ISS Seminar Report: War of the Flea: considering a provocative documentary on farm murders in South Africa


  • Mr Rian van der Walt, producer of the documentary War of the flea, which deals with farm murders in South Africa.
  • Dr Johan Burger, Senior Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme (CJP) at the ISS and Professor Extraordinaire, Dept. of Police Practice, UNISA.
  • Mr Prince Mashele, Executive Director, Centre for Politics and Research, Pretoria.


  • Mr Gareth Newham, Head of CJP, ISS.

The chair, Gareth Newham, opened the seminar by explaining why the ISS was hosting an event that looked at this highly controversial and emotive topic. He stated that since 2007, the South African Police Service (SAPS) had stopped presenting official statistics on the number of farm attacks and related murders. It was likely that the government had stopped seeing these attacks as a priority as there had been a 40% decrease in the number of attacks between 2001 and 2007. However, there had been a 20% increase in 2007 compared to 2006 and attacks on this relatively small and highly organised group of people continued. By refusing to take the concerns of commercial farmers seriously, the government allowed conspiracy theories to develop. 

Recently the Institute for Race Relations claimed that commercial farmers were twice as likely to be murdered than the average South African. The last agricultural census conducted in 2007 by Statistics SA found that there were only in the region of 32 500 commercial farmers in the country, with around 32 of these farmers being murdered in 2011/12. Consequently, there are people who are trying to liken these attacks to the genocide of white Afrikaners. While there is no evidence to support such claims, the refusal to release official statistics and engage constructively with this problem plays into the very real concerns of this group and undermines nation building and social cohesion. Newham further indicated that farm murders posed a threat to food security and to the rural economy given that farms are often left unproductive after such attacks. It is therefore important for the government to take this issue seriously as it ultimately affects everyone in South Africa.

The recently made documentary titled War of the Flea engages with the various dimensions of farm attacks in contemporary South Africa and explores the causes and consequences of this crime at both an individual and political level. It was therefore an appropriate medium to provoke discussion about the nature of this crime and what could be done about it.

Rian van der Walt, the producer of War of the Flea, gave a synopsis of the process that he went through in making the documentary, noting that filmmakers often have their own ‘baggage’ when making films. Having not lived on a farm he tried to approach this topic as a ‘blank slate’ in conceptualising and conducting research for the project. Van der Walt added that he wanted the documentary to present the facts and that he also tried to ensure that the project did not promote racial stereotypes, even though some 90% of large-scale commercial farmers engaged in food production are Afrikaners, who formed part of the dominant, oppressive white class during apartheid. The documentary focused on three case studies of farm murders that took place in 2012. It contained very little graphic footage and used interviews with friends and relatives of murdered farmers, a psychologist, political analysts and crime experts to explore the dimensions of this issue in current South Africa.

After the documentary was screened, the panel gave their initial views of the film and their thoughts on the topic. Dr Johan Burger noted that it was important for the public to understand that most farm murders were criminal acts committed with a material motive behind them. In this case farmers were likely to be robbed and subsequently murdered by their farm workers or ex-farm workers. Burger dismissed notions that there was a systematic (genocidal) attempt to exterminate white farmers. He had personally investigated many cases while he headed the SAPS task team on rural security and found no evidence that there was anything other than criminality involved. He also highlighted that the focus on the commercial farmers detracted attention from the many farm workers and other people who are murdered and injured during these attacks. Burger argued that the decision by former President Thabo Mbeki to disband the commando system without consultation or proper planning undermined the security of commercial farmers and contributed to the problem. The police were ill equipped to deal with the security challenge in these locations and farmers presented a vulnerable target to criminals with links to the rural areas. He further noted that the police still had to fully implement the rural safety plan and farmers had to rely on themselves to secure their property, families and workers.

Prince Mashele noted that the documentary only told part of the story and he posited that to understand the whole story it was critical to ask very uncomfortable questions about the conditions confronting black farm workers and the rural poor that contributed to these attacks. Mashele noted that similar to cases in the mining sector, the black farm worker was simply a tool in a system of production, which in many cases dehumanised the working class. Many lived in extremely poor conditions, lacking access to basic amenities such as health services and decent accommodation. They also lacked the opportunity to escape from these conditions, given the low salaries. To these people, even farmers who were struggling financially seemed relatively wealthy. He also argued that the ANC should also be blamed for not publicly censuring the singing of struggle songs such as ‘Kill the Boer’, which fuelled an already tense social landscape. Defending such struggle songs flew in the face of the Freedom Charter, which called for a non-racial South Africa that belonged to everyone who lived in it. In addition, Mashele argued that the failure of the ANC to uplift the majority of South Africans, including farm workers, from poverty through the provision of accessible and adequate education meant that the majority black population would be left behind in terms of socio-economic empowerment. Mashele also indicated that the audience should be aware of the fact that black people were more likely to be murdered in South Africa than any other racial group, so the farm murders should be seen in context. Nevertheless, he argued that commercial farmers were crucial to for food security in the country and everything should be done to protect this valuable asset.



This seminar is funded by the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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