Jonny Steinberg on farm murders

The meaning of this violence has never been clear. On the one hand, the motives for the vast majority of the attacks appears to be robbery; the perpetrators flee the scene of the crime with guns, cars and money. And yet, so many attacks are accompanied by seemingly gratuitous violence, the violence itself performed with such ceremony and drama, that the infliction of painful death appears to be the primary motive. ‘Farm murders’, as South Africans have come to call them, occupy a strange and ambiguous space; they tamper with the boundary between acquisitive crime and racial hatred.

Jonny Steinberg. Midlands: A Very South African Murder.

This quote came out of my latest notebook. I read Midlands earlier this year on a Kindle – which explains the absence of a page number. Steinberg writes about a farm murder in the Midlands of KwaZulu Natal and the political, historical and racial factors at work in the community.

I spent my early years growing up in Weenen, the second oldest European settlement in KwaZulu Natal. The town was established two months after the Weenen Massacre, on 17 February 1838, when Chief Dingane sent impis to kill the remaining Voortrekkers following Piet Retief’s murder. The attack left 41 men, 56 women and 185 children dead. Apart from the Voortrekkers 252 Khoikhoi and Basuto people, who accompanied the Voortrekkers, were killed. The town’s name, Weenen, is dutch for ‘weeping’.

This is a picture of my sister and me in our garden in Weenen. I’m at the back and you can see the KwaZulu Natal Midlands stretching out behind me.

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