Kate Wilkinson ANALYSIS: Why calculating a farm murder rate in South Africa is near impossible

In a parliamentary debate, two different rates for the number of people murdered on farms in South Africa were mentioned. But experts say that it’s almost impossible to accurately calculate such a figure.

Note: In October 2017, AfriForum released a commercial farm murder rate of 156 per 100,000. It was calculated using the same flawed methodology outlined below.  

In a recent debate in South Africa’s parliament, two different farm murder rates were shared.

“The farm murder rate is 133 per 100,000,” Freedom Front Plus member of parliament, Pieter Groenewald, told fellow parliamentarians.

But 45 minutes later, the African Christian Democratic Party’s Steve Swart cited a lower figure.

“Whilst we have an unacceptably high murder rate in this nation of 34 people per 100,000, for farmers the figure is 97 per 100,000. Almost 3 times the average,” claimed Swart.

Is it possible to calculate an accurate farm murder rate? We looked into it.

Rate ‘indication’ rather than scientific

Both Groenewald and Swart told Africa Check that Johan Burger, a senior research consultant in the governance, crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies, was the source of their claims.

Africa Check asked Burger how he calculated the figures.

“This was never meant to be a scientifically accurate fact, only an estimate to show how serious the situation is,” Burger said. “The size of the numbers involved also makes this type of calculation at best an indication rather than a scientifically acceptable ratio.”

This sentiment was echoed by Gareth Newham, head of the crime and justice programme at the Institute for Security Studies.

“I do not really know how one could get an accurate estimate of the murder and attack rate on farms given the complexities involved,” Newham told Africa Check.

49 people murdered in 2015/16

In order to calculate a farm murder rate you need two numbers: the number of people who were murdered in farm attacks and the number of people who work on, live on or visit farms and smallholdings.

Victims of farm murders are not always farmers. The police’s definition of what counts as a farm murder is very broad and includes people “residing on, working on or visiting farms and smallholdings”.

The South African police reported that 49 people were murdered in farm attacks in 2015/16. (Note: At the time of publishing statistics for 2016/17 were only available for the first nine months of the reporting year. During that time 46 people were murdered on farms or smallholdings. The final figure was 74.)

The police’s head of corporate communication and liaison, major-general Sally de Beer told Africa Check that a breakdown of the status of the victims – whether they are farmers, workers, family members or visitors – was not available, as it is not analysed by the police.

Farm murders may be underestimated

A further complication is that farm murder statistics may be inaccurate.

“It is likely that many of the figures for farm attacks and murders on farms collected by organised agriculture, or the police for that matter, would not contain all the attacks or murders of non-farmers,” Newham told Africa Check.

Part of the reason is that the South African Police Service has no crime category called “farm attack” or “farm murder”, De Beer told Africa Check.

“The statistics, therefore, cannot be generated from the crime administration system. Head office depends on the police stations to report incidents meeting the definition for inclusion on a separate, stand-alone database.”

Because of this the police’s “database is not primarily intended as a source of statistics, but as an operational tool,” De Beer said. It is also a “live system”, which means that the statistics may change when new information becomes available.  (Note: See our factsheet for a breakdown of farm attack statistics and definitions.)

Affected population difficult to estimate

Murders are only meant to be recorded, according to the definition, on farms and smallholdings where agriculture occurs. Smallholdings where there are no agricultural activities – or ones that are mainly residential – are not supposed to be included.

“This means that the people who are murdered could be a farmer or their families but also farm workers and visitors,” Chris de Kock, former police crime information analysis centre and crime analyst, told Africa Check.

An accurate estimate of this very broadly defined group of people is what is needed to calculate the farm murder rate.

2007 census only of commercial farms

Previously, Burger used Statistics South Africa’s 2007 census of commercial agriculture’s estimate of 32,375 full-time farmers to indicate the murder rate of farmers.

This was how he calculated that there were 133 farm murders per 100,000 farmers, using the Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa’s estimate of 39 farmers murdered in 2012. Chris van Zyl, the union’s assistant general, told Africa Check that the recorded murders included farmers on non-commercial farms and agricultural smallholdings. Burger excluded family members, workers and visitors from the calculation.

However, the 2007 figure of 32,375 full-time farmers is not appropriate to use, as the survey was only conducted on commercial farms registered to pay value-added tax (VAT).

Farmers on small holdings, non-commercial farms or farms with a turnover of less than R300,000 at the time were not recorded in the census.

The survey also estimated that there were an additional 10,272 family members involved in farming activities, 4,923 owners in partnership directly involved in farming activities and 770,933 paid employees. Including the full-time farmers, this added up to 818,503.

If this farming population is used, the farm murder rate for 2015/16 would be 5.6 murders per 100,000 people living and/or working on farms registered to pay value-added tax. However, the total population of people living on farms and smallholdings, which do not pay value-added tax, will be larger.

11 million people ‘involved in agriculture’

Based on the police’s definition in their Rural Safety Strategy, the population used to calculate the farm murder rate should be people living and working on farms and smallholdings where agriculture and subsistence farming takes place – as well as visitors to these properties.

Statistics South Africa estimated that 2.3 million households were involved in agriculture based on its 2016 community survey, the agency’s chief director of structural industry surveys, Itani Magwaba, told Africa Check. This included subsistence, smallholding and commercial agriculture.

The number of people estimated to live in households involved in agriculture comes in at just over 11 million. However, this figure does not include people who work on a farm but live elsewhere nor those visiting farms.

If this figure is used, the farm murder rate drops to 0.4 murders per 100,000 people who live on agricultural farms and smallholdings in South Africa. (Note: Africa Check is not suggesting that this is the farm murder rate. Rather, this shows how the population used in the calculation can have a significant impact on the final number.)

South Africa’s farm murder rate remains unknown

While questions remain about the accuracy of farm murder statistics and an accurate estimate of the affected population is unavailable, any farm murder rate should be viewed with caution.

“We have no idea how many people there are in total on farms and therefore we cannot calculate a ratio for farm murders in general,” said Burger.

Africa Check has previously published an estimate of South Africa’s farm murder rate in a 2013 blog piece. Given what we have established here, we have removed the reference from the original piece.


Additional reading

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Comment on this report

Comments 15
  1. By Wessel van Rensburg

    This article seems to to be the reason the word sophistry was invented. You say “This was how he calculated that there were 133 farm murders per 100,000 farmers, using the Transvaal Agricultural Union of South Africa’s estimate of 39 farmers murdered in 2012. Burger excluded family members, workers and visitors from the calculation.

    However, the 2007 figure of 32,375 full-time farmers is not appropriate to use, as the survey was only conducted on commercial farms registered to pay value-added tax (VAT).”

    Instead of saying we can’t say anything about farm murders we can then at least say the following:

    *There are 133 murders of farmers per 100,000 farmers on commercial farms.*

    Unless of course the data that says that 39 farmers murdered on these farms in 2012 is wrong. That may well be the case, but you did not make that point.

    Reply Report comment
  2. By Africa Check

    The Transvaal Agricultural Union told us that the murders of farmers they record are not all commercial farmers. They will include farmers on non-commercial farms and agricultural smallholdings. The 2007 figure of 32,375 full-time (commercial) farmers is therefore not appropriate to use because it excludes farmers not registered for VAT. This was confirmed by Johan Burger. We will make this clearer in the piece. Our factsheet explains the statistics and definitions.

    Reply Report comment
    • By Hanru Niemand

      But really, how difficult is it to check 39 cases? If for instance, you do some research and you find that out of the 39 murders, 27 were commercial farmers, then it is possible to say what the rate for commercual farmers is. I feel you gave up a little early here. You could do more to prove or disprove the statements in question.

      Reply Report comment
      • By Africa Check

        Thanks for your comment and suggestion. Our standard approach is to work with available research and data. We don’t typically conduct research of our own. In this case, what you suggest would tell us about the situation 10 years ago. It would be insightful but not a reflection of the current situation. However, we are exploring if is possible to conduct our own research on more recent estimates. We busy working on it.

        Reply Report comment
        • By JBjerkeli

          This article is at best academic nitpicking. I understand that these numbers have uncertainty, like numbers have in any other survey. That’s why you calculate a mean as I understand Johan Burger originally did, and then you set a low and a high interval typically at 95% confidence interval. Even if this interval is set at a high number, Burger’s original thesis stand. He has to be off the mean number by several hundred percent for his findings to be irrelevant.

          There are well established methods for presenting data with uncertainty. And there are several sources that places the number of commercial farmers in the low 30.000 region including the numbers from TAU SA at aprox 34.000, so you can’t claim you don’t know.

          You should review your fact finding methodology, which is at best flawed.

          Reply Report comment
  3. By Mike Schussler

    StatsSA has full agriculture survey which includes all farming small and commercial and tribal. Check on their website – They released earlier this year on the same day as new income and expenditure survey was announced. I was there so were some farming organisations and others.

    Perhaps that would help.

    Reply Report comment
  4. By Willie Clack

    I am doing research on the matter as well. You may feel free to get in touch. Currently busy with a paper “The Statistical Myths of Violent Rural Crimes in South Africa” that I want to present at the Crimsa conference

    Reply Report comment
  5. By Pieter Engelbrecht

    As far as I am concerned TLUSA has a good definition of the “farms” and the associated data collected in terms of incidents on these farms. The basic descriptive statistics of these incidents are quite clear (TLUSA). What I find lacking is that the moment people start to do relative calculations that they do not have the correct data to do these calculations i.e. how many farms ( according to TLUSA) are there or how many people live on the farm or???. The second major issue is that, according to all the studies farm attacks are well planned, but I’ve not seen that the head planner and information processor caught.

    Reply Report comment
  6. By Bertus Steyn

    Being from South Africa I have made it a side project to watch how the locals in other countries live and how the businesses operate to develop a sense for what the real crime situation is in that specific town or area. A situation that even differs from one to the other end of the same town. So, for example, in the USA, if you fill up with gas (petrol) at a self serve station and you have to prepay at the attendant , or leave your credit card with him/her after it has been checked, there is a likelihood that there have been a significant number of ‘drive aways’ and that this gas station is located in a more sketchy area compared to a few miles away where you can fill up using your credit card at the pump. I have also been to towns where there are clearly security measures in place but the locals don’t use that, indicating that there was a time when crime was a problem, but that has improved notably. Some cities in Croatia are a point in case. Therefore, you don’t need statistics to tell you what is going on, just look at how the locals live

    I grew up in a small holding just outside of Pretoria during the 60s and 70s. Safety was never a concern. No trelli doors , no alarm systems, car keys were left in the ignition. Fences were there to keep the cattle from roaming around. On a starry summer night the kids would make their beds on the patio (stoep) under the stars an the only worry was to keep the mosquitos at bay. I had 2 uncles that were farmers and on a couple occasions I would visit my uncles on the farm and stay there for weeks during the school holidays. The most scary thing, that I have never seen in Pretoria, was a Koringkriek. Farm murders were unheard of, at least as a kid. Maybe there were but it was so far in in between that it did not affect the way the farmers lived.

    Non of the above would apply to the way the farmers are forced to live in 2017 South Africa. You don’t need to manipulate yearly statistics to tell you there is a huge problem with farm murders. We have seen 4 farm murders in separate incidents over roughly two days around the time of the Black Monday protest. This while the media was searching old archives to find some whitey in khaki displaying the of SA flag in an attempt to distract the attention from the real problem. Denial of a problem will net get you anywhere, neither would selectively manipulating the statistics with the goal to show that there is no problem .

    Reply Report comment
  7. By Robert

    The deaths of farmers in SA may well be underestimated but certainly not overestimated. I’ve received info from the Suidlanders group where the name, address, time of violent incident and manner of death of victim is recorded. How can this ever be mistrusted. Obviously if you try to distinguish between commercial farmers and other farmers there may be a discrepancy. But what would be the point of the distinction. This regime has allowed this unabated crime for too long, in fact they have even asserted at times that violent farm-murder reports are untrue!

    Reply Report comment
  8. By Nasdaq7

    So 73 white farmers murdered a year out of a potential of 17,000 white farmers. What’s the murder rate of white farmers?

    73 / 17,000

    = 0.429%

    or 429 out of 100,000.

    429 / 100,000 = = 0.429%

    What’s the murder rate of the entire population?

    The worst in the world is El Salvador 108 / 100,000.

    Reply Report comment
  9. By indiaskapie

    But that’s exactly where your argument is flawed. It’s not 73 WHITE FARMERS. It’s 73 MURDERS on farms. i.e farm workers and visitors and residents who are black, Indian, Coloured, Chinese or whatever INCLUDED. And this is 73 out of all the people who live on and visit farms in one year. So even if you have 32,000 farms registered, you at least have the farmer’s wives/partners, children, grandchildren, friends, family, workers, worker’s families, worker’s friends etc. who also live on or visit the farms. So that means conservatively, at least 5 X 32,000 people. That’s a conservative estimate of 73/160,000. That is only a rate of 0.00045625 or 0.45625/100,00. So yeah.

    Reply Report comment
  10. By Nico H

    Its not impossible to get the real figures, if the police did their work, there should be a report and any judge should have access to these figures, why even question this?? that in itself is a concern… if they don’t have the figures then a flag should be raised with that police department and be investigated as to their performing of duties. That simple.

    Reply Report comment

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