Johannesburg, South Africa – Mostly white farmers across South Africa donned black clothing and gathered on motorways and roads in a procession of tractors and trucks, to protest against what they described as a weak state response to “farm murders”.
The racially charged protest – very few rallying were not white – comes days after two white farmers were sentenced to more than 10 years in jail for assaulting a black man in a case that has also stirred racial tensions.
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White commercial farmers have long complained that they bear the brunt of rising violent crime and say the government ignores their plight.
On Monday, hundreds of people galvanised by a group called “Genoeg is Genoeg”, or Enough is Enough, took their protest to the public while paying tribute to those who have been killed.
The demonstration was called after the murder of two white farmers on Tuesday in Klapmuts, a town in the Western Cape. On Monday, as the protests got under way, there were reports of another murder of a white farmer, in KwaZulu-Natal.
According to Afriforum, an organisation that seeks to represent white South Africans, Tuesday’s killings took the death toll of farmers to 71 in 2017.
“I think there is an agenda, they are being tortured,” said Ernst Roots, an Afriforum leader.
According to the group, 156 commercial farmers are killed per 100,000 of the population, meaning white farmers are almost five times more likely to be murdered than the general population.
“The unique frequency of the murders, the unique levels of brutality, the farmers’ huge role in the country and the fact they live in quiet, far-off places, means that farmers need more protection,” Root told Al Jazeera.
But fact-checking website Africa Check has repeatedly disputed these numbers.
‘White genocide’ claims
Earlier in 2017, Africa Check said since there were no reliable estimates of how many people were working and living on farms, and that it was close to impossible to calculate a farm murder rate.
It also laid to rest accusations that a “white genocide” was unfolding in the country, after Mike Cernovich, a prominent American white supremacist, tweeted in late 2016 that “white genocide is real” in South Africa.
“Within the [white farming] community, there are white right-wing sentiments, and a belief that these attacks are orchestrated … and they have been lobbying European countries, which has only resulted in a politicisation of the issue,” said Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime and justice division at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies.
“But they think it’s only them and this is a mistake. Of course, their concerns are serious. But they also need to appreciate its a national issue.”
Though claims of a “white genocide” continue to circulate on social media, with memes calling on the world to act and stop whites being murdered en masse, these have been met mostly with ridicule by most South Africans.
Last week, the South African Police Services (SAPS) released its annual stats of crime. It found that there were more than 19,000 murders in the country, or 34 murders per 100,000 people between 2015 and 2016.
‘Young black males most likely to be murdered’
Newham said the decline of faith in the police or criminal justice system is widespread and not limited to farmers.
“If you want to ascertain through statistics who are the most likely to be murdered in South Africa, then those are young black males,” Newham told Al Jazeera.
Johan Burger, an independent policy analyst based in Johannesburg, warned against the perception that only white farmers were killed during attacks on farms.
“It is true that, if you look at just farmers, it is still mostly white farmers who get attacked. But that does not mean that black farmers and black workers are not killed,” he told local media.
The protests on Monday went ahead in various parts of the country, including Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
Protesters raise apartheid-era flags
Protesters carried white crosses and held placards that read: “No Boer No pap” or “Don’t kill the hand that feeds you”.
Some also raised apartheid-era South African flags.
“To every person who continues to fly this flag, you are racist,” said Athi Jara, one of many people who took to social media to decry the move.
According to a recent land audit conducted by Agri SA, white South Africans – who comprise 8.9 percent of the population – own 73 percent of agricultural land.
— #IzweLethu 🇿🇦🇬🇧 (@athivuyo) October 30, 2017
The question of land redistribution remains one of the most divisive topics in South Africa and incidents on farms are almost always politicised.
Murders on farms have been used to fuel the anxieties of white people in a country two decades into democracy.
Gillian Godsell, a lecturer at the Wits School of Governance, told Al Jazeera that the claim of rising farm murders was a “proxy for something else”.
“I don’t think this is about murders; the number of deaths, we don’t know if these are whites or black farmers who were killed. Some say 30 percent of those murdered were black workers.
“People seem to be grieving for much more than these deaths. People are grieving about change in this country.”
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa