CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Are farmers part of the group that can be killed but never sacrificed?
Donald Trump is the icon of 21st-century vacuity, and I am no fan. But give the devil his due, he is a kind of vacuum cleaner: he has the ability to spot a vacuum and exploit it. He saw one in diplomacy towards North Korea and cleaned it up. Likewise with the export of US jobs and, in August, he blasted the world with his empty-headed responses to crime in SA.
There is no genocide being carried out against farmers in SA, that much we know. But there is something extremely perverse about a fair fraction of a key economic sector being killed off, with everyone from the government to Afrikaner liberals just shrugging and saying it’s normal, crime as usual.
A diplomat once told me there was only one country he hated more to be posted to than SA, and that was Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians. The excessive criminal violence in SA he regarded as extraordinary, but even worse for him was the apparent unwillingness of the ANC government to assert itself against criminals. "It doesn’t want to govern," he said.
Another perversity are the arguments frequently offered that race is no factor. How many times must we still hear that 95% of farm murders are not racial?
If we take one of the many sets of figures being bandied about, that "only" 1,800 farm murders were committed in the past two decades, that would mean about 90 racially motivated murders over the period — four or five every year. I don’t recall any brouhaha over those numbers by SA’s many race watchdogs.
But the 95% figure, regularly trotted out by ANC officials, is a thumb suck. Which makes it worse in another sense. The real number doesn’t matter, what does is that it reveals a mind-set that needs to be thought through: that because certain deaths are a fraction of a larger whole, we can relax or look the other way.
This mind-set extends outside the ANC, because the commentariat seems easily plied by "revelations" about the anger over farm murders emanating from nut cases such as the Suiderlanders who travelled to the US with their genocide story and bent Trump’s ear. Anger, or even just complaints about the murder of citizens, has become code for racism, for siding with right-wing troglodytes such as AfriForum.
How did this happen?
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben built a large part of his political thinking on an ancient Roman legal rule that held that it is acceptable to kill people who cannot be sacrificed. Through the ages many attempts were made by scholars to try to understand what this enigmatic phrase meant. Agamben situated it in his ideas over the state of exception (or emergency in our parlance) and the sovereignty of the state. In ancient times enemies of the state were regarded as worthy of sacrifice under certain conditions — they could be ritually crucified, or burnt. But there was a class of crimes and people over which the sovereign did not have to break his or her head because ordinary citizens could take the law into their own hands.
In modern times the rituals have long fallen away, but traces are still present in court proceedings and at events such as commissions of inquiry. Key to this, says Agamben, is the homo sacer — the sacred man — whose real or imagined sacrifice allays the spirits and conscience. One might surmise that under the ANC government the sacred man is the poor black man. While the government and its policies exist for his sake, when the chips are down he can be sacrificed.
And so many black people were sacrificed at Marikana, still more in the Life Esidimeni disaster. Ritualistic investigations were established, but the perceived culprits continue in their positions, some in the highest offices of the land.
And so many black people were sacrificed at Marikana, still more in the Life Esidimeni disaster. Ritualistic investigations were established, but the perceived culprits continue in their positions, some in the highest offices of the land. At least inquiries were held, and there was a little bit of public spectacle, but there are whole classes of people who are not worth such expenditure.
And so you won’t see investigations into the Cape Flats gangster hell, or crimes against Muslim women or Mozambican refugees. Or victims of farm murders. These are the people for whom the government does not want to govern.
It is not that one statistical group is privileged over another; it is that good government means that such demographics are mirrored in the rationale for new institutions. Specialised crimes need specialised policing. An interdepartmental force is required to deal with the rape epidemic, and another to deal with farm security.
It was correct of the government to disband the commando system in 2003, even if by then many of its members were black, because its roots were in the land-grab wars of the 19th century. But a new system needs to replace it.
An Agambien logic that the torture of crime victims is a statement that the perpetrators are substituting themselves for the government can be advanced in SA because torture is a ritualistic thing. In this strange, perverted way, they may be in cahoots with the farmers: look, they say, these are important people we are killing.
And the farmers are important. While everyone in SA is equal before the law, economically any farmer is worth far more than a resident of a white squatter camp. If you still feel you shouldn’t care because the farmers’ forefathers stole the land, ask yourself: where does the governing elite draw the line between those who can be sacrificed and those who can be killed with impunity?
On a visit to SA, Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka was outspoken about the failure of talks between Inkatha and the ANC in which he was involved in the 1990s. Thabo Mbeki, he said, refused to call off the violence, saying "they are killing our people".
"Our people" referred to ANC cadres. Is that what President Cyril Ramaphosa, who so often uses those words, also means? And EFF leader Julius Malema, whose party seems to shed its dissidents almost as quickly as its loyalties? Certain coloured anti-racism activists talk of "people of colour" to try to level SA’s group hierarchies — an appellation scorned by many proudly black people. So whose black person is going to be the blackest of them all?
The worst users of Agamben’s legal divisions were the Nazis. Hitler sacrificed his youth in the snows of Russia and the furnaces of the Sahara desert. His relegation of Jews, gypsies, communists and gay people to the ranks of those to be killed without having to be sacrificed reached into the millions. It does not seem remotely possible that this can happen in SA’s liberal democracy, but the logic exists here.
• Pienaar is a journalist and author. His next novel, Die Generaal (The General), is out in October.