PARYS, South Africa — They lived in a township where homes were decorated with pictures of Nelson Mandela and neighborhoods were named after anti-apartheid activists. A poster hung in city hall said, “We restored the dignity of our people.” The mayor and the police chief and the country’s president were black, like them.
But in early January, when Samuel Tjexa, 35, and Seun Tangasha, 25, bolted through the fields of this small city, it was four white farmers who chased them with guns. And it was those white farmers who allegedly beat Tjexa and Tangasha to death, in a case that has highlighted the racial divisions haunting the new South Africa.
Twenty-two years after apartheid, this country is in the midst of another racial reckoning. It is evident in the recent uproar over a white woman’s Facebook post that called black beachgoers “monkeys.” The ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), is trying to pass an “anti-racism” law that would jail anyone guilty of “racial bigotry.” An increasingly popular opposition group, the Economic Freedom Fighters, has called for a crusade against “white supremacy.”
This small farming city 60 miles outside Johannesburg offers a glimpse into the tensions flaring again in South Africa. When the four accused farmers had a bail hearing in their murder trial last month, whites and blacks gathered at the courthouse, separated by barbed wire.
“I could see the anger in their eyes,” said George de Beer, a white farmer.
“They looked at us like we were nothing,” said Ruth Qokotha, Tjexa’s mother.
The whites sang the apartheid-era national anthem and held the flags of the 19th-century Boer Republics, seen by most here as a racist relic. The blacks shouted: “Kill the Boer! Kill the farmer!” — a reference to South African whites of Dutch descent.
Like many parts of South Africa, Parys has evolved little since apartheid. Blacks live mostly in a sprawling township called Tumahole, next to an informal garbage dump, and whites live in a part of the city lined with antique stores, hotels and government buildings. There are 65 commercial farmers. All of them are white. In many cases, black farm laborers work for the same families that their great-grandparents worked for a century earlier.
“We were expecting change. We were expecting to live together. But nothing changed at all,” said Paul Oliphant, 48, a welder in Tumahole who was involved in the anti-apartheid movement.
The end of apartheid — “apartness” in Afrikaans — meant to many the beginning of social and economic equality in South Africa. Farmworkers could become farmers. Poor blacks could move from townships, underdeveloped settlements once reserved for nonwhites, into the same neighborhoods as their white countrymen. In some places, those changes occurred. A black middle class and an ultra-rich elite formed. The government mandated that private companies hire a certain portion of black employees.
But today, whites, who make up about 9 percent of the population, earn about six times what blacks do on average. Agriculture, mining and banking, three of the country’s most lucrative industries, are dominated by whites.
The continued economic inequality has contributed to a new wave of racial tension. The South African Human Rights Commission received 160 racism-related complaints in January, the highest monthly figure in its 20-year history, officials say.
Some say the ANC is using race to its political advantage, accusing its opponents of being anti-black to increase support from its base. The party’s proposed anti-racism law has only been vaguely described but is intended to ensure that “acts of racism and promotion of apartheid are criminalized and punishable by imprisonment.”
“The [ANC] organization is not in a strong state at this stage, and it needs an external enemy against which it can unite its own followers,” said Susan Booysen, a political scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand and the author of a recent book on the ANC.
White farmers say they’re the ones under threat, their farms raided and their families attacked in crimes that often feel like the expression of racial outrage. In 2014, black men in Parys raped an elderly woman and put her body in a freezer, where she died. The previous year, a white farmer was killed when intruders dragged him behind his truck. Last year, members of a primarily white group, the Transvaal Agricultural Union, complained to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that white farmers in South Africa were a persecuted minority. Sixty-two people were murdered during 270 farm attacks in 2015, according to the farmers, who say the number is growing.
“In some ways it feels like there’s more tension now than there was during apartheid,” said Wynn Dedwith, a farmer in Parys. “All it takes is a little spark to ignite a keg of dynamite.”
The spark came just before sunset Jan. 6, when Tjexa and Tangasha approached their boss on his farm outside central Parys. According to the 72-year-old farmer, Loedie van der Westhuizen, the men were armed with revolvers and were there to rob him of about $1,250. According to the families of Tjexa and Tangasha, they had gone unarmed to collect overdue wages, about $50 each. The police have found no weapons in their investigation.
The farmer told investigators that the two men hit him on the head and the torso until he managed to trigger a security alarm. That alarm alerted nearby farmers who had formed a self-defense force. They chased Tjexa and Tangasha to a field near a maize farm.
“We got the message that the two attackers were on the run,” said Pieter Kemp, a farmer who helps coordinate the self-defense force. “There were a lot of us looking for them. Until that point, the system worked the way it was supposed to.”
When police arrived, they found the black men had been brutally beaten. They both died within hours. The alleged assailants have not entered a plea.
“For us, the reality facing farmers can sometimes lead to an overreaction,” said Ernst Roets, deputy chief executive of AfriForum, an Afrikaner advocacy group helping to defend the accused farmers. “You have a friend who was killed, or you know the lady who was put into the freezer, and maybe you think, ‘Finally, we caught the bastards.’ ”
Qokotha, Tjexa’s mother, heard the news about his death from a friend.
“The whites think they can do anything here,” she said. “It’s still apartheid.”
The whites called into their local Afrikaans-language radio station, Koepel Stereo, and spoke about the threat of more farm attacks, their sense of insecurity.
“We’re being killed like flies,” said the host, Sakkie van der Schyff. “The only reason you aren’t seeing a revolt by the whites is that we’re good Christians.”
The blacks called into Lentswe Community Radio, their own station three miles away, furious that the four farmers were granted bail.
“If these guys are acquitted, there will be revenge,” said Seun Tladi, the station’s newsreader.
At his presidential inauguration in 1994, Nelson Mandela spoke of a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
Tangasha was a toddler when that speech was delivered, living with his family in the Free State, in South Africa’s breadbasket. His parents, like almost all black South Africans in the 1990s and early 2000s, were supporters of the ANC, Mandela’s party.
Tangasha was part of the generation that would profit from the rainbow nation, his grandmother remembers thinking. He would go to university. He would own a house, maybe a business. But like most black South Africans, he dropped out of a crumbling public education system before he turned 16. He found work on a farm, earning about $10 a day. He was never paid on time, his relatives said.
He started voting for the Economic Freedom Fighters, the party led by firebrand Julius Malema, who said in a speech last year: “We want a total overhaul of the state. We want a state that is not scared of the white minority.”
The ANC had made attempts to provide for men such as Tangasha in Tumahole. It purchased land that was meant to be parceled out to black farmers. But the farm equipment never arrived. Neither did the fertilizer. Locals blamed the mismanagement of the country's land reform program. Part of what was meant to be black-owned farmland is now the unsanctioned dump, where the white-owned businesses of Parys throw their trash.
Ironically, the white farmers have thrived under the ANC, which removed apartheid-era price controls and in some cases enabled them to increase their profit margins. Unlike in Zimbabwe, where white-owned farms were seized by force, the South African government has said it will purchase land only from white landowners who choose to sell it. Unlike Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, South African leaders, including Mandela, have emphasized the right to political representation but have spoken much less about economic equality. Experts say Mandela was concerned about upsetting economic stability during a fragile time.
“Farmworkers imagined that when we had a democratic government with black politicians in power that their exploitation would go away,” said Moeletsi Mbeki, a political economist. “But that’s never what the democratic struggle was about.”
In recent weeks, the police have been trying to understand how and why Tangasha and Tjexa were killed. The investigating officer, Maj. Serame Mahlatsi, has been collecting accounts from the farmers, trying to follow the laws of the new South Africa amid the polarization of the old one.
He is a black police officer investigating white farmers. He knows it is a sensitive matter. In a brief interview, he showed a flash of exasperation.
“You can’t take the law into your own hands,” Mahlatsi said. “You can’t just kill people.”
But the situation turned out to be worse than even he imagined.
Just before the trial was to resume Feb. 19, Mahlatsi and his colleagues got a tip from a witness. One of their own, a 46-year-old white policeman named Hendrick Prinsloo, had allegedly helped the farmers beat the two victims when he arrived at the scene.
Prinsloo was arrested and now stands trial as well.