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Consumer Reports

Where White farmers are robbed, often tortured | (KRT) ELLISRAS, South Africa — Three years ago, cattle ranchers John and Bina Cross returned from a Sunday church picnic to find two armed thieves waiting inside their remote farmhouse. Over the next six hours, the invaders - who had ransacked the house, stealing money and guns - slowly tortured and murdered the aging couple.

Bina, 76, was shot three times and had a kettle of boiling water poured over her as she lay bleeding to death and trying to crawl to a phone. Her 77-year-old husband, with gunshot wounds to the kidneys, was dragged around the house by a noose on his neck, then had a bath spray nozzle forced down his throat and scalding water turned on. He finally died when the attackers used a revolver to blow off the top of his head.

"You can't tell me the motive for that is just plain robbery," said John's daughter, Lita Fourie, now a leading South African campaigner against assaults at farms. "They could just tie people up and take everything. Why do they have to kill?"

A new South African police study, release after two years of investigation, suggests that robbery - not racial hatred or lust for land - is the motive behind a growing scourge of farm attacks that have left about 1,500 primarily white Afrikaner farmers dead since 1991.

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Last year, about 1,000 commercial farms and other small holdings were attacked across South Africa, and in nearly 90 percent of cases the motive was robbery, usually an attempt to secure money, guns and vehicles, according to Duxita Mistry, a crime researcher with the South African Institute for Security Studies and an investigator in the national police study.

"There's a perception farmers are relatively wealthy, and if they don't have money they have firearms," Mistry said. The isolation of farms, combined with a relative lack of the security, also make them inviting targets in a country where high walls, electric fences and security guards have become the norm in urban areas, she said.

What is less easy to understand, and the crux of an ongoing dispute, is the sometimes vicious violence associated with farm robberies. In 2001, one in seven farm attacks resulted in a killing, the report noted. Farm associations say that makes farming in South Africa one of the world's most dangerous jobs, with farmers being killed at a rate five times higher than other South Africans, who already suffer one of the world's highest murder rates.

Fourie carries a small photo album of pictures from the scenes of farm attacks, and the images are stomach-churning: A 47-year-old woman with most of her jaw blasted off, burned babies, an 82-year-old woman raped before her throat was cut, another woman burned with a hot iron over a quarter of her body. Many of the pictures show the bruised and bloodied victims with their hands tied with phone cord, unable to fight back.

Researchers like Mistry say such brutality "is the exception rather than the rule" and that farmers sometimes provoke violence by refusing to cooperate, fighting back or using delaying tactics, such as insisting they can't find the key to a cash or gun safe.

But farmers in remote reaches of South Africa, and some of the farm associations that represent them, insist the attacks represent - at the least - economic envy and racial hatred and perhaps even an organized attempt, as in Zimbabwe just to the north, to drive out white farmers who still own the majority of South Africa's farmland.

Mattie van Rooyen remembers how farm invaders who fatally wounded her brother during a 2001 attack locked her and several friends in a room and told the farm's maid that "they were going to kill us all, play with the Boer" or Afrikaner farmer. Neighbors eventually arrived to rescue them.

"A lot of these attacks have to do with robbery and farmers are easy targets. But there's a political aspect as well. I'm sure about that," said van Rooyen, 45.

Fourie tells the story of one elderly white farm owner who was approached by a black buyer for her land, but refused the sale. Months later she was raped during a break-in, and ended up selling the property.

"I think they want to scare people off the farms, off the land, scare them into selling," Fourie said. Black farmers in nearby Trichardsdal have suffered farm robberies, she noted, but "there's not one case where a black farmer was strangled, had his throat cut or where someone waited in his home to murder him."

Researchers admit that much is true, although black farm workers on white-owned farms also have been killed or injured during assaults.

Hard realities of post-apartheid South Africa may help explain the assaults. Nearly a decade after Nelson Mandela walked free, it's not hard to find Afrikaner farmers who still use derogatory terms for their black workers and who long for apartheid's return.

"I still call them kaffirs but there are no hard feelings about the whole set-up," said Stoffel van Staden, an Ellisras farmer who lost his son-in-law in a farm attack a year ago. Police investigations, however, show that sometimes attacks have been provoked by racist slurs, as well as by wage disputes and ill treatment of farm workers.

Perhaps even larger problems are South Africa's high unemployment, lingering poverty, income inequality and culture of violence, left over from apartheid days. While farm attacks may be brutal, researchers say, they mirror urban violence, in which car-jacking victims who offer no resistance are shot or victims of home invasions murdered, usually by attackers in their late teens or 20s.

"Life is cheap in South Africa. I don't know what pushes people that extra mile to kill someone even though they've given you what you've asked for. It's something that needs to be looked at more closely," said Mistry, who has interviewed dozens of farm attack perpetrators as well as their victims.

One hurdle to discouraging violent crime, she said, is that it is so rarely successfully prosecuted in South Africa, in large part because of a lack of adequate police investigators. On that front, at least, South Africa's rural areas are having some success - nearly 90 percent of farm attackers are eventually arrested and convicted, Mistry said.

The two men who killed John and Bina Cross - one a former worker on the farm - were caught within days after police found the Cross' guns under the mattress of one man and John's watch in the pocket of another, Fourie said. They are serving 50-year sentences for murder.

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