Are white farmers deliberately being targeted for assassination by black former guerrillas frustrated by the slow pace of land reform in the post-apartheid era? Or are those murders simply part of the overall wave of violent crime in South Africa?
In recent months, the mainly white South African Agricultural Union has successfully pushed President Nelson Mandela to launch a special investigation into the murders of white farmers. The union claims that, after policemen, their members are the professional group at highest risk. On average, 116 farmers were killed in South Africa annually between 1994 and 1997, 142 in 1997 alone. Murder is widespread throughout the country - about 65 murders a day in 1997.
Many white farmers say they are being targeted by "Mau Mau"-type forces bent on scaring whites off the land. (In colonial Kenya in the 1950s, black "Mau Mau" rebels murdered 100 white farmers in hopes of persuading all whites to leave the country.)
Police have yet to find evidence of the farmers' claim that an antiwhite campaign of terror has been launched by former black revolutionaries, who fought to overthrow the apartheid regime.
In December, the newspaper Business Day quoted President Mandela as saying he "would not be surprised" if veterans were behind the attacks; other African National Congress members speculate that farmers are being murdered by abused black farm workers. Senior police officials say robbery is usually the motive in farm murders.
Such is the clout of the white farmers' lobby in South Africa, where commercial agriculture is an economic mainstay, that in late 1997 Mandela readily agreed to the union's demand that he order a top-level investigation into the murders. Mandela has since received a confidential intelligence report indicating there is no politically motivated guerrilla movement coordinating the murders. It also notes that more blacks than whites died in farm attacks in 1996. Meanwhile, no presidential task force was named to find out who murdered 11 black farmers in early January near a South African border post with Lesotho. The assailants may have been a cross-border rustling gang, but that has not been proved.