Thousands converged on the small town of Senekal on Friday 16 October, while the nation watched. Then almost everyone left. They say hindsight is 20-20 vision – but are figureheads looking for lessons in the rearview mirror, or simply basking in their own reflection?

On the evening of Thursday 15 October, it looked as if Senekal might be the crucible for a minor ‘civil war’. By noon the next day, the Daily Friend was able to report ‘so far so good’; no blood was shed on Senekal’s streets that day.

The weekend papers were full of riveting tales from Senekal, and scenes of public contest will remain topics for debate for a while to come. Kick up enough dust, however, and the big picture can get lost.

The prospect of a few red berets and khakis on the fringes spitting in one another’s faces was daunting, but, cruising down the R70 to Senekal in anticipation of the protests, I found that the most terrifying thing was this.

On Sunday 11 October, Rapport revealed that a dossier – complete with names, ID numbers, case numbers, vehicle registration numbers, supporting evidence and witnesses – purported to show that a stock theft syndicate was taking over millions of hectares in the Free State. With operations stretching from Senekal through Paul Roux, Bethlehem to Kestell on the N5, and down through Clarens and Fouriesberg in the south, the syndicate appears to have captured a vast tract of the Free State, just north of Lesotho, in its net.

Allegations suggest that more than 1 200 stock units were stolen (and never recovered) in the winter of 2019 alone. The loss would be eight figures in rands, though exactly how much is not yet clear. Put another way, that could be around one million kilograms of cloven-hoofed animal. Vanished.

Rapport notes – and I have independently confirmed with a source close to (private) investigators – that evidence is to hand that prima facie implicates police officers in the syndicate. This is one reason why the murder of Brendin Horner is so outrageous; the stock thieves he caught may have been in cahoots with cops.

On 19 October, in response to a query by the Daily Friend, the Hawks confirmed that police had had access to the dossier outlined above from 23 November 2019.

Colonel Katlego Mogale noted: ‘The Free State Hawks has now received the report and [are] working on the information. Management of the Hawks is assessing how the information was handled.’

Important development

This is an important development, and potentially germane to Horner’s murder. The suspects in custody, Sekola Matlaletsa and Sekwetje Mahlamba, may provide evidence on any co-conspirators.

Forensic evidence indicates that Horner died in a struggle, stabbed several times and ultimately strangled. Blood in his bakkie comes from three different people. Evidence in the second appearance of Matlaletsa and Mahlamba yesterday was that DNA swabs were taken from the two men, but that one did not match samples from the crime scene, and and that the other was botched, weakening the state’s case against these two accused.

But stock thieves on the ground seldom fly without a backup team at home base. Once stolen, hefty beasts need to be either slaughtered and stored anonymously with haste, requiring ready infrastructure, or taken to graze in a pirate enclave. This usually happens within state-owned land occupied by people too loyal and too terrified to expose the syndicate.

Even better, from the criminals’ point of view, is to have key police members within the syndicate who are able to keep attention away from the hot stock hideout.

Until evidence of police complicity in the alleged syndicate is tested, rural areas around Senekal cannot be considered safe from more attacks. Garroting Horner and tying him to a pole appears to have been a conspicuous warning to beware.

The big picture

Without assessing the possible truth of this allegation it is impossible to make sense of anything else that happened in Senekal, because it is impossible to discern what did not happen. No one turned on the police. Why?

For the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the temptation to vilify the police must be great. The party promotes race-based socialism that benefits from violent anarchy and opposes the rule of law. Police are a natural target of its ire.

It could make the case like this: Nearly 60 people are killed in South Africa every day and most crimes go unpunished. The EFF loves to make everything about race so it could easily point out that most murdered South Africans are black, and then claim that police are preferencing white people by arresting Matlaletsa and Mahlamba while so many killers of ‘our people’ go unpunished.

In fact, the EFF did say something like this but they did not add that ‘ground forces’ should therefore ‘attack’ police. They called for ‘discipline’ in the face of police instead.

The most consistent criticism the EFF has directed at police is to call them ‘incapable’, and they therefore argue that Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu came to Senekal to ‘defend state infrastructure’ on the police’s behalf. Shivambu’s tongue must have been deep in his cheek when he said that, since the only damage to public property in Senekal on Friday was done by red berets.

The EFF’s consistent criticism of police was a hypocritical squib. Malema was eager to go and sit next to Police Minister Bheki Cele in court and share jokes like old chums in front of the cameras. Like it or loathe it, better not forget it.

What about those who protest against farm murders? Not only is there the allegation that individual police are involved in a stock theft syndicate that murdered Brendin Horner, there is also a larger argument to be made of ‘systemic’ oppression against farmers today.

Target put on their back

Police enforce the law and the law in South Africa openly discriminates against people on the basis of race. In addition, farmers, but especially white farmers, have a target put on their back by those (like Malema) who call them ‘land thieves’ and those (like Ramaphosa) who do not include them in ‘our people’. Most of all, a target is put on all property owners’ backs by the Expropriation Bill and Parliament’s efforts to shred the Bill of Rights.

All of this legitimises those who think ‘Kill the Boer’ is some kind of moral imperative, which in turn gives targets of this inhumane stigmatisation a grievance. Add the police’s failure to sanction the EFF in particular for its repeated and wanton damage to public property and you see how the argument could be built that police are part of the ‘systemic’ problem.

Moreover, all (non-criminal) Free Staters could join together in condemnation of the police on several more bases, the most obvious being figures in the Victims of Crime Survey by Stats SA showing in 2016 that fewer than one in three Free State residents thought the police would respond within half an hour to an emergency call. 23% said they expected the police to come in over two hours and 4.7% thought the police would never come. More recent data is unavailable because the question stopped being asked.

Nationally, SAPS data show that over half a million South Africans have been murdered in the last 25 years and that there are almost 10 violent public protests per day. In short, Law and Order is a TV show that rich people can stream on their laptops, but not ‘lived experience’ for anyone outside the blue-light brigade in this country.

And so, with all this in mind, I asked people in Senekal if they wanted to ‘attack’ the police. Not one answered in the affirmative. Most could hardly understand the question.

Walking around Senekal’s streets, I heard ‘officer’ and ‘sir’, ‘konstabel’ and ‘malume’ – all terms that convey respect for the police.

There is no doubt that people were unhappy. I heard ‘corruption’, ‘the government’, ‘the ANC’, or ‘arrogant whites’, and various names were called out – but never the police. Everyone wanted more police, and better police, not less.

When the people turn on police

One way to grasp how relevant this is, is to note that before the Senekal protests, two specific precedents for the worst possible scenarios were put on the table. One was Marikana, the other Bophuthatswana. What did they have in common? In both cases, a faction thought the ‘enemy’ was state armed forces, and in both cases blood was shed.

Nor is this kind of massacre consigned to history. In 2020, the #BlackLivesMatter movement called on US police to be ‘abolished’ and stoked chants that ‘foundationally’ corrupt police should all ‘fry like bacon’. Then people died.

South Africa did not fall into the madness of vilifying the police as a whole, so no one had to dodge bullets. None were fired. Maybe this is so simple that hardly anyone bothered to write about it afterwards, who knows.

Going forward

‘You’ve got to count your cattle every day here’. In the past month of travelling around rural South Africa, that is one of the most common lines I’ve heard, from farm workers and farm owners. It is a good idea.

We have lost so much since 2008 that counting our ‘cattle’ or our blessings has become a simpler matter. Leaving Senekal, the first blessing I counted was that everyone respected the police on that day, and on that day the police respected everyone.

I don’t know what most politicians or journalists saw in the rearview mirror when they drove away from Senekal, but I saw two police waving at compatriots who respected law and order. That combination saved the day.

I believe there is a desperate need among most South Africans to work with the police in prosecuting criminals, and for most police to work with us. Senekal showed what happens when it doesn’t work – Horner being murdered – and what happens when it does. There is a simple plan to ensure the latter, and it comes from the IRR.

[Picture: Gabriel Crouse]

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