Can South Africa’s Farm Attacks Be Classified As Terrorism?

This article was originally published by Security Focus Africa on

There’s a complex debate going on in some security and political circles as to whether or not farm attacks can be classified and prosecuted as Terrorism.

The debate is hampered by the restricted flow of information from the police, the organs of State intelligence and government departments and even the nominally independent Courts – although the latter has improved in recent years, notably after the open media coverage of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial.

Whilst there is no universal definition of Terrorism the elements of acts of terror are generally agreed upon. For example, the US Code of Federal Regulations defines terrorism as, “The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

The US Patriot Act of 2001 has a similar definition but includes, ”…when the intent of the crime is determined to be the endangerment of public safety or substantial property damage rather than for mere personal monetary gain.”.

Terror and terrorism are emotive words and can be appropriately applied as emotional reactions to events such as the theft of copper cable powering residences, business and hospitals, and critical infrastructure and National Key Points such as railways, communications. In such cases the public reaction is often to say, “They (The Law) should classify this as terrorism!” or perhaps ‘economic sabotage’.

But both terrorism and sabotage have an outcome that is more complex than just the ‘personal monetary gain’ that criminals derive from stealing copper. A person randomly shooting into a crowd, such as Stephen Paddock’s killing rampage in Las Vegas in October 2017, killing 58 concertgoers, is creating terror, that is, extreme fear, but as, according to the FBI investigation, he had no political motive, this was not an act of terrorism.

The South African Terrorism Act (edited below where not relevant to this article) has a fairly long definition of ‘Terrorist activity’ as:

(a) any act committed in or outside the Republic, which-

(i) involves the systematic, repeated or arbitrary use of violence (author’s emphasis in bold) by any means or method;

(ii) (Edit)

(iii) endangers the life, or violates the physical integrity or physical freedom of, or causes serious bodily injury to or the death of, any person, or any number of persons;

(iv) causes serious risk to the health or safety of the public or any segment of the public;

(v) (Edit)

(vi) is designed or calculated to cause serious interference with or serious disruption of an essential service, facility or system, or the delivery of any such service, facility or system, whether public or private, including, but not limited to-

(aa) to (gg) (Edit)

(vii) causes any major economic loss or extensive destabilisation of an economic system or substantial devastation of the national economy of a country; or

(viii) creates a serious public emergency situation or a general insurrection in the
Republic, whether the harm contemplated in paragraphs (a) (i) to (vii) is or may be suffered (to)(Edit)

(i) threaten the unity and territorial integrity of the Republic;
(ii) intimidate, or to induce or cause feelings of insecurity within, the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic
security, or
to induce, cause or spread feelings of terror, fear or panic in a civilian population; or

(iii) unduely compel, intimidate, force, coerce, induce or cause a person, a
government, the general public
or a segment of the public, or a domestic or
an international organisation or body or intergovernmental organisation or
body, to do or to abstain or refrain from doing any act, or to adopt or abandon
a particular standpoint, or to act in accordance with certain principles, (Edit) and
(c) which is committed, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, for the purpose of the advancement of an individual or collective political, religious, ideological or philosophical motive, objective, (Edit).


(4) Notwithstanding any provision of this Act or any other law, any act committed during a struggle waged by peoples, including any action during an armed struggle, in the exercise or furtherance of their legitimate right to national liberation, self-determination and independence against colonialism, or occupation or aggression or domination by alien or foreign forces, in accordance with the principles of international law, especially international humanitarian law, including the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the said Charter, shall not, for any reason, including for purposes of prosecution or extradition, be considered as a terrorist activity, as
defined in subsection (1).

Under Section 4, even if all of the elements of a Terrorist Act are present the perpetrators of farm attacks who are well informed, organised or defended may claim indemnity from prosecution under certain circumstances, even for rape, torture and murder by claiming they are part of a ‘legitimate’ liberation or anti-colonial movement, leaving the Court to decide if this is true or just a convenient lie. This ‘escape clause’ is unique to South African law and unfortunately also implies that the law here is subjective – subject itself to political interpretation and influence.

Much of the unnecessary violence of farm attacks can be proven to include racism, which can easily be called political because of the racial divisions in this country and the calls to violence of populist political leaders and parties. But without a direct correlation between the attacks and established political policies it is poor analytic method to say that most, if any, of these attacks fit any serious definition of Terrorism.

There is no doubt that even though the farm attacks are a small percentage of SA’s violent crime and that they are widely spread out over our large, low density populated areas, there are common threads and signs of training and organisation. But these threads and signs only loosely intersect with the methods promoted by established terror groups such as ‘The Islamic State’. And it’s not a ‘numbers game’, as shown in the case cited above of the motiveless Las Vegas shooter killing 58 if compared to the UK Houses of Parliament  car and knife IS inspired Terrorist attack in March 2017 that killed 5.

What we do see are stolen military or police weapons and/or equipment (including cellphone jammers) and borrowed military techniques, which may indicate individuals trained by the State. These techniques can also be learned in prisons and over the internet.

Those observers who say that farm attacks are a politically motivated attempt to drive white farmers off the land are ignoring the obvious conclusion that this is simply not working – our farmers are mostly staying and defending their land, businesses and families. If anything, the talk of non-violent ‘Expropriation Without Compensation’ appears to be perceived as a greater threat and reason, along with generally violent crime and collapsing services and infrastructure, to leave the country by South African whites and overseas investors.

Andrey P Grudko has been an independent security consultant since 1980 and is the Founding Director of the South African Terrorism Analysis Centre (

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SATAC Research & Analytics Team

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