THE gunmen walked silently through the orchard. Skirting a row of burnt-out tyres, set ablaze months earlier to keep the budding fruit from freezing, they drew their old .38 revolvers.
Inside his farmhouse Pieter Cillier, 57, slept with his 14-year-old daughter Nikki at his side. His 12-year-old son JD was having a sleepover with two teenagers in an adjoining room.
As the intruders broke in, the farmer woke. He rushed to stop them, only to be shot twice in the chest.
In his death throes he would have seen his killers and then his children standing over him, screaming and crying.
The attackers, who were drug addicts, simply disappeared into the night. Cillier’s murder, at Christmas, was barely reported in the local press. It was, after all, everyday news.
Death has stalked South Africa’s white farmers for years. The number murdered since the end of apartheid in 1994 has passed 3,000.
In neighbouring Zimbabwe, a campaign of intimidation that began in 2000 has driven more than 4,000 commercial farmers off their land, but has left fewer than two dozen dead.
The vulnerability felt by South Africa’s 40,000 remaining white farmers intensified earlier this month when Julius Malema, head of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) youth league, opened a public rally by singing Dubula Ibhunu, or Shoot the Boer, an apartheid-era anthem, that was banned by the high court last week.
Malema’s timing could hardly have been worse. Last weekend in the remote farming community of Colenso, in KwaZulu-Natal, Nigel Ralfe, 71, a dairy farmer, and his wife Lynette, 64, were gunned down as they milked their cows. He was critically injured; she died.
That same day a 46-year-old Afrikaner was shot through his bedroom window as he slept at his farm near Potchefstroom. A few days later a 61-year-old was stabbed to death in his bed at a farm in Limpopo.
The resurrection of Dubula Ibhunu, defended by senior ANC officials as little more then a sentimental old struggle song, has been greeted with alarm by Tom Stokes, of the opposition Democratic Alliance. He said the ANC’s continued association with the call to kill Boers could not be justified.
“Any argument by the ANC that this song is merely a preservation of struggle literature rings hollow in the face of farming families who have lost wives, mothers and grandmothers,” he added.
He was supported by Anton Alberts of the right-wing Freedom Front Plus party: “Malema’s comments are creating an atmosphere that is conducive to those who want to commit murder. He’s an accessory to the wiping out of farmers in South Africa.”
Rossouw Cillier, Pieter’s brother, bristled as he pointed to the bullet holes in the panelled kitchen of the farmhouse near Ceres in the Western Cape. “They shot him through the fridge from the back door — the bullets came straight through here, into his heart. He never had a chance,” he said.
A successful apple and pear grower, he believes his community is living on borrowed time: “More white farmers have been killed than British soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yes, we are at war here.”
His brother’s farmhouse is now shuttered and empty. “I can’t spend time here. We’ll have to sell. This farm has been in our family for generations but it must go. Who’ll manage it? The children will never come back here. They held their own father as he died in front of them. Will they ever get over that?”
As we walked across the orchard, fruit destined for the shelves of Tesco and Sainsbury’s in the UK was still being picked. A tractor passed a 10ft cross erected in honour of the murdered farmer.
“It lights up at night,” Rossouw said. “My brother was a religious man. It’s all that’s left of him here.”
Across South Africa many farmers feel endangered. In Northern Province a tribute has been created beneath an enormous sign with the stark Afrikaans word “plaasmoorde” — farm killings. Thousands of white wooden crosses have been planted across a mountainside, one for each fallen farmer.
Recently the government’s department of rural development has been airing proposals to nationalise productive farmland as a “national asset”. Critics claim it is designed to deflect criticism from the ruling ANC’s failures.
“It’s a lot easier talking about nationalising farms than building decent houses, making clean water come out of taps or honouring promises to redistribute farm plots to millions of landless poor,” said a spokesman for AgriSA, the farmers’ union.
On the outskirts of Ceres there are few groceries in the township store — tins of pilchards, baked beans, some dried biscuits. A group of teenage boys sit on the burnt-out remains of a Ford Escort. This is where Cillier’s killers gathered, in a shebeen, a drinking club, where they fortified themselves with cheap hooch before they set off to rob him. They escaped with nothing.
According to Rossouw Cillier the most telling detail is that his brother was unarmed when they attacked. “If we brandish a weapon, we’ll go to prison, not them. What did they gain from this murder? It was an act as pointless as their lives.”