Every tree, every rock and blade of grass on the farm of Cornelius and Olive Lourens is saturated with sad memories. They died terribly. The 78-year-old Cornelius, apparently ambushed first, was savagely beaten to death. His wife, 79, was tied to a chair and strangled with an electrical cord.

Their son, Ian, described his father as "an atypical farmer" and "a soft touch." His mother was a gentle soul and a champion of the underdog. They loved the slice of the Hekpoort Valley in central South Africa that had been in the family since the 19th century.

But the elder Lourens, who was white, had a complex relationship with his black farmhand, Daniel Ncube. He had dismissed Ncube many times for pilfering or not showing up for days on end. But he'd forgiven the worker and reemployed him. Over the years, he had lent Ncube nearly 100,000 rand (about $15,000), not expecting its return.

But after a security door key was taken and later returned, and after money started disappearing from the house, Lourens dismissed Ncube again in January. Two months later, Lourens and his wife were dead. Ncube's son, Ben, 18, confessed to the killings.

"I don't know if it was revenge for his dad or to get money for drugs, or whether it was just pure evil intent," said the couple's daughter, Denise Rogers.

Like many killings in South Africa, the level of violence and the motive are difficult to fathom. The debate on violent crime in South Africa, so often colored by race, statistical manipulation, excessive secrecy and political rhetoric, is a part of how a still-divided country sees itself a decade after the first all-races elections, in 1994.

Murders, farm attacks, child rape and violent robberies are the most disturbing crimes, but even after many inquiries and reports, there is no consensus on why violence in South Africa is so high.

Alarm about crime is almost universal, according to the Pew Research Center's 2002 Global Attitudes survey, which found that 96 percent of South Africans see crime as a "very big problem." Three-quarters of nearly 5,000 people surveyed across the country in 2003 by the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria said they felt unsafe walking near their houses in the daytime.

"There is no one satisfactory explanation for South Africa's high levels of crime -- especially the high levels of violent crime," said a committee of inquiry set up by the government to investigate the rise in killings of farmers and farm workers reported last year.

Ian Lourens, the son of the slain farmers, said the poison of apartheid would leave a crime legacy for generations.

"I think there's no doubt that the damage that has been done under apartheid is going to take generations to heal," he said. "That legacy of the denial of education, health facilities, opportunities, the denial of self-respect, is working its way through the system right now.

"It's a fact of South African life. There are marginalized people, and we are not creating jobs. But you have got to deal with it seriously. It's an issue which you can't just wish away."

Crime was one of the most contentious issues in recent elections. The government of President Thabo Mbeki boasts that the number of homicides has dropped since the early 1990s, but that was an era of intense ethnic and political conflict, and those killings were included in homicide statistics.

Each year, about 20,000 South Africans are murdered.

"What we have got is an outrageous violence rate in this country," said Ted Leggett, crime analyst with the Institute for Security Studies.

Whites tend to be more fearful of crime and critical of police, and blacks argue that crime was always prevalent in black areas because of inadequate policing and resources.

One of the most politically fraught debates is about farm slayings, which have risen sharply in the last decade. The homicide rate among farmers is four times higher than among the general population, according to the committee of inquiry.

Farmer lobbies see the attacks as a campaign to drive white farmers off the land, but most studies have concluded that they are random crimes, usually motivated by robbery.

"We have had babies burned. We have had people shot through the knees before being killed. We have had people strangled with barbed wire. We have had people shot in different parts of their bodies," said Chris van Zyl, of TAU South Africa, a farmer group. "The whole message of farm attacks is that living in rural areas is dangerous. I think the message very strongly is, 'Get out of here.' " The committee of inquiry agreed that violence and cruelty in most farm attacks was extreme. "Most [prosecutors] attributed this extreme violence to racial hatred," the report said, adding that most attackers were young, poorly educated, unemployed males.

Commenting on general crime levels, the report said possible explanations included the country's violent past, the proliferation of guns, the growth of organized crime and the poor performance of the criminal justice system, in which conviction rates are extremely low.

The government has been so sensitive about crime that in 2000 it stopped publishing crime figures for a year. At the same time it introduced a National Crime Combating Strategy. Analysts say it is impossible to analyze whether the strategy is working because station-level crime statistics -- including those from the police stations in the 10 worst areas, which produce half the country's crime -- remain a secret.

"I think that paternalistically they feel it's going to feed panic and upset people. They think that what we don't know won't hurt us -- which is a very apartheid-era attitude, if you ask me," Leggett said.

When Kholiwe Nobangela appealed to the police in Soweto after the abduction of her 8-year-old daughter, Nokuzola, they told her to go search the morgues and hospitals herself. She pleaded and cried, but they said to come back in two weeks.

So the girl's relatives investigated. They searched. They found her body dumped on vacant grassland a few hundred yards from her house, raped and tortured. They found the suspect -- the man Nokuzola was last seen with -- and tried to catch him. The police finally arrested and charged him with murder.

"The police did nothing," Nobangela said.

Nokuzola had been playing with the children next door to her grandmother's home. A neighbor's friend, Brian Sisili, 31, whom everyone in the neighborhood knew, had promised Nokuzola to take her to have her hair done, so she had gone with him.

"He wasn't even a thug," Nobangela said, trying to understand.

Crime leaves a legacy of hate.

"It's a poison in our society. It manifests itself everywhere: in our own state of mind and the quality of life we have here," Ian Lourens said. "It stops people wanting to come and live here and invest here. It has tentacles in every little aspect of life."

He and his sister, devout Christians, say they feel no hatred for the killers of their parents. But their pain is so great that they are selling the beloved family farm.

"I'm sad in my bones. I'm really, really sad. I'm sad for my parents. I'm sad for myself. I'm sad for my country. I'm sad for the perpetrators," Ian Lourens said. "It was such a senseless murder, so pointless."