Visit the Vlaklaagte farming area outside Swartruggens in the North West Province on any New Year’s day and you will find the entire community occupied with boeresport (farmers’ games) — jukskei, driebeenresies, kruiwastoot and toutrek — a scene that seems to contradict farming’s increasing association with insecurity, racial conflict and murder.
No single person cements an agricultural community but there are those without whom the community bond would be tenuous and, in Vlaklaagte, that person is Hanna van der Walt, cattle farmer and chair of the local farm watch.
Van der Walt was born in 1961 in Gobabis, Namibia — cattle country, or at least that’s what’s written on the sign that accompanies the statue of a Brahman at the entrance to the town.
When she was four her family moved to Wildebeesheuwel, a farm near Swartruggens, and there Hanna developed her passion for cattle farming. She was, she says, her father’s “little shadow; he taught me valuable lessons, not only in farming but in life, in humanity”. In 1984 she bought seven head of cattle from her father and today she runs a 200-strong herd, a business that near-neighbour Stephan Naudé says requires passion, nerve and faith, attributes that also serve Van der Walt well in her role as chair of the Vlaklaagte Farm Watch.
The farm watch was formed in 1994, the end of a political era that had favoured white farmers. In the area surrounding Swartruggens the collapse of rural security coincided with increased mining activity to produce a surge in crime.
In 1998 Van der Walt and her family were attacked while driving home after a rugby game. Shots were fired, one of which struck her daughter in the leg. Fellow farmers responded quickly and caught the assailants, but Van der Walt, realising that more could be done to improve security in the area, took over as chairperson of the farm watch. It soon became apparent that she had a gift for community mobilisation and an aptitude for the security work itself.
With Van der Walt at the helm there hasn’t been a single violent farm attack in Vlaklaagte for 13 years and, thanks to the relationships she has fostered with local and provincial police, 80% of all farm crimes are solved.
True to character, Van der Walt credits the community — “I’ve done nothing on my own” — and quietly accounts for her own inexhaustible drive with a heart-breaking story.
“My son died, aged 16, of Fanconi anaemia, and when he was lying on his death bed I asked him how he could love Jesus if he could not see him. He replied by saying that by loving your neighbour, you love him — these words of his give me power to keep going.”