Farmer armies in the killing fields


The phrase "killing fields" doesn't quite conjure up the rolling hills of the Cradle of Humankind, a Unesco World Heritage site west of Johannesburg.

But beneath the veneer of the tourist buses and Jersey cows are horrifying murder and robbery statistics, which received yet another boost this week.

The area bore witness to its 96th farm attack this year when Belgian national Mattias Noack, 58, who survived another attack on his life last November, was murdered by five attackers at his Lindley, Muldersdrift, home on Thursday night.

Raising more than a few eyebrows among neighbours is the fact that Noack and his wife Susan were witnesses in the criminal trial of a police inspector, from Muldersdrift police station, arrested in recent weeks over last November's attack.

West Rand police spokesperson Inspector Solomon Sibiya told the Saturday Star that the suspect, who can't be named until he has pleaded, appeared in the Krugersdorp magistrate's court this week and had his case postponed until October 26. He was released on R2 000 bail.

Shockingly, the policeman is still on duty and has been transferred to Norwood police station pending an internal disciplinary hearing on October 10. Sibiya said the suspect would be charged with attempted murder and robbery.

The inspector was arrested after being identified by Noack's wife at the Douglasdale police station, where she works as a receptionist.

Noack retired to South Africa three years ago to set up a nursery. Last year, the couple were attacked in their driveway, along with two German tourists, by four men. Noack was shot in a leg before the attackers fled.

On Thursday, the couple returned home at 8.30pm to find five attackers waiting for them. Noack was shot at three times and died on the scene. Money, cellphones, a revolver and the couple's Nissan Almera were stolen, but Noack's wife was not harmed.

Muldersdrift, with an average of more than 10 farm attacks a month and eight murders this year, has been labelled a national crime hotspot by the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU), which says it is by far the most violent farming area in the region.

Trevor Roberts, the owner of a Muldersdrift security consultancy, Conserv Security, said the attack on the Noacks was the fifth "double attack" on a farmer in the area, and, like the others, looked suspiciously like a revenge attack.

Conserv Security assesses individual communities and draws up security plans for them. This includes rosters for community patrols, firearms training, rural survival skills and self-defence. The company serves about 3 000 landowners in the area.

Roberts said that in a three-month period, patrols by local armed landowners had helped bring down the crime rate in Muldersdrift from one attack every two-and-a-half days to one every 21 days. Police have slammed these local farmer patrols, saying they went against the laws of the country.

The unofficial farmer armies patrolling the Muldersdrift streets, many of them set up in response to the government's decision to phase out military commandos in 2003, is illustrative of a growing trend around the country.

More and more farmers are organising themselves into rural protection units, and in many provinces have rejected the South African Police Service's sector policing strategy as incompetent. The complaints range from police being involved in crime to a lack of vehicles and staff.

The initiative appears to be led by ex-military officials who, in the northern reaches of the country, lead military-style exercises against suspected criminals with names like Operation Clenched Fist.

Velskoen-and-firearm brigades have led to a significant drop in crime, according to Gideon Meiring, chairperson of the TAU's safety and security committee.

Meiring, a former army colonel in charge of military intelligence, said candidly that his point of departure was that "it's either us or them".

Meiring was unapologetic about the security support groups he has helped to set up in provinces like Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga, saying the police "are not part of the solution but part of the bloody problem".

He has been involved in setting up what the TAU calls the Greenlight Police, an association of patrolling farmers with flashing green lights fixed to the top of their vehicles.

Meiring also runs frequent three-day self-defence courses. Men, women and children are taught first aid, how to use ordinary household items to protect themselves, and how to fire AK-47s, R-4s and pump-action rifles.

The president of the National African Farmers' Union, Motsepe Matlala, said some white commercial farmers were politicising the problem of farm attacks by creating the impression that it was only white commercial farmers who were being targeted. This was "far from the truth".

"In Limpopo, certain white commercial farmers are taking the law into their own hands under the pretence of protecting themselves, which is not very good, neighbourly behaviour...

"You can't say per se that people can't protect themselves, but when those farmers patrol, they must act within the limits of the law. I don't imagine that the ordinary, poor farmworkers, if they see someone coming at them carrying big rifles, wouldn't feel uncomfortable and intimidated," Matlala said.


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