Engelbrecht's father did buy his farm on the open market 40 years ago. Now the mere threat of expropriation has made it all but worthless. It's worth zero," he says. "Why would you buy a farm if tomorrow the government is going to take it?

To the white farmers, the threat to their lives from criminals is now compounded by the threat to their land. Some believe the government is failing to protect them from farm attacks deliberately, because it wants to see them go.

Jo-an Engelbrecht doesn't go that far. But he does think the farm attacks are motivated by politics as well as greed. "If you have a leader like Malema going onto podiums and promoting this hate speech, that will only make it worse," he says. "I think that's what's placing the hate in people's hearts."

Watching the maize being harvested on his farm, Jo-an Engelbrecht says he doesn't want to leave. "When you've poured blood, sweat and tears into a place for 40 years, you don't want to just up and leave it." But his daughter Tessa says that if she had the chance to come to a country like Australia, she wouldn't think twice. And her father isn't discouraging her.

If Cyril Ramaphosa can turn the country around, deal with the rampant corruption and crime, Jo-an would stay. But right now, things are only getting worse.

"If things stay as they are, what future is there for my children in this country?" he asks. Then he answers his own question: "There's no future here."

186 views0 comments
bottom of page