Farm dweller Simon Hlatshwayo, 67, cuts a sad, sickly and confused figure in his empty cattle kraal in Mkhondo, Mpumalanga.
His herd of 12 cattle died from a concoction of cattle feed and washing powder placed in heaps where he grazed them in June last year.
He was allegedly told in November the previous year by a farmer on whose land he lives to reduce his herd to the required number or they would die as they were eating up his grass.
Hlatshwayo and other dwellers can only keep up to 20 animals – including horses and dogs – at a time.
He is adamant that his herd was poisoned because he had refused the farmer’s instruction to reduce his herd numbers.
Hlatshwayo said not only had he to contend with paying the farm owner one cow a year to be able to continue living on the farm, he also had to pay with his labour.
“The owners of the farm found me here. I have worked on the farm for 56 years and they thanked me with an old army jacket. Sometimes we would get mealie meal or 300g of sugar,” he said.
Hlatshwayo tells of how in 2006 he and other farm workers were allegedly rounded up by the farm foremen and tortured with a cattle prodder to confess to stealing from the farm.
He has never been healthy since then. Mostly disorientated, he is very worried because he says many others he was tortured with have since died.
“Mkhulu (Grandfather) has not been the same since that incident. He battles to understand what is being said and struggles to walk. A doctor attending to him asked whether he had been electrocuted,” his granddaughter, Busi, said.
Relative Anthony Hlatshwayo, who stays a stone’s throw away, said he had lost more than 100 goats and countless cattle to livestock thieves since around 2000.
He said when the white farmers’ livestock were stolen, they became the suspects and were interrogated but that no one cares when thieves come in the dead of the night to steal the farm dwellers’ livestock.
“Carcasses or skins are planted on our homestead or nearby so that we could be detained and beaten up. I even suspect the foremen are involved in the theft of our livestock,” Anthony Hlatshwayo said.
He said farmers in the area had become a vigilante group and that attacks, intimidation, torture and the murder of black farm dwellers was common in the area.
“We cannot even walk freely here because we are seen as thieves. People are beaten up and called the K-word just for being on a pubic road cutting through the farms,” Anthony Hlatshwayo said.
His 34-year-old niece, Nhlanhla, was severely injured after he was allegedly kidnapped, tied with cable ties and beaten up.
This is the incident that allegedly led to the murder of Coka brothers Zenzele, 39, and Mgcini, 36, plunging the area on the verge of a racial war, with tensions reducing the Piet Retief Magistrate’s Court to a no-go area.
The brothers were shot and killed more than two weeks ago at Pampoenkraal farm in the course of an altercation with a group of armed farmers.
There are several versions of what had happened on that day but the investigating officer said in court the brothers were shot in the back and one was finished off with a single bullet to the head as he lay on the ground.
Daniel Malan, 38, Cornelius Greyling, 26, Othard Klingenberg, 58, and Michael Sternberg, 31, have each been charged with two counts of murder and one of assault with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm in connection with the incident.
Their co-accused, Patrick Yende, a security guard at the farm, is facing charges of attempted murder and kidnapping.
The accused’s version is that they were accosted by a group of farm dwellers armed with knobkerries and steel pipes.
The Piet Retief Magistrate’s Court heard that a distress call was sent on a WhatsApp group, resulting in farmers from other farms converging on Pampoenkraal farm that Friday.
Farmers approached for comment refused to talk, saying the murder case had thrust the town into the national spotlight.
Theft, exploitation, abuse and lack of cooperation breeds distrust
Stock thieves crossing over the nearby border into SA from Eswatini to raid neighbouring farms, exploitation, abuse and racism has bred distrust between mostly white farmers and black farm dwellers in Mkhondo, Mpumalanga.
This has been the assessment of Piet Retief Community Policing Forum chairperson Milton Lushaba, who said while they worked very well with some white farmers in the area, others were not so cooperative.
“You find those, particularly around Khomondini, who are working with black communities in their patrol teams. Then you have small groupings who refuse to change and work with other people but choose to band together along racial lines,” he said.
According to Lushaba, there were similar vigilante-type groupings in black farming communities but said they managed to quash these as this could have exploded into confrontation.
He lamented that while they received full cooperation from most black and some white communities such as in Khomondini, some white farmers refused to ditch their parallel structures and work with the CPF.
“For as long as there is this distrust, tensions will forever plague this area but we are doing all our best to bring everyone on board. What I can say is that we are succeeding in every respect but now we need to get rid of all parallel structures, which are illegal, and work together,” Lushaba said.
He also lamented black farm dwellers and workers used by farmers to hunt for their missing livestock.
Lushaba said when white farmers had their livestock stolen, the area was turned upside down but that was not the case when a black farmer or dweller lost their cattle.
“We cannot be doing everything along racial lines, we have to treat everyone equal. People who raid the farms are from across the border, not locals. All we need is unity and trust to stop them. While we fight each other, they come in and take our wealth,” he said.