A Community Shaped By Murder

Farmer’s Weekly - May 2011

The May 14 murder of Lynette Ralfe, wife of fourth generation Natal farmer Nigel Ralfe, has triggered a flurry of security-minded introspection and strategising in the Natal Lowlands, which has the potential to open a less bloody chapter for the region.

71 year old stockman Nigel Ralfe tells a story that chills the blood. When he was seven and living here on Doornkop farm near Colenso in the Natal lowlands, there was a double murder in the nearby gum trees, which Nigel points out to me with his good arm.

‘This old couple called the Lowe’s were killed by three guys who worked for the next door neighbour at the time. They escaped by running right across the vlei but were eventually caught and put in Esctourt jail, only to escape again after cutting the guard’s neck with a bread knife.’

The investigating officer knew that Nigel’s father, the third generation in a line of east coast Ralfe’s dating back to the sinking of the Minerva in 1850, had been a policeman in Kenya, and so he asked for his assistance in the capture of the murderers, in exchange for a bottle of whiskey.

‘Dad wasn’t interested in that case of whiskey,’ says Nigel, lifting his useless left arm out of the black sling he has grown to hate.

‘What dad wanted was for the parents of the murderers to have a free train ticket to Pretoria to see their sons hang.’

After initially rejecting the deal the officer returned for the names.

‘Dad gave them the names he had been told by two of his workers. The murderers were caught, and off their families went to Pretoria. Their sons were hanged and afterwards the parents were shown the bodies and then they came back. I tell you what, there wasn’t a serious crime committed in this area for years afterwards.’

We are sitting at a table in a sparsely decorated room of concrete floors and eggshell green walls. The Ralfe coat of arms hangs against a pillar. Quod vult valde vult—what he wishes he very much wishes. Deus pascit corvos—God feeds the ravens.

Nigel’s parable of old days crime and punishment is a harsh one, but then so are the circumstances that have dredged it up—Nigel’s wife Lynette was murdered on March 14, and in Nigel’s estimation the blame falls ultimately to ‘a complete absence of law and order’ and a political system ‘run by jailbirds.’

‘Here in Estcourt,’ says Nigel, ‘mayor (Maliyakhe) Shilembe, shot his own wife outside the FNB with a hunting rifle in broad daylight, and he’s still in office. It’s a disgrace I tell you.’

Nigel is a big man possessed of patrician-white hair, and if he was intimidating before his wife’s death, his piercing blue eyes now look as if they could weld metal. On the day of the attack, however, his assailants blasted his bicep all to bits almost as soon as they arrived at the dairy, where he was sitting reading a farmer’s weekly back issue. The five men in their twenties and thirties (a sixth, who has allegedly turned state witness, had pointed the way from the road) then took Nigel up to the farmhouse where they shot his wife in the chest through the closed door, which she was either locking or opening up, Nigel is not sure. A month on and you can hear he hardly believes it has happened. Even the house seems in denial, full, as it is still, with Lynette Ralfe’s preserves and baked goods.

‘I heard her screaming and then the screaming just died away,’ he recalls. ‘I even said to the one bloke umbulalile umfazi wami (you’ve killed my wife).’

In Hollywood blockbusters the grief and anger of the wronged widower is usually taken out indiscriminately on those around. Nigel discriminates though, and this is one of the tragedies of the climate of fear engendered by farm attacks.

‘When I walk out of here and my labourers greet me I don’t say hello back. What are you doing when you say hello? You’re wishing me the best of the day. But he’s not wishing me the best of the day he’s saying “, you’re still alive, next time we’re going to fix you good and proper”. So I just walk on.’

By his own admission Nigel is a living example of the racializing power of violence. Suggestions that his workers are complicit in his wife’s murder are unwarranted, though, and he is conscious of that. The ring leader hails from Chieveley, ten kilometres away, and was not known to Nigel.

I made a thorough survey and found that the nearest communities have no issue with Nigel whatsoever.

‘We want to live with uRalfe because he’s a good guy,’ said local InDuna Nyagaza Radebe, his beehive home filled with Sunday beer drinkers who nodded their assent.
‘We have lived with him since childhood, we have no problem with him.’

They want the murderers caught too. ‘Today this thing has happened to you,’ a member of a local female mourning party had told Nigel. ‘Tomorrow it is our turn.’

They believe the motive for the attack was robbery, as do the police, who have caught three of the six attackers, thanks to leads gathered by local farmers.

But for Nigel it just doesn’t add up.

‘After shooting me a few times and killing my wife they took only a cellphone, a bottle of wine, a toy computer and my gun. Do you call that a Robbery,’ Nigel asks?

The farm attack was one of three nationally on a weekend that coincided with Julius Malema’s singing of dubul’ibhunu, so it is understandable that conspiracy theories have found easy purchase here.

‘There must be a link,’ says Alan Chase, who farms nearer to Estcourt.

‘Since Lynette was killed the only other farm murder has been Eugene Terre’Blanche. Malema stops singing, the murders stop happening.’

The problem with this theory, however, is its failure to credit the area’s history and its current security environment. At the foot of Nigel’s drive, for example, overlooking a dam in which a 2m crocodile mysteriously appeared a few days ago, is the Piet Retief Memorial, marking the place where Piet Retief’s commando laagered before many of them were bludgeoned to death by Dingane’s men at his kraal at nearby bloukrans.

More recently, since 2001 to be precise, there have been 17 murders and 34 attacks between the 84 farms which make up the district. This makes the Natal lowlands, and especially the immediate area around Weenen, the most dangerous place to farm anywhere in the country.

Thirty-something Estcourt farmer Anthony Arde, who is married to Nigel’s niece, is well placed to comment on regional security issues. If there’s a security force in the area he is it—him, Nigel’s nephew Mark, Nigel’s brother Tim, and Mike Linter. There’s a bullet proof vest on the yellowwood table in Anthony’s large sandstone house, and his .38 lies on the bookcase out of his camo-wearing son’s reach. His phone keeps ringing because a neighbours’ cow was slaughtered during the night and Anthony is co-ordinating the investigation.

‘If someone loses stock in the area they come to me. I started developing this network of informants years ago to protect my own stock, and now I get a constant feed of information about criminals. We think we get it bad from criminals but the local community’s get it ten times worse. They’re gatvol, so information is easy to come by. What worries me though, is the fact that they will never go to the police. They simply don’t trust them to do anything.’

He shrugs off the political conspiracy theories.

‘Look, Malema isn’t helping, but the reason we’ve had more farm attacks in the area than anywhere else in the country is because, as farmers, we’re not working together. We don’t even have a security company. If we had one I think we’d halve the problem. I think if we’d had a security company, Lynette Ralfe might be alive today.’

Enter Brian Jones, a former policeman who started the security company SA Can in ?. He received a call from former springbok Wayne Fyvie, who played schoolboy rugby with James Ralfe, and felt that his friend could do with some help. James is Nigel’s son. He and his wife were in Cape Town for the Argus cycle race when the attack occurred, but their three small children were in the bath at Doornkop, and their exposure to danger and the death of their grandmother has cast deep doubt over the future they had planned (James runs the Doornkop dairy). They have talked to Nigel about leaving, a decision that would probably spell the end of Nigel’s own stay on the farm.

In the meantime, Jones has been collating all the security evidence he can get his hands on.

‘I have begun to notice some interesting things,’ he says. ‘For starters, there appears to be no correlation between any of the attacks, .i.e. there is no single gang going from farm to farm. The average number of attackers is five to eight, and it is very seldom that all of them carry guns. In fact, it’s just incredible how unprofessional the attackers are. They never come in vehicles, and their approach is always disjointed. Instead of arriving in the dead of night like Johannesburg gangs, when everyone is grouped in one place, the attackers always arrive in the day when people are spread out all over the farm. Often, as in the Ralfe case, they don’t target the house first. If they are going to exert lethal violence it is usually in the first five to ten minutes of an attack. What tends to happen then is that the surviving farmers and their family members are brought together for a beating. Unlike the speed and efficiency of city attacks, the shortest farm attack in the area was 40 minutes and the longest was three and a half hours. The attackers seem to know they have time.’

What Jones is gently suggesting via this evidence of poor professionalism is that that the systems that are in place to safeguard against attack are generally very weak.

‘Since the commandoes fell away the farmers have left their hands in the air. At the most they have electric fences and radios, but the radios connect only amongst themselves. They have no collective strategy whatsoever—there’s a different approach in Colenso to Winterton, for example. After murdering Lynette Ralfe the fleeing suspects traversed three separate farming areas, and whilst the farmers in these areas were all communicating, it was very reactive.’

He believes it is important for farmers to foster better relations with the police, but says farmers need to realise ‘there just isn’t enough capacity out there.’
Successful security solutions for this region, he says, are going to come from within.

Official capacity problems and farmers’ organizational weaknesses have other serious implications.

‘When Nigel was shot in the arm it severed a major vein,’ says Jones. ‘By the time he received medical attention four and a half hours had passed, so it’s a miracle he survived. Now consider this: of the 17 who have been murdered in the area, four died in or on their way to hospital. This is hardly surprising because the average response time for the area is three and a half hours. The average time it takes before a victim reaches casualty is four hours and ten minutes. Netcare has not airlifted a single human from the area because there are no gps co-ordinates for the farms or maps of the farm roads. There are no landing sites.’

So what is the answer? What can be done to bring the farmer’s of the lowlands closer to security solutions that save lives.

Brian Jones is designing a security strategy (see box) which he says has been well very well received by farmers as far off as Greytown.

Sustainable security, however, seems to begin with a handshake.

‘I used to experience a lot of stock theft but since I started my own BEE projects five years ago there’s been nothing,’ says Arde, who co-owns a game ranch near Estcourt with members of the local community. ‘If someone’s planning to steal something of mine I’ll invariably get a call about it before it happens.’

In his opinion, many of the areas problems are rooted in the government’s failure to make good on its promises to black farmers.

‘They’re not supporting new farmers on land reform farms, so they look across the fence and see us getting fat wile they go hungry. That’s bound to lead to frustration. The trick to happy relations is to make promises you can keep, and then to keep them. The other things the associations need to do is bring in black commercial farmers. They experience exactly the same problems as us, and in most cases they suffer worse, because they have fewer resources with which to track down their stolen stock, or to replace their stolen fence. If we come together, government might listen for once.’

His is a mentality for a new generation of white South African farmers, and one which, if adopted more widely and applied along with a more collective security strategy, might just help to clear the long shadow that has fallen over this beautiful part of the country.