Cultivating Contention: An Historical Inquiry into Agrarian Reform, Rural Oppression and Farm Attacks in the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
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One of the most shocking post-apartheid developments for South Africa’s farming community has been the drastic increase in violent crime directed against white farmers – a phenomenon commonly known as farm attacks. The possible motives driving this violence have been hotly debated; some white farmers believe farm attacks are an attempt to force the return of land to the black majority, while others argue they are simply robberies. This study pursues an historical approach to understanding this violence. Using more than two hundred oral interviews collected in the Midlands region of KwaZulu-Natal Province, this study concludes that although farm attacks cannot be separated from the wave of violent crime that has swept South Africa since the early 1990s, the historical importance of African dispossession and oppression living and working on white-owned farms plays a larger role in the violence than has previously been understood. Forty-five percent of rural black respondents identified ill-treatment by white farmers as a primary motive in farm attacks, while fifty-three percent pointed to acquisitive criminality as the direct cause. Although only two percent of rural black informants believed the unequal distribution of land is the primary motive in these attacks, many argued that land plays an important indirect role in the violence. Black people in rural areas have been, and continue to be, dependent on white farmers for employment due to the historical process of African dispossession; moreover, informants argued that rural poverty and crime can largely be explained by a lack of access to land to support independent livelihoods. Ill treatment by white farmers and acquisitive criminality, then, are linked to landlessness. This not only underscores the importance of finding a better way forward for the country’s struggling land reform program, but it also highlights the importance of understanding local histories in explaining this violence.
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