Monday, June 21, 2004

Second of two parts

BOEKENHOUTSKLOOF, South Africa — Jacob van der Westhuizen, 74, didn’t suspect a thing when a stranger came up to tell him a small deer, a duiker, was tangled in the fence down by his creek.

He left his work by the small house where he and his wife, Anna, had raised four children and followed the man past the old windmill, beyond the giant jacaranda tree and down through the wild cosmos that bloom in the autumn.

“He didn’t take the dogs. He had no weapon,” his widow recounted in her native Afrikaans, a derivation of Dutch spoken only in South Africa.

A short time later, the stranger returned to the house and asked for a knife, saying the duiker was dead and the men wanted to skin it.

“I gave him the knife. Then he attacked me. He wanted 30 rand [about $5], but all I had in my purse was 18 rand. Then I saw the blood on his pants,” Mrs. van der Westhuizen said.

“Then I knew I was in trouble, and I ran out. I saw my husband standing by that fence post.” Mr. van der Westhuizen had been beaten badly.

His death came a year ago, on the cattle ranch where he had been born, where the more familiar predator is a jackal or a leopard, while his wife was still waiting for the ambulance.

“Jacob was beaten with a stone. He was unrecognizable. His face was covered in blood. He died in my arms,” said Louis Meintjes, a neighbor and local crime-watch leader.

“Jacob was known as a good man. A tribal chief traveled [18 miles] the next day to tell us the man who did this would be caught and punished.”

A man named Kwa Ndebele indeed was captured and confessed to the killing. The crime had netted him less than $3, a pair of pants, a pair of shoes and a wristwatch.

In the 10 years since the transition from apartheid to democracy, almost 1,700 farmers, nearly all white, have been killed on South African farms.

Many of the killings were unspeakably brutal. Rape is common. One wheelchair-bound elderly woman was scalded with boiling water until she died. And the number of “farm attacks” — where no one was killed — number in the tens of thousands.

South Africa’s crime wave has become as frightening in the country as it is in the city. Men and women alike carry weapons full time. And many are abandoning the farms where they lived for generations.

Some think that is the reason behind the crimes, raising the specter of next-door Zimbabwe, where the government has authorized or tolerated a murderous wave of farm attacks to drive out white “colonialists.”

Letsie Erasmus still carries the telephone cord that was used to bind her when her peanut and cattle farm near Freiburg was invaded and ransacked five years ago.

Five men and women were held hostage, beaten and brutalized. The culprits, who stole weapons, cash and two cars, have yet to come to trial.

“We moved to the city three years later. My daughter left for Canada,” said Mrs. Erasmus’ husband, Altus, who required back surgery after being beaten in the same attack.

“Ours was just a crime, but let me put it to you this way: What is happening here, I’ll put my hand on the Bible, it started the same way in Zimbabwe.”

It is taken as gospel among the staunchly Calvinist Dutch Reform white farmers — many of them unrepentant supporters of the former apartheid regime — that the attacks are part of a coordinated government program to push them off the land and out of the country.

Mr. Meintjes, the neighborhood-watch leader, pulled down a large wall map covered with push-pins, each denoting an attack in his rural community, which has a radius of about 10 miles.

More than 50 white pins indicated “serious category” armed robberies or assaults. Six red pins indicate killings, all committed within the past six years.

“We can’t prove it, but we feel it is instigated. It seems like a normal crime, [but] why kill a man for 30 rand? It is intimidation to get the white farmers off the land,” Mr. Meintjes said. “Zimbabwe? It is already here.”

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe came to power with the end of white rule in the former Rhodesia in 1980, promising a “rainbow nation,” and blacks and whites, in fact, lived in relative harmony for two decades.

But facing likely electoral defeat in 2002, Mr. Mugabe permitted his armed followers to forcibly seize dozens of white-owned farms, resulting in the deaths of at least 15 white farmers and family members.

South African farmers worry that they will suffer the same fate.

Most sober analysts, while acknowledging that crime is a very serious problem in both urban and rural South Africa, say there is nothing to support the theory that farm attacks are part of any nefarious plan by the government of President Thabo Mbeki.

Even the victims, while holding to the overarching belief that South Africa is going the way of Zimbabwe, said without exception that what they had suffered was not inspired either by racial hatred or politics.

“The farm attacks are not orchestrated by the government,” said Duxita Mistry, who researches farm attacks for the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria.

“They are unsophisticated crimes, [but] they are organized. They do their homework. There is planning involved. … But there is [no evidence] at all that these are government-orchestrated.

“It needs to be looked at in the context of rural crime. Farmers have firearms and money.”

A white homicide investigator who works in a rural community outside Johannesburg agreed.

After leafing through a large pile of official documents — each filled with detailed reports and gruesome photos of crime victims — the policeman, who asked that he not be identified, said the black officers in his squad were conscientious professionals, dedicated to solving all crimes against black or white South Africans.

The investigator had complaints: He said his department needed more men and equipment, such as cars and cell phones.

He also said as a white police officer, there was little chance that he would be promoted under the country’s affirmative-action quotas, which require government and business to reflect the nation’s racial makeup — 70 percent black, 10 percent white, 10 percent Indian and 10 percent “colored.”

But after 10 years on the force, he said he had seen no evidence that the crimes he investigated were government-orchestrated.

“In all these attacks, there were no politics involved,” he said, motioning to the stack of notebooks. “However, if you look at what [the criminals] did to these people in these attacks, there was hatred for white people. Black farmers have also been attacked, just not with the same brutality.”

The homicide detective flipped open a notebook and pointed to a picture of a white woman “too weak to go to church” who had been bludgeoned to death. He said her black maid had been left unharmed.

And he repeated what has become a mantra among whites in South Africa: Why is Mr. Mbeki silent about Zimbabwe?

“You want to see the president stand up and say ‘This must stop,’ but he is saying nothing about Mugabe, so what is the message that is going out?” the officer asked.

“Both black and white farmers have had enough of this,” he said. “South Africa is not exactly like Zimbabwe, but there are danger signs.”

Tad Legget, a former policeman from Colorado who researches urban crime for the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria, said the perception of crime inside and outside of South Africa is skewed.

“Crime is a very serious problem for South Africa, but there is a perception that it is worse than it really is,” said Mr. Legget, who was the victim of a recent carjacking in Hillbrow, one of Johannesburg’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

In 1994 and 1995, the first years after the end of apartheid, there were 26,000 murders a year, or 67 per 100,000 South Africans, a figure comparable to Colombia today.

Today, there are 47 murders per 100,000 South Africans, almost the same as the murder rate in Washington — a level considered unacceptable, but much better than 10 years ago.

Mr. Legget said the levels of property crime are not much worse than in the United Kingdom.

“I do think robbery has increased … but my argument is that it is getting better,” he said.

The causes of crime are familiar. People move to the city looking for work, find none, take up crime to survive and eventually, wander back home to the countryside where they employ the only skills they learned in the city.

Mr. Legget said vehicle theft is down remarkably since 1994, and although attempted murder is up, murder is down. Residential burglaries have risen, but commercial burglaries have stayed about the same.

A typical middle-class urban home is protected by a 6-foot wall topped with razor wire and a 60,000-volt electric fence. Many such homes are equipped with laser beams, motion detectors and monitoring by one of the many “armed-response” units that patrol wealthier neighborhoods.

One South African, who drives a beat-up old Mercedes to avoid the attention of carjackers, said he rarely travels anywhere without a hired bodyguard and never without a full canister of tear gas.

Police in some Pretoria neighborhoods send e-mails to local residents advising them to remove any white milk cartons, red Coca-Cola cans or green Sprite cans from in front of their homes.

The litter could be a sign that the house is being watched. Burglars use white to indicate that a home is an easy target, green to say it’s a little more difficult and red to say “go next door to the green or white house.”

One woman said that she keeps a crowbar hidden in her trunk so she can pry herself out if she is put in the trunk during a hijacking.

Mr. Legget said police surveys show that South Africans fear automobile hijacking more than any other crime. Police studies show that about 255 cars are stolen and 46 hijacked in the country every day.

Even so, the trend is downward — from 107,448 car thefts in 1999 to 93,133 in 2003. In the Gauteng area — which makes up the financial and government centers of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the richest and most populated area of the country — car theft last year was down 24 percent from the year before.

“Crime has relocated [to the country]. Before, it was bottled up in the townships. There were white areas of this country that never saw any crime; now they are,” Mr. Legget said.

He also said that during apartheid, “police were the enemy [in the eyes of blacks], so crime was not reported. Now it is.”

On a recent holiday at Nelson Mandela Square in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, it was impossible to find anyone, black or white, who had not been the victim of a crime.

Nicole Nola, a goldsmith and a white single mother, watched her two little girls feed the pigeons and play beneath the large statue of former President Nelson Mandela.

Three years ago, as she stepped to her BMW from her children’s day care center in Rosebank, she was surrounded by six armed men who demanded that she turn over the car.

“I didn’t think about it. I turned on the ignition, stepped on the gas and got away. I was lucky,” she said, noting that many people have been killed in similar circumstances.

With intersections and off-ramps from the highways dotted with signs proclaiming “Hijacking Hot Spot,” Miss Nola said few women any longer come to a complete stop at red lights — something Mr. Legget confirmed.

“The police look the other way,” he said, noting that several investigations revealed that at least some automobile “chop shops” — where stolen cars are altered or dismantled — were run by white and Indian criminal syndicates, not by blacks.

“But the black man is always a suspect in South Africa,” said Lucas Mothoa, 28, a black man who said he had been robbed at knifepoint three times, each time for his cell phone.

“I hope the new government will fight crime and poverty and create jobs. When I was robbed, I had never experienced such a terrible thing.”

By some estimates, between 1 million and 2 million South Africans, both black and white, have emigrated since the end of apartheid, with Britain, Canada and Australia being the most popular destinations.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that at least in recent years, it is a lack of employment opportunities rather than crime that is driving the exodus.

Most of the so-called “white flight” from South Africa took place before apartheid ended, motivated largely by fears of a race-based civil war that never came. And some of those emigres are coming back.

Whites, in particular, are finding their opportunities limited by the government’s affirmative-action programs designed to make up for decades of white rule. Many speak of being “too white and too male” to find a good job.

“I’d say in my circle, six out of 10 have left. But I’m not going anywhere. I am African. I love my country,” said Miss Nola, echoing a sentiment heard time and again.

“Besides, where am I going to go?” she asked. “But if it goes the way of Zimbabwe … who knows?”

First Part:

Another Zimbabwe?

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