Written by: Gabriel Crouse
Farm attacks are common in SA; one happens every day. What stands out about the case of Carl Gathmann of Kranskop farm in KZN is that, since the town of Coligny was scorched and looted, it is hard to recall an assault on white farming sympathizers who so obviously had it coming.
Made out to be a white racist tyrant, the worst allegation is that Gathmann desecrates graves, sacred sites of ancestor worship. This portrait first appeared before the attack on the SABC, a report that vilified Gathmann as a de facto racist.
What followed was a petrol bomb attack on the home of Gathmann’s farm manager, Johan Joubert. The attack started at 7pm. 30 fires were set across three properties until 2pm the next day. Gathmann estimates 6 ha of timberland was destroyed with damage valued at over R600 000.
There were a series of violent standoffs. Unsurprisingly, those in the gravest danger were unarmed farm workers doing the same thing as the neighbouring farmers – putting out fires, moving through the night in windowless tractors. One reports rocks whizzing by his face. Another says an attacker managed to get onto the vehicle armed with a knife. The driver managed to shirk the attack, but not before being told he was a race traitor. None of the farm workers were prepared to have their names put on record, but I got four separate reports of death threats on those who side with Gathmann.
Were any graves actually touched? Speaking to Gathmann’s staff, I was told they understood that Gathmann wanted no graves disturbed, so the excavator operator went with a colleague whose grandmother is buried on this site to make sure he steered clear. This colleague was not at the site on the second day, so there is a dispute. Did the excavator push past the mark his colleague set for him, did she misplace the mark in the first place, or have no actual graves been touched?
The staff and I went to visit the site together. There seemed to be seven graves, barely visible through the thorn-bush and grass, which the excavator clearly left untouched. (Likewise, another grave 50 metres away demarcated by glass bottles). Then there was a slight pit with a cavity exposed in the earth. Was there a corpse beneath? The resident expert couldn’t be sure, not having visited the site since her grandmother was buried on this spot a decade ago. The cavity might be from a grave, or from an uprooted stink-bug tree, or the digging of wild animals. All present agreed it possible no grave was touched.
This is beyond dispute: the arsonists did not approach these staff to say “come look, here is where you made your mistake”, which is what all the staff wish to happen if a mistake was in fact made. No attempt at ritual cleansing has been made to right the spiritual wrong, if such a wrong did in fact take place. No name is offered for the dead supposedly disturbed.
Gathmann says: “I’ll stake anything if you go dig there you won’t find bones.” Gathmann is so confident that no grave has been disturbed that he has demanded a police forensic investigation into the site in question, which is under way. Furthermore, I spoke to a resident who claims to know the names of all those buried in the area. There are eight names, and eight graves, all in all, still stand.
So why the fuss? Gathmann cannot be the bully he is made out to be, someone who “forcibly removes” tenants by “threatening” their “lives”. He showed me title deed to 7.6 ha of land he bought for all his staff, with subplots allocated big enough to farm. His staff preferred to move onto tribal land nearby, Gathmann providing an additional R2 500 to each household who wished to make this move.
Two families remain on his land – the most vulnerable, all women, some with children. If their lives were threatened or the removals were forced they would surely be the first to go, especially considering that one of these women ‘chirps’ Gathmann regularly in public. In addition, Gathmann has been delivering 6 000 litres of water from his borehole every Friday for years to a local school. His staff and neighbours describe him in admirable terms.
Gathmann asserts two causes for the attack, which should properly be considered attempted murder.
First, on the Thursday before the burning, he called in a qualified surveyor to resolve a boundary dispute with neighbours led by community leader Skhumbuzo Zondi, Gathmann’s most vocal critic. The surveyor was chased away with threats of violence. There is strong evidence that the community have been building beyond the legal extent of their land.
Hearing that excavation was going on near gravesites at the same time was conceivably an opportunity not to be missed as a distraction from their own infraction, whether any dead were actually disturbed or not.
Second, Gathmann says the practical aim is to take his land. He is certainly not wrong there. Ward Councillor Mbangiseni Yengwa said: “If the government is serious about the expropriation of land without compensation, this is the first farm that should be expropriated in KZN”. The local chief calls this “D-Day”.
Of the half-dozen staff I spoke to, none think they will keep their jobs if Gathmann is disposed. So they walk around with targets on their backs, and are told “ngizokubululala” (I will kill you) if you stand by the white man. Gathmann employs 80 people and uses a black-owned contractor that employs a further 60 people for the timber side of his business.
Gathmann thinks none of this would happen if president Ramaphosa was not rhetorically denouncing all white farmers as perpetrators of “original sin”.
“I’ve told my family; we just need to physically survive for three years. Before the election. During the election. After the election. Then we can breathe again”.
Author: Gabriel Crouse is a writer commissioned by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.