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

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.


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