File picture: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

One of the most commonly quoted observations by Winston Churchill – a man justly known for his wit and linguistic dexterity – is that ‘a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’.
 
After years of social tension, this witty truth has a telling resonance in South Africa today. There can be no doubt that difficult and honest conversations are imperative if we are to find the necessary common ground as a society from which to move forward. Fundamental to our ability to navigate our way is the need for a meticulous respect for truth.

Perhaps nowhere is this more important than in discussing the dynamics of the farming economy, a highly charged area which has been the target of a great deal of political hostility.

Coverage given to a recent shooting in the Bergville area in KwaZulu-Natal is a case in point. According to initial reports, based largely in police statements, an 80-year-old ‘farmer’ had shot and injured someone who had come onto his property to retrieve some goats. Police officers arrived to investigate and defuse the situation, but the ‘farmer’ seemed poised to use his firearm on them; he was shot and killed.

At first glance, there is a tragic air of familiarity about this, all of which reflects signifiers from South Africa’s political mythologies. It has deep roots in the way South African society is so often conceptualised; the abusive, trigger-happy white farmer; a dispute over access to property; the instant resort to frontier justice, and the tragic end.

But this is not what happened. The property on which he lived was no farm – rather, it was probably better described as a yard, around half a hectare in size.

More importantly, the chief protagonist in this series of events was no farmer. As Angus Braithwaite from the Bergville Farmers’ Association pointed out to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), the man in question had a long record of erratic and reckless behaviour. 

He had a reputation for arguing with other members of the community and for threatening others with his firearm. His behaviour suggested strongly that he suffered from what Braithwaite described as ‘mental challenges’.

This case has some echoes of events earlier this year. In January, the death of Aaron Mutavhatsidi on a farm in Tarlton near Krugersdorp received widespread attention, as well it should have. But media reports – spurred by the description of the case issued by the police – identified the alleged culprit as a farmer, when he was in fact a security official. 

Another well-publicised case was the force-feeding of sewage to a worker on a plot near Endicott in Springs. Here, the brutal farmer narrative was deployed to the full: a front-page article in one newspaper referred no fewer than 13 times to ‘farm’, ‘farmer’ and ‘farm worker’. For good measure, it added that this was ‘the latest shocking incident in a spate of racist attacks endured by farm workers at the hands of their employers’. 

Given the stomach-turning details contained in the report, and the polarising tone of the reporting, we at the IRR set out to establish what we could about the circumstances. 

It proved easy to identify the residence in question, and almost as easy to establish that if any farming was taking place, it was on a miniscule scale. Signs on the fence surrounding the property advertised an automotive business.

Conversations with neighbours (as well as news reports) suggested a pattern of irresponsible behaviour.

These are, from all that we know, heinous cases. But they are cases unique unto themselves; there is little to indicate that they are of any relevance as illustrations of the supposedly abusive nature of farmers.

Nevertheless, accounts like these play off established narratives in which the Feindbild (literally, the image of the enemy) of the farmer looms large. This is something with roots in South Africa’s history, assiduously encouraged by some unscrupulous politicians today. 

It is also given oxygen, wittingly or otherwise, by figures in authority who choose not to establish the full details of contested events before speaking of them –  or who default to lazy descriptors, that all people living outside densely populated suburbs are farmers. Inaccurate they may be, but, endlessly repeated, they ‘make sense’. 

That this springs from what should be authoritative sources – in two cases, from police spokespeople – is doubly concerning. 

There is (at least, there should be) a particular responsibility on the shoulders of those whose position demands impeccable standards of honesty and integrity in their work. Whether their failings are accidental or purposeful is of little practical significance. 

At the time of the Tarlton shooting, Agri-SA president Dan Kriek contended that ‘false reporting on the incident and poor journalism resulted in farmers’ reputation and public image being tarnished.’ The damage is if anything more profound than he suggested, since this sort of disinformation serves to confirm and compound existing sets of assumptions.

Such ‘fake news’, if you like, has come to be a political and ideological tool. Its purpose is typically not to tell one distorted story, but to drive or reinforce narratives, to move the needle, degree-by-degree over a long period. In the end, it will help its audience to adopt a particular perspective on things. 

Playing recklessly with the truth heightens polarisation and distances us ever further from the prospect of resolving our problems. Farmers are no more venal than any other large group of people, and to drive a narrative that they are, adds to South Africa’s burdens. It makes those honest conversations increasingly difficult. 

And that is a price we as a society can ill afford – for not just farmers, but all South Africans, will ultimately be called upon to pay it.

* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.