The brutal Boer is back once again. That is if the headline in a report carried on IOL on 26 February is to be believed – ‘ R200 000 damages for worker force-fed faeces by farmers’. Describing a judgment handed down by an Equality Court, it recounted how a family from the East Rand had forced an employee to consume raw sewage.
The details of this case are shocking and stomach turning. When it came to light early last year, it attracted a great deal of attention. It is fitting that the victim’s pain has been recognised and that the perpetrators have been punished – although one can debate whether this was adequate.
Less commendable is the identification of the family in question as farmers. This is not true, but it is a trope that has been repeated endlessly.
This narrative was forcefully evident when the story was first published. Carried on the front page of The Star, using the terms ‘farm’, ‘farmer’ and ‘farm worker’ 13 times, the report added that it was ‘the latest shocking incident in a spate of racist attacks endured by farm workers at the hands of their employers.’
Yet on the basis of a close reading of this piece, we at the Institute of Race Relations were sceptical that this was indeed a farm. And on closer investigation, it was not. The property in question appeared to house an automotive business (clearly advertised), and if any agriculture was taking place there, it was on such a paltry scale that it would take a considerable feat of imagination to describe the occupants as farmers.
Sadly, this is not a mere case of misidentification. It feeds a long-standing and sinister narrative that attributes to South African farmers a range of abusive pathologies (indeed, it is quite possible that the reporting itself was informed by this narrative).
The image of the farmer as the embodiment of apartheid dispossession, of enduring racism and of a present-day refusal to participate in building the country has deep roots in our political culture. Indeed, farmers are alone in being singled out for violence by a once widely invoked political chant, ‘Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer’. Perhaps more seriously, this image has been recklessly deployed from time to time by politicians and activists.
This stigmatisation has consequences. Without question, it is poisoning public debate around those governance issues in which farmers have a particular stake. It looms very large in relation to such issues as land reform and rural crime. It is not uncommon to hear them discussed in a vocabulary of retribution (such sentiments, for example, have been chronicled by my colleague Gabriel Crouse after attending a recent conference at the University of the Western Cape).
Which is certainly not to say that all farmers are without sin. There is no dispute that instances of violence and dishonesty occur – which is hardly surprising among a commercial farming population of some 35 000. Some degree of criminal behaviour is inevitable among any large group, and there is nothing to suggest that farmers are disproportionately guilty of it.
The misattribution of criminal conduct to farmers, when those responsible were clearly not farmers at all, does a disservice not only to the farming community but to the country as a whole. It spreads anger where anger need not exist.
Ultimately, an environment poisoned by such tropes and populated by such stereotypes cannot be conducive to the sort of sober, mature engagement that resolving difficult and emotive issues demands. Perhaps we should ask whether we seek to resolve these issues or to keep them inflamed?
* Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.