On Sunday night, wildfires swept through the veld between Hertzogville and Christiana, two farming centres that straddle the Free State, Northern Cape, and North West.
Within hours, the raging fires had encompassed Hoopstad and Boshof, decimated 100 000 ha of veld, killed hundreds of animals, maimed hundreds more, burned a young farmer almost to death, injured scores of others, scorched hundreds of buildings, and destroyed grazing throughout a huge area.
It could have ended there, with a disaster declared, a shattered community counting the cost and a provincial government intervening with emergency aid.
However, politics and racism reared their ugly heads.
Now the Hertzogville fires have become yet another example of the faultlines in our society. They are being ruthlessly exploited by opportunistic politicians with no thought for the implications of their words and deeds.
Violent protests have been going on in Hoopstad since the beginning of October. Residents are protesting against poor service delivery and calling for the ousting of mayor Frans Matsholo. Matsholo has made it clear he is not interested in stepping down. The ruling ANC refuses to take any action against the mayor. As a result, the town has been burning.
It is believed that the latest fires were started when a group of protesters burned tyres and set fire to a truck on the road between Hertzogville and Christiana. The tinder-dry veld, fanned by strong winds, combusted quickly.
Even though the fires are now largely under control, Free State Agriculture (FSA) warns that the hot winds and tinder-dry veld can see flare-ups at any time.
17 people were arrested for arson and appeared in the Hertzogville Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday.
Local farmer Johannes Barnard summed up the situation from his perspective: “This is a municipal government that was voted in by these people, again and again and again. But now they protest against their own elected officials, claiming that the municipality is badly run and the money for service delivery is being stolen. So, to show their displeasure, they barricade the roads into the town, burn trucks and stone cars.”
He lamented the irony that it was the farmers that were caught up in the issues: “We are the ones who get our vehicles stoned. It is our delivery trucks, bringing stock food, machinery, equipment and supplies, that get burnt. We are the ones who were delivering truckloads of foodstuffs to the townships during lockdown, to prevent people from starving. Now our vehicles get stoned and burnt while the elected officials sit safe and tight in their air-conditioned offices. We are bearing the brunt of this.”
This frustration was echoed by Francois Wilkin, president of Free State Agriculture (FSA) during an Afrikaans radio interview.
“This has been very stressful,” he said, “The protests have been going on in Hoopstad for a few weeks, but now it seems they have spread to other towns. And in each case, the residents are setting fire to things. So, with the strong winds and dry conditions, there are a number of veld fires. And the residents have all declared that they are going to make their towns ungovernable. They don’t seem to realise that they are harming their neighbours.”
“We have been working with Agri SA, along with police and the local government. We feel that there might be a willingness to solve this situation, but we still have misgivings. For instance, the local police chief agrees that they need to step up their vigilance, but we know that some police are involved in crime and stock theft. We know that some police are protecting the thieves. And just last week, our MEC for Agriculture said on the radio that white farmers were murdering their workers. Without a shred of evidence. And when you add to that, this last week in Senekal the EFF were encouraging their members to burn farms, this all makes us very worried.”*
The SA Agri Initiative (Saai), an organisation that represents the interests of family farmers, is not optimistic about long-term help for the farmers affected by this week’s blazes.
“We are hoping to pressurise the government into providing disaster relief, but we are not optimistic,” said chairperson Theo de Jager. “The government has a poor recent track record of discrimination, fraud and nepotism in terms of disaster relief. So we have committed to working together with as many network partners as possible to organise farmer-to-farmer assistance and to support families to help them stay on their farms.”
That appears to sum up the prevailing attitude among Afrikaans farmers, an attitude that has been hardening over the last several years: ‘We are on our own, in a hostile country, where we are blamed for government collapse and largely ignored by those in power. And while we try to continue to provide food security to the people of South Africa, we do so in the face of murder, theft, government neglect, criminal collusion and racial discrimination.’
The most recent fires are now largely contained, the damage is in the process of being assessed, and the provincial government is debating whether to declare the three provinces a disaster area or not (a crucial decision because it allows emergency funding to be unlocked).
Wilkin has confirmed that FSA will release R100 000 for emergency stock food, and has praised the response from private individuals, local government (especially the Working On Fire teams), and other agricultural agencies and sympathisers, who have donated money and goods.
None of this is helping to reassure the farmers that they are not facing a far more existential threat. The disquiet among the those feeding the nation remains.
“This incident has shown us, once again, how vulnerable we are,” says Wilkin. “On the one hand the government tells us that we, the farmers, are vital for food security. But on the other hand there is no real action against farm murders. The EFF openly threatens us and nothing is done. The MEC goes on radio and accuses white farmers of murdering their workers. Some police work hand-in-hand with stock thieves and criminal syndicates. Protestors target us, the farmers, when they are fed up with their own government.”
“I don’t see any solution to this,” he says despondently. “As long as there is populism and reckless politicking, and as long as the government shows no inclination to govern this country responsibly, and as long as there is no political will to deal decisively with corruption, populism, maladministration and crime, this situation will only get worse.”
“We are losing hope,” said another farmer as he surveyed the eerie burnt lands surrounding his house.
“We seem to be fighting for survival on every front: the weather, the government, our own people, the criminals. Sometimes you just want to give up.”
Neither the EFF spokesman or the MEC for Agriculture’s spokesman were available to confirm or deny the allegations.
Edited by Mark D Young