Stealing the future of farming - Farmer's Weekly

17 May 2019 - The threat that stock theft poses to South Africa’s farmers should not be underestimated; neither should the damage that this is doing to the economy. Until it enjoys far greater recognition by society and priority from government, it is likely to continue to do so.

Terence Corrigan

Stock theft is a phenomenon that has probably been in existence since humans first domesticated animals. It is also one long recognised as a crime in legal and moral codes.

In the Book of Exodus, laws regarding property commence with a specific reference to stock theft: ‘Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.’

Similarly, the legal code established by the Babylonian king Hammurabi prescribed: ‘If anyone steals cattle or sheep, or an ass, or a pig or a goat, if it belonged to a god or to the court, the thief shall pay thirtyfold therefor; if they belonged to a freed man of the king he shall pay tenfold; if the thief has nothing with which to pay he shall be put to death.’

That ancient legal texts should emphasise stock theft is unsurprising, since for societies dependent on agriculture, animals were extremely valuable assets.

For those involved in agriculture in contemporary South Africa – far from ancient Canaan or Babylon – this remains essentially unchanged. Stock theft is a severe threat to the farming economy, and one that is poorly understood by those who do not experience its realities.

It may be tempting to think of stock theft as a peripheral activity, more of an irritation than a threat. The evidence says otherwise. According the latest SAPS annual crime statistics (for the period April 2017 to March 2018), there were some 28 849 counts of stock theft across the country. This was an increase in excess of 7% over the 26 902 reported in 2016/2017, which was in turn an increase over the 24 715 recorded in 2015/2016. Long-term trends are more ambivalent – with declines reported in the period between 2011/12 and 2013/14, for example – but overall, recent trends suggest a growing problem.

Perhaps more revealing are the results of Agri-SA’s study of crime affecting farmers, published in October last year. It found that of the 70% of farmers who had been victims of crime, close to 40% of them had experienced stock theft – overall, the most common form of crime affecting the farming community.

It is not only widespread, it is large in scale and costly in outcome. Willie Clack, a farmer in North West, penologist at the University of South Africa and chairman of the National Stock Theft Prevention Forum, argues that there is solid evidence that 87% of stock theft involves some form of organised crime. It takes sophistication, planning, organisation and resources. ‘The motivation,’ he says, ‘is not desperation, it’s greed.’

These sentiments are echoed by Dr Jane Buys, security risk analyst at Free State Agriculture. From her experience in the Free State, she points out that it is not limited to established commercial farmers, but is a major concern for smaller-scale emerging and subsistence farmers, too.

Since there is significant underreporting of the crime, the magnitude of what is taking place is probably far greater than the official figures suggest.

‘Stock theft is not restricted to the one or two sheep or cattle that get stolen,’ says Dr Buys, ‘it is also related to the large numbers of stock stolen that are not reported to the police – such as herds of 20 to 30 cattle at a given time.  This shows that the impact and extent of stock theft cannot be determined by the SAPS or any other organization. This then creates a lot of problems in order to combat this type of crime. The second aspect of stock theft, is that the big amounts of livestock that gets stolen definitely shows that organized groups or syndicates are involved in the commission of these offences.’ 

Thus, the modus operandi of stock theft operations. On the small-scale ‘subsistence’ side, a few animals might be driven off, or slaughtered and butchered for their meat, with the thieves making off with whatever they can carry.

Larger, more sophisticated syndicates will engage in what is essentially a planned raid. A party will break onto the property, driving off dozens of animals. This might be done on foot – initially at least – but they will at some point commonly be loaded onto trucks and speedily transported away from the scene of the crime.

Nick Reitz, committee member responsible for safety and security at the Bergville Farmers’ Association in KwaZulu-Natal – an area particularly afflicted by stock theft – says that the mountainous border between South Africa and Lesotho provides stock thieves with an ideal hiding place for stolen animals. From there, they may be trafficked across the porous border into Lesotho (farmers on that side of the border have the reverse problem, with stock being moved into South Africa), or rebranded and despatched to other points in South Africa where they can effectively be laundered through stock auctions. The use of harsh terrain such as mountains and forests to conceal stolen livestock has been well documented historically and today, even in developed countries.

All of this is inflicting enormous damage on farmers. Although quantifying it involves a large amount of speculation, Agri-SA’s study put the value of livestock stolen at around R1.1bn a year – to which other associated damages such as vandalism of fences could be added. And stock theft removes valuable genetic material and breeding value.

This number might, in fact, be a significant undercounting. Jane Buys put the damage to farming it the Free State alone at upwards of R1bn – by way of illustration, a stud bull worth R450 000 was taken into Lesotho and slaughtered, a catastrophic destruction of value.

Willie Clack adds that aside from the economic value, stock theft inflicts a chilling psychological impact on farmers. ‘We don’t always understand the full impact,’ he says, ‘people can get very emotional about the loss of animals. These are living beings, not mere objects. And if you see the pictures that I do, how they are injured and mutilated – these look like crime scenes – then you can appreciate how hard this hits farmers.’

Moreover, as with any organised crime, there is a latent danger of violence. This is perhaps not typical of the crime – since thieves want to make off with their stolen property as quickly and unobtrusively as possible – but there have certainly been instances in which stock theft has turned violent. Historically, violence has often been a risk attending cattle raiding, and there is a sad record of such violence in the relatively recent history of the Transkei.

Dr Buys says of the situation in the Free State becoming more violent and being increasingly associated with attacks on farmers or their workers: ‘We have taken note over the past 3 years that some farm attacks occurred mainly due to livestock being robbed from a farm. During the calendar year 2017 there were 6 such incidents, during 2018, 4 incidents. We also experience threats of harm against some farmers and workers, so they have had to improve their security to such an extent that stock thieves cannot steal from them as usual.’

All of this can push a farm into ruin. It is not difficult to find news reports of farmers being forced out of business as a result of losses to stock theft.

This is no simple problem to address – historically, it never has been. Underreporting and the large geographical spread of the crime makes it hard to do proper analysis of crime patterns, and thus to come up with an effective strategy.

As Nick Reitz observes, cattle from the Bergville region often end up in auction lots in Standerton. Branding marks have often been altered or removed, and in any event, auctioneers do not have access to comprehensive database of brands. So stolen livestock may be traded in good faith. 

Willie Clack adds that most of the livestock trafficked around the country ends up in the lucrative Gauteng market: ‘Put a dot in the middle of Jo-burg and draw a 300km ring around this city – you have a 65% chance that you will find the stolen animals in Gauteng.’

Conscientious herd management is obviously essential. Practices such as branding and regular herd counting provide some protection. Farmers have also taken on the weighty burden of installing security systems and participating in rural safety initiatives. These naturally come with costs, which may be directly financial or measured in time or the diversion of farmers’ resources – or in exposure to danger. They cut into farms’ profitability and are a disincentive for farmers to remain in the industry.

There is, however, no substitute for effective policing. While many in the farming community respect the dedication of the police stock theft units, there is also widespread recognition of their shortcomings. A lack of communication and cooperation between the police and farming communities can be a fatal flaw – those relationships have to be developed and sustained. And there is some police involvement in stock theft.

The most obvious and glaring problem, though, is the lack of resources to combat crimes that are all too often far from the public eye. Willie Clack puts this into perspective: ‘At the National Stock Theft Prevention Forum, we have a good relationship with all stakeholders. There are 92 stock theft units in the country and they try their best. All of them are hindered by a lack of resources. Perpetrators are sometimes more technologically advanced. They need things like drones, quadbikes, off-road vehicles, even trucks to transport recovered stock.’

Nick Reitz describes a similar state of affairs in tracking and recovering stock that is hidden in the mountains: ‘It’s difficult to get up there; you need helicopters to do it. We try to get that sort of support, but we’ve only had it twice in the past year. So the sort of operations we need to conduct are not happening because of budget constraints.’

To this, Dr Buys points to the need for better intelligence. Where theft operations are sophisticated, this is indispensable both to tackling theft, both in preventing it, or in arresting the perpetrators and recovering the animals after it has taken place. On a strategic level, it is necessary to uproot the syndicates and networks behind the crimes.

In addition, farmers regularly voice frustration about the apparent difficulty in successfully prosecuting suspects. Merely reporting crimes can mean a trip to a distant station to spend hours waiting to open a case, with no guarantee of a meaningful investigation. It has been said that suspects caught driving stolen animals may be able to avoid conviction by arguing that they were merely walking in the vicinity… Perhaps as much as anything, this simply reflects broader failings in the criminal justice system that cause so much anger for people weary of crime.

Nevertheless, the threat that stock theft poses to South Africa’s farmers should not be underestimated; neither should the damage that this is doing to the economy. Until it enjoys far greater recognition by society and priority from government, it is likely to continue to do so.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR, and to mandate it to speak on this issue, by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).