Despatches: South Africa's white farmers under siege

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More than 100 white farmers have been murdered in South Africa over the past two years. Tomorrow their union meets President Nelson Mandela to demand action before farmers take the law into their own hands. But the vigilantism has begun.

Shoot first and shoot last. For months that has been the advice from Dr Pieter Gous, the right-wing president of the Free State Agricultural Union, to white farmers for the handling of trespassers.

After every attack on a member Mr Gous has threatened farmers would mete out their own rough justice if the government failed to curb the violence and warned that rural vigilante groups would soon be formed similar to those operated by the Muslim anti-drug group, Pagad, against Cape Town's gangsters.

This weekend the farmers took their revenge after the murder of Theo Pieterse, 50, near Bultfontein in the heart of the vast, flat, fertile plains of the Free State. His neighbours, in an area dominated by conservative Boer farmers, tracked down three black male suspects who were found hiding in a nearby water canal. According to Mr Pieterse's workers the men had been around the day before looking for work.

In the "citizens' arrest" that followed one of the suspects died and the two others were seriously hurt. Police are now investigating another murder. Mr Gous has said he regrets the death of the suspect, but claims it reflects the high level of frustration in farming communities.

The FSAU claims Mr Pieterse is the third local white farmer to have been killed by blacks in the province in the past 10 days. Last week, Piet van Eeden was murdered on his farm at Lindley.

He was killed after returning from a school function with his family. While he parked the car his wife and daughter walked in on waiting assailants. They were tied up and when Mr van Eeden entered the house he was stabbed in the neck. In another attack a few days earlier a farmer was killed at nearby Heilbron.

Yesterday Dries Bruwer, Mr Gous's political soulmate from the Transvaal Agricultural Union, said that attacks on farmers had reached "paramilitary proportions". The Transvaal Union claims that, apart from the police, more farmers were being murdered than any other professional group. It says more than 100 farmers have died in 1,000 attacks in the past two years. Most of the victims are over 50 and a high proportion are elderly. Sunday morning, after church, is the perpetrators' favourite hit time.

The attackers' motivation is a matter of dispute. Moderate farm leaders say members are not being specially targeted but are suffering the same crime wave as everyone else. It is their isolation and possession of weapons and vehicles that makes them particularly vulnerable.

While farmers form commando-style self-defence units and drive around in defence force surplus armoured vehicles there is speculation that at least some old scores are being settled between farmers and workers.

But others mutter about a wider conspiracy. "Theft was not the motivation in these attacks," said Johann Neethling, FSAU executive member yesterday, referring to the latest three deaths. "The attackers stole nothing before they fled."

The right-wing, Afrikaner Conservative Party claims that the murders are part of a campaign to force farmers to give up their land. Mr Neethling believes the killings are taking place because blacks believe whites stole their land. He claims that farmers with right- wing political affiliations were once targets but now any farmer seems to do.

"Blacks don't seem to understand we bought the land," Mr Neethling said. "They can buy land too if they want to."

The government's attempts to strengthen the tenure rights of farm workers has certainly raised the temperature in rural areas where the white man has always been baas and the black man, with few if any choices, his poorly paid worker. That hard reality has long since poisoned relations.

Many farmers are trying to beat the introduction of new legislation to strengthen rural blacks' tenure rights by evicting families from their land.

Some blacks are being forced off land they have occupied for decades. Sometimes a farmer removes the roof from a black home to encourage a family on its way.

When Martin Paters, 21, was shot dead last month police speculated that he might have been mistaken for a local farmer who had just chased several families from his land.

The agricultural unions, which oppose the new legislation on the grounds that it ignores the hard economic realities of farming, say the government is creating false impressions among blacks about property ownership and redistribution of wealth.

Whatever the reasons for it, the random violence has raised white fear in some areas to hysterical proportions. Last week an agitated white farmer phoned a national radio chat show from KwaZulu Natal to ask the government to introduce unemployment benefit for blacks.

The trouble he insisted was that rural poverty and unemployment was worsening and white farmers were being targeted by desperate blacks. "They are going to kill us because they have nothing," he warned.

The South African Agricultural Union is pushing for a more punitive approach. Last week it demanded that the African National Congress reinstate the death penalty. That is the message its leaders will deliver tomorrow when they meet President Mandela to discuss the crisis.