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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 April 2005, 15:25 GMT 16:25 UK
Lion case highlights farm tensions
Aside from the lion factor, the trial shows an ugly side to South Africa
The conviction of two South Africans for throwing a black man into a lion enclosure is a reminder of the deep-rooted racial antagonisms that remain in South Africa's rural areas, BBC News's Justin Pearce reports from Johannesburg.

South Africa has just celebrated the 11th anniversary of democratic rule under a human rights-based constitution.

Yet on Thursday, a white man and his black employee were convicted for feeding a former black employee to lions.

Outsiders could be forgiven for wondering what happened to the "rainbow people" vision expressed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the end of the apartheid era.

In fact, what limited racial integration has happened in South Africa has been confined to the cities.

If anything, racial tensions in the countryside have increased since the end of white minority rule.

Slow change

Under apartheid, black people dispossessed of their land had little option but to work for white landowners who could hire and fire employees at will.

South Africans have been gripped by the trial
Police were at the service of the white farmers, helped by the "commandos", civil defence units manned by the farmers themselves.

The landowners also controlled access to housing, in a system that bore many of the characteristics of feudalism.

On the one hand, this system has been slow to change; on the other hand, those changes that have taken place have been regarded with deep suspicion by whites who are keenly aware of the large-scale expropriation of land from white farmers in Zimbabwe.

South African land reform legislation, allowing black people to reclaim land from which they or their ancestors were dispossessed, has added to white fears; at the same time, the slow implementation of these laws has deepened black frustration.


Meanwhile, attacks against white landowners have become more frequent.

Eighteen months ago, South Africa's Human Rights Commission concluded a two-year investigation into rural violence.

White lion
The victim was dumped at a white lion breeding project
The commission condemned a continuing culture of violence against black workers, and documented the murder of 1,500 white farmers in the previous 10 years.

The report blamed the problems on the slow pace of land reform, and gaping inequalities between blacks and whites in rural areas.

One of the sharpest analyses of contemporary South African society comes in a book called Midlands, by journalist Jonny Steinberg who investigated farm violence in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands region.

The author describes a world where black labour tenants still hold bitter memories of dispossession, while white farmers see themselves as the victims in something close to war.


Some observers of the "lion case" have asked how the two black co-accused could have collaborated in the killing of their former colleague.

Again, the answer has to do with racial power relations in the countryside.

According to one Johannesburger who grew up in a rural village: "In the bundu (bush) the white man is still baas (boss)."

A large part of the argument turned on whether Mr Chisale was alive or dead when thrown to the lions.

Did the big cats eat him alive, or did they consume his dead body?

Such gruesome details ensured the case got more than its fair share of attention in the national media, in a country where many murders warrant no more than a line or two in the local paper.

But quite aside from the gore factor, the lion trial is one of those cases that have held up a mirror to South Africa - and reflected an ugly face that most South Africans would rather not confront.

South Africa's violent farms
03 Sep 03 |  Africa
Country profile: South Africa
08 Nov 03 |  Country profiles
Timeline: South Africa
19 Nov 03 |  Country profiles

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