Helen Zille. Picture: Gallo Images/Jaco Marais
Helen Zille. Picture: Gallo Images/Jaco Marais

On May 1 2012, I was walking between 6th and 8th avenues in New York, on my way to a meeting at The New York Times. Some hard rain had left the humidity at 88%, and everything felt steamy and uncertain.

Standing outside one of those typical neighbourhood greengrocers that dot the city, dressed in a frayed coat with the blackness bleached out of it, in scuffed high heels and layers of frothy skirts and carrying a handbag heavy with tired gold embroidery, was an old woman shouting imprecations at passersby.

As I shuffled past, she said to me, angrily: "I’m not a Jewish woman! I’m a human being."

For some reason, this encounter has haunted me. I’ve got no idea what trail of sadness and toil led her to this dirty sidewalk, or why she felt the need to deny one identity and assert another, but I thought of her again this week when I read about the DA’s new(ish) self-definition as "a liberal party committed to nonracialism, a market economy, and a capable state".

I thought about her, not because the DA is the political party equivalent of a disturbed person standing on a street corner shouting "the end is nigh"— though sometimes it does fit that description — but because one of the resolutions the party adopted at its recent elective congress is, according to The Citizen, "to push for the government to declare farm murders a hate crime and priority crime with harsher sentences if prosecutors prove the intent was hatred, based on the victim’s identity as a farmer".

The proposal, submitted by MP Dianne Kohler Barnard, received 91.38% approval. The question that wasn’t addressed, though, is what is an "identity as a farmer"?

Kohler Barnard, it must be said, is not the ideal person to answer this question. The hard-tweeting MP was the subject of a recent Africa Check debunking, when her claim that SA is down "from 120,000 commercial farmers ... to 38,000", due to "the recent scourge of farm attacks and murders of farmers and farmworkers", was found to be "misleading".

According to Africa Check, her "claim cites [an] unsubstantiated 1994 figure and misrepresents official data". In effect, where Stats SA’s 2017 census of commercial agriculture referred to "farming units", Kohler Barnard chose to understand this to mean "farmers", and "as experts have explained, the census does not [actually] contain data on the number of farmers".

It’s an interesting aperçu. Why does the DA need us to believe there is such a thing as an "identity as a farmer", as opposed to it being a job description, and at the same time insist that it is concerned about all murders that occur on farms?

How come the DA claims it can’t see race, but if it squints a little, it can easily make out farmers from the general mass of victims of violence in SA? And how does the DA intend to define "farmer"?

One assumes that the party of Helen Zille, that Smiter of Wokeness, isn’t going to let people self-identify.

In her two-minute presentation, Kohler Barnard said: "The [police] plan has failed and farmers, black and white, their wives, children and parents are four times more likely to be killed than the average South African." She also said that "in the last 10 years, 612 farmers and farmworkers have been murdered and 2,818 have been attacked, maimed, raped, crippled or blinded".

But for some reason — and I think we all know what that is — the DA insists that murdering a farmworker and murdering a farmer are different things, with the latter also capable of being a hate crime. But, wait: if a black farmer is killed, is that a hate crime? Or is it only white farmers? What, to the DA, is an "identity as a farmer"?

This is not to suggest that the murder of a farmer can’t be a hate crime, or that there aren’t reasons for different levels of violence inflicted because of a victim’s gender, race or economic standing. What I’m interested in is why the Freedom Front Minus — that party formerly known as the DA — needs to be able, in this particular instance, to signal to a part of its constituency that it can, in fact, see race?

I imagine a local version of my New York encounter, where the person is muttering: "I’m not a farmer! I’m a human being."

The woman I walked past in 2012 was signalling, perhaps, that the identity she’d been assigned by society, among other instruments, singled her out for treatment outside of the general definition of humanity, and perhaps to someone else’s benefit.

In the same way, the DA’s flirtation with the political trope of the white farmer as a particular type of victim, no matter to what degree that trope is justified or not, is yet another indication of the aporia at the heart of its own identity. A party that wants to be seen as adopting nonracialism, "the rejection of race as a way to categorise and treat people", as it said in September, is risking, again, what its newly crowned leader described as "looking for populist shortcuts".

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