It is more dangerous to be a white farmer in South Africa than it is to be a policeman in this country awash in crime and violence.
The threats posed to South Africa’s ever-dwindling population of white (mostly Afrikaner) landowners has become so grave that a group of activists and farmers marched to the capital of Pretoria over the weekend to demand the state protect them and their property.
In the wake of hundreds of attacks and murders, the farmers – represented by two farmers associations, AfriForum and Solidarity -- asked Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to declare such assaults “crimes of priority.”
"Farm murders are not only a crisis,” said AfriForum Deputy CEO Ernst Roets in a statement.
"They are a catastrophe."
Roets blamed the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and the South African Police Service of ignoring the plight of rural white farmers who are increasingly vulnerable to violence perpetrated by dispossessed blacks almost two decades after the fall of apartheid.
The farmers group claimed that farmers – particularly white farmers – are four to six times more likely to be murdered than the general public.
In a memorandum presented to government officials, the farmers stated: "These murders are marked by a unique level of brutality – often worse than that found in terrorist attacks. The argument that farm murders are 'only murder' does not hold water."
According to the Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa, almost 1,600 farm murders have been reported since 1990, although independent think-tanks place the actual number at 3,000.
According to South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, the country’s murder rate stood at 31.9 per 100,000 people, among the highest in the world, and 30 times the homicide rate in the UK. The figure for South African police, 51 per 100,000, and for farmers, 99 per 100,000.
The most recent high-profile killing of a white person on a South African farm involved the brutal murder of a British-born engineer named Chris Preece, who purchased a farm near the border of Lesotho.
He was hacked to death for about $340 in cash and a mobile phone.
The march on Saturday commemorated the second anniversary of the slaughter of white farmer Attie Potgieter and his family. In one of the most brutal crimes in recent memory in South Africa, Potgieter was repeatedly stabbed near Lindley in the Free State while his wife and 2-year-old daughter were forced to watch. The assailants subsequently executed the two females with gunshots.
One of the protesters, Susan Nortje, Mrs. Potgieter's younger sister, told the Daily Telegraph: "If you kill a rhinoceros in South Africa, you get more time in jail than if you kill a person. I don't think people understand. We must show people what's really happening."
Another protester, Magda Pistorius, lost her husband in an attack last year.
"Physically, I have recovered," she said. "But emotionally, it will never go away. The government has to do something to stop this whole story. This whole country is so lawless. It's easy to rob and steal. The justice system is a mess. Everyone else here has got their human rights. But what about ours?"
However, given South Africa’s many other social ills – including 25 percent unemployment (50 percent for black youths), labor unrest and an ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis – the plight of white farmers is unlikely to garner much sympathy from the ANC. In addition, the lingering resentment from apartheid further diminishes the importance of white landowners’ concerns in the eyes of black lawmakers.
Indeed, when the farming association presented its demands to the police minister, a government spokesman named Zweli Mnisi blasted the group.
"They are only representing people based on their color,” he stated, according to the Telegraph. “For us, racializing crime is problematic. You can't have a separate category that says, farmers are the special golden boys and girls. You end up saying the life of a white person is more important. You cannot do this."
Moreover, President Jacob Zuma, who is almost guaranteed to gain re-election next year, has repeatedly condemned the white domination and control of South Africa’s economy and called for a massive transfer of wealth to the black majority, including the redistribution of white-owned farms.
Only about 8 percent of South African farms are now under black ownership – far short of the 30 percent target by 2014 envisioned by former President Nelson Mandela.
"The issue is potentially explosive," Lechesa Tsenoli, deputy minister for land reform, told Reuters.
White farmers are especially targeted because they are viewed by impoverished rural blacks as having wealth.
"For farm workers at the bottom like me, we are not allowed to talk to farm owners directly," a black farm worker told NBC News.
"The [white] farmers disrespect us to a point they would use the 'K-word' [kaffir, pejorative for blacks.]”
Andre Botha of Agri SA, a farmers' union, points out that attacks on farmers stem from poverty, not politics or race.
"There might be segments within the South African population that would like to use words such as genocide, but farm attacks are a result of criminal activities," he said.
"It's an obvious result of the lifestyle that we chose. Farms are a soft target.”
Perhaps the most sensational case of murder of a South African farmer occurred two years ago, when neo-Nazi leader Eugene Terre'blanche was hacked to death by two black farm workers. But even that killing was fueled by a pay dispute, not race.
Meanwhile, whites (principally descendants of British, Dutch and French settlers) account for only 10 percent of South Africa’s total population. The number of white farmers in the country is now down to 40,000.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.