South African Wine Farmer in Land Dispute Is Shot Dead

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A South African farmer whose vineyard in the Stellenbosch wine region had been occupied by shack dwellers since last year has been shot and killed in his home, heightening tensions amid a contentious national debate over the ownership of land.

Four men entered the house of the farmer, Stefan Smit, on Sunday evening before killing him, said Lt. Col. Andre Traut, a police spokesman. Mr. Smit’s home is about 30 miles east of Cape Town, in South Africa’s most famous wine region. Mr. Smit’s wife and a family friend were both present during the attack and survived, Colonel Traut said, adding that the suspects fled with personal belongings.

But it was too soon to say whether the killing was related to the dispute over land or was a random criminal act.

The killing of Mr. Smit, 62, a prominent white farmer whose family has grown grapes for generations, immediately drew strong reactions from groups representing white farmers and white-minority rights.

A quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, white South Africans, who make up about eight percent of the population, still dominate the economy and own the country’s most productive land.

Mr. Smit’s was the second farm killing in the Western Cape province in less than a month, said Jeanne Boshoff, a spokeswoman for a farming association, Agri Wes-Cape. In a statement addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa, the group asked why farmers should remain in South Africa if their safety, as well as that of their workers, could not be guaranteed.

Residents of a nearby black township started moving on to Mr. Smit’s farm last year as the long-running debate over land began heating up in the months before general elections in May, in which voters elected to keep Mr. Ramaphosa in office.

In December 2017, the long-governing African National Congress, or A.N.C., endorsed the expropriation of land without compensation, although the policy has yet to become law.
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Mr. Ramaphosa, who supports the policy, has tried to reassure anxious farmers, business groups and foreign investors that it would be carried out without the kind of violent land seizures that occurred in neighboring Zimbabwe almost two decades ago, a policy that devastated its economy.

Laborers at the Louisenhoff vineyard. Last year, hundreds of residents from the neighboring township invaded a hilly stretch of Mr. Smit’s vineyard and erected shacks on it.CreditJoao Silva/The New York Times
Campaigning in April, Mr. Ramaphosa visited Beyerskloof, a vineyard next door to Mr. Smit’s, in an attempt to allay the concerns of white farmers.

“The land reform process is something we should never fear,” Mr. Ramaphosa said, urging farmers to “look at land reform in a positive way.”

Last August, Mr. Smit’s farm, Louiesenhof, which borders an overcrowded black township called Kayamandi, became a battleground in the national debate.

Overnight, hundreds of township residents invaded a hilly stretch of Mr. Smit’s vineyard and erected shacks on it. In interviews with The New York Times, Mr. Smit said that he could no longer “breathe” on his property and had decided to sell the occupied part to the Stellenbosch municipal government.

According to government documents, the municipality and Mr. Smit signed an agreement in April that called for the occupied land to be sold to Stellenbosch for 45.7 million rand, or about $3.1 million.

On Monday morning, Mr. Ndlasi said that he had not heard of Mr. Smit’s killing, and he expressed his regrets. “I’m not happy,” he said by phone. “He’s a human being. No one is allowed to kill anybody.”

Midas Wanana, a local A.N.C. leader, said the killing was “bad news.”

“He sold already, so why now?” Mr. Wanana said by phone. “Who did that nonsense now?”

In March, Mr. Smit said he had received threats, including one to “burn him alive.”

At the farm on Monday morning, a guard said he was unaware of any recent threats against Mr. Smit. The guard, who asked not to be named because he was not allowed to speak about the matter, said that Mr. Smit was killed around 7 p.m. on Sunday and that the suspects had taken cellphones.

In an email to a local news organization, Pieter Haasbroek, a friend of Mr. Smit, wrote: “They were busy eating dinner with friends when four masked men came into the house. They shot Smit dead. What we feared came true.”