A low-intensity civil war is grinding on just north of Pretoria.
Between the dusty business district of Bon Accord and the continually spreading townships of Hammanskraal and Soshanguve, farmers and plot-holders are struggling to hold on to their land, while shack dwellers and other opportunists try to take possession of them.
One of the recent victims of the district’s undeclared war was Johnny Moloi*, a nephew of the owner of the plot on which he lived.
Usually in farm attacks the aggressors are black and the victims white, but this was not the case on this occasion. Johnny’s uncle, who bought his plot a few years ago, is one of the growing number of black owners of plots in the area. Moloi lived in a house on the plot while he studied information technology. No meaningful farming was being conducted. He was simply the caretaker.
The attackers left his dead body in the living room of what is a modest middle-class home. He had received a blow to the head with a blunt instrument and was stabbed many times. His hands and feet were bound with iron bailing wire, his wrists and the Achilles tendons of both legs had been severed, and he appeared to have been sodomised.
The reason for his death is a matter for conjecture. Some locals say he had a disagreement with Mozambican immigrants and that the people from that country are always the most militant, so it must have been them. White people from surrounding areas say the reason is simply that the young man’s family are property owners and the killers are probably shack dwellers who resent their relative wealth.
To gain access to the property you have to pass through two gates, the motors of which no longer function. The tanks where an attempt was made to farm fish are dry and the garden is dying. A bitch has just given birth to 14 puppies. Another young man is now looking after the property. He feeds the dogs, keeps the doors and windows locked and is careful around strangers.
Within a few hundred metres of the plot where Moloi died, the battle lines are drawn between those who have practically nothing and those who are trying to hold on to the limited assets they do possess. Piet van der Vyfer* one of the last white plot owners in the Inderminne area, has lost sections of his fence wire and more than half his fence posts. His plot is a few hundred metres from the nearest shack village, a sprawling cluster of huts adjoining Hammanskraal. The huts are made of rusted corrugated iron, plastic refuse bags, cardboard sheets from boxes and the wood of disused packing cases. The men, South Africans, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and others are largely unemployed. In a country in which unemployment runs close to 40%, and 60% among young black men, this is less than surprising.
Like all plot holders in the area, Van der Vyfer lives under a state of siege. Almost all his white neighbours have either sold their properties for much less than they paid or simply deserted them. The neighbouring plot on the Hammanskraal side of Van der Vyfer’s property has lost all its fencing wire. Men with no other income, presumably from the shack village, are cutting down the trees to sell for fire wood.
Van der Vyfer, a 70-year-old retired businessman, bought the property ten years ago and has erected a charming thatched roof house on the plot for himself and his wife.The intention was for them to spend their closing years on their smallholding. As the months pass this looks increasingly unlikely. A possible design weakness in the house is its thatch roof. This became clear when a neighbourhood watch operative left wheelbarrows belonging to allegedly illegal wood cutters on Van der Vyfer’s property. “You may not give back the wheelbarrows to them,” the neighbourhood watch man said. “They are evidence now.”
He took the admonishment seriously, but not wisely. The next day a gathering outside his gate demanded the return of their wheelbarrows or “we will burn down your house with you and your wife inside it.” Van der Vyfer resisted and that night the gang of illegal woodcutters remained outside his front gate all night, shouting threats.
“We never slept,” his wife says. Numerous calls to the police brought no visits from officers, no men dispatched to the scene, no reaction whatever. The burning down of the Van der Vyfer home was probably only prevented by the presence of members of the neighbourhood watch who stood guard throughout the night. Adding to the Van der Vyfers’ concern was the knowledge that another house in the area had been burnt down, just after the owners, an elderly couple, were evacuated. Within 24 hours of that incident everything saleable that remained on the property had been stolen.
In answer to a query about his future, Van der Vyfer says, “I don’t know. I have guns. I will resist anyone who tries to take my land from me.”
Apart from the dangers posed by hostile human beings, this is not easy country in any respect. To the immediate south of Hammanskraal is dense bushveld country that possesses a singular beauty all its own. On many plots the trees and bushes have never been cleared and grow so close together that walking among them is difficult. Rainfall throughout the region is a purely summer phenom.enon. In most years there is no rain.fall at all between May and November. As winter deepens, boreholes empty, the veld becomes tinder-box dry and fires, many of them caused by arsonists, are an almost daily occurrence.
The Sunday morning before this article was written eight fires, originating in different places, swept through Bultfontein and neighbouring Vastfontein, a plot area 30km south of Hammanskraal. Apart from the effect on some hundreds of hectares of grazing and bush, two houses and a number of outbuildings were destroyed. The municipal fire brigade with the help of 37 plot owners in their bakkies, some towing water tanks, took till after dark to put out the flames. On the Tuesday a new fire broke out, severely damaging grazing on another five plots. Again the municipal firefighters with the help of the local volunteers extinguished the fire by early afternoon.
The fires among the plots are more damaging than in most places. Most of the plot owners feel they cannot afford insurance. But just as the neighbours put out the fires, they also came to the help of those who lost most. By Wednesday of that week a plot family who had lost 300 metres of water pipe had it replaced as a gift. They also received enough furniture to fill their home as soon as it is repaired.
Along the edge of Bultfontein, the remains of a game farm has for some years served as a bulwark between the plot owners and the homeless. Situated in a strip along the crest of a row of hills, it was the home of a variety of antelope, monkeys, leopards and even lions. More recently it has been rented for cattle farming.
The investor who owns it was apparently unaware of the first shacks to go up on his land. The hundreds of thousands of hectares of the place make that a reasonable possibility. The appearance of the first shacks opened the door to a flood of homeless people. The result is that the fences on the Bultfontein side of the game farm, much like those in the Inderminne area, are down and the shack village is spreading over the crest of the hill.The plot owners of Bultfontein, of which close to a quarter are black, watch the advance of the shack community – no longer restrained by a fence line – and the guards of the old game farm, with growing trepidation.
Being a bulwark is no laughing matter. The pressures faced by the man who hired the game farm for his cattle has found himself unable to deal with the presence of the shack community. At the time of writing he has been charged with murder, following the killing of an intruder.
The community’s fears are not without foundation. Bultfontein, an area of about 200 plots, suffers on average more than one break-in nightly. Borehole pumps, livestock, a seemingly endless variety of tools, building materials and other items are stolen. Fence wire is cut regularly, often the wire and poles are stolen. Many plot owners patrol their fences daily to repair the previous night’s damage.
The government’s recent announce.ment that land can be expropriated without compensation has been interpreted by many as freedom to seize what they believe should be theirs. On occasion, plot owners and their workers are attacked. Some have been killed. One of the worst recent cases was the multiple stabbing of an elderly neighbour as he stepped out of his house at 11 one evening to secure the gate to an animal enclosure. Earlier this year the naked corpse of a white woman was found spread-eagled on a street in neighbouring Honingnestkrans. In the week before this article was written, two workers on one of the plots were shot by intruders, but survived.
This is a religious community in which people take seriously God’s role in their lives. If things go well with you and you have no great problems with intruders, cutworm or any other local plague, you have the Lord to thank. If things go badly, you had better examine yourself because the Lord is punishing you. Situate the area in the USA and it would be seen as part of the Bible Belt. There are probably more churches per square kilometre here than anywhere else in the country. Community meetings, held regularly to discuss security issues, are opened and closed with prayer.
It is also a polite community. If anyone is ten years younger than you, they call you Oom or Tannie (Uncle or Auntie). If you are the younger one, people would be surprised if you did not reciprocate. Coming home one afternoon, I stopped at our gate and opened the car door to get out. A young woman who has a well-paying job that involves international travel and dealing with highly sophisticated clients happened to be parked nearby. As I stopped, she leapt from her car and made for the gate. I tried to stop her, but she was not to be deterred. “No, Oom,” she said, “naturally I’ll open the gate for you.” For someone who has spent most of his adult life in Johannesburg, it came as something of a surprise.
The atmosphere of fear is subtle. People continue with their lives, without outward displays of terror, but take special precautions. The barking of dogs getting closer and closer as a band of intruders moves through the plots at night, the high, insistent cry of plovers who have been disturbed, the flash of a torch somewhere on your land, a sharp knocking on a door or window or the recorded crying of a baby or a puppy at two in the morning, the aim of which is to draw you outside: at any of these warning signs, outside security lights are switched on and firearms readied, if you have them, and you peer out through cracks in the curtains to assess the dangers.
Not possessing a firearm is a cause for surprise. “You can’t live on a plot without a firearm,” we have been told.
Fear has resulted in a strong sense of unity. In an effort to protect their families, Bultfontein plot owners, both black and white, are organising a community watch. In this they have been assisted by the neighbouring Vastfontein community where an excellent community policing forum has been operating for some time.
Genuine support comes from its members. The young men of the community are quick to come to the assistance of families and older people, pursuing intruders through plots and farms, usually driving them away and, on occasion, making arrests.
The entire community is linked together by WhatsApp and radio links so that news of attacks reaches every family in minutes. Every evening the community policing forum radios every plot or farm on its list. The entire process takes the best part of an hour and if anyone does not answer the reason for their silence is investigated.
Serious attacks often result in support for the victims arriving from all directions. These community arrangements are all that stand between plot owners and complete chaos. While properties lose value and many members of the community fear for their safety, the police offer very little assistance and none in mob situations. When confronted by a mob the Hammanskraal police withdraw. The impression is created that they are not going to endanger themselves protecting a white property owner.
Plot owners who report attacks at the police station struggle even to get a case number out of those on duty. After a recent attempted burglary I was assured by a sergeant that a case number was not necessary, he would be on our property the next morning to investigate and would give us the case number then. He never came and after that I was unable to raise him on the telephone.
In the case of a break-in, during which we lost a substantial amount of moveable property, the police visited us but a promised second visit to take fingerprints never material.ised. Ironically we were told that the Hammanskraal district is listed as a low crime area. This is not surprising in view of the fact that the police avoid opening cases, presumably to keep the official figures low. Speaking to other members of the community, similar stories are repeated endlessly.
To be fair to the police though, they are hopelessly under-resourced. Hammanskraal police station has only three motor vehicles, and often one or more is out of commission. A vehicle sent in for service sometimes takes more than three months before it is returned. And under these circumstances they are required to serve an area of over 1,000km², including the densely populated town of Hammanskraal itself. Essentially, the same applies to the manpower situation. Too few vehicles and too few officers make visible policing a distant dream.
Into this mix – which applies in much of the country – some politi.cians have chosen to call the situation genocide. The word suggests a systematic extermination of an ethnic or religious group. What we are faced with is not that. It is, more accurately, a disregard for the safety of white rural citizens as a result of either a cavalier, uninterested attitude, or else a simple matter of incompetence.
Despite the prevailing circumstances, Piet van der Vyfer was warned by a police captain not to shoot at anyone invading his property. “He will have a civil case against you then and we will not be able to help.” Not that they ever had.
Perhaps the most telling comment comes from another plot owner. “My children are all educated and have moved overseas. All I want for myself is to die on my own land.”
The week after this article was written, an elderly woman was shot dead by intruders in the early morning hours while in bed with her husband.
* The names of crime victims in this article have been changed to protect them and their families.
• Wessel Ebersohn is an internationally published South African novelist.
The Great Mobile Heist
With your help Noseweek, has WASPs and cellphone service providers that have been stealing our air time with their backs against the wall.
More than 10200 people signed our petition in the first week of Noseweek’s online campaign!
To find out more and add your name go to:
When we last looked, 10275 cellphone users had signed up.
Copyright © 2019 www.noseweek.co.za