Farm and home defense in Rhodesia and South Africa: Part 1


Following our recent articles about South Africa, an e-mail correspondent asked:

I was wondering if there are any good resources/books/memoirs of how farmers defended their farms?

Seems like there were lessons we should be reviving.

Offhand, I can’t think of any books on that subject:  but there were many lessons learned, and a lot of things that we can profitably apply to our own defense today.  I’m going to try to summarize them in a couple of blog articles.  The first will consider terrain and area defense.  The second will look at the design of homes that are inherently defensible.

Let’s begin with terrain and area defense.  Farms have their own advantages and disadvantages in these areas, just as do suburban homes or apartments.  They’re particularly vulnerable to attacks from a distance.  Anyone with a rifle can stand off several hundred yards and plink at the farmhouse.  All he has to do is hit it.  Even if he misses everyone inside, he’ll prevent them from going about their business, and the farm will suffer.  In terms of driving the farmer off the land, that’s a success in itself.  If he gets closer, he can shoot up farm equipment, injure or kill individuals, and generally make the place unusable.

Another factor is the loyalty of the farm workers.  In Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa, these usually lived on the farm, not too far from the farmhouse, barns and utility buildings.  They were also usually black, where the farmers were usually white.  Terrorists could – and did – intimidate farm workers into providing information about their employers that could be used to attack them;  sabotage farm equipment;  and do as little productive work as possible, thereby hampering the farmer in his attempt to make a living.  Sometimes the workers were very loyal to their employer, particularly if he’d been fair in his treatment of them, and resisted such pressure.  Other times, the intimidation was too much to bear, and the workers became untrustworthy.  Terrorists could be very persuasive when they wanted to be (and they usually did).

Farms usually consisted of a cluster of buildings:  a barn or two, a utility building or two, perhaps a workshop, the farmhouse itself, and some sort of protection for farm and personal vehicles.  There might be a corral or paddock for farm animals, or stockyards for a cattle farm or ranch.  The huts of farm workers were usually off to one side, perhaps a few hundred yards away, perhaps a mile or two.  All these buildings would probably have been erected in more peaceful times, when things like cover and concealment, interlocking fields of fire, and defense against attack would have been the last things on the farmer’s mind.

As terrorism ramped up, farmers had to readjust their thinking.  Those who could afford the expense rearranged their buildings in a more tactical layout, where people in one could cover the exposed walls of others, targeting attackers trying to hide behind them.  They also tried to provide ways for people to move from one building to another without exposing themselves to hostile fire.  That might involve trenches, or a line of hay bales, or parking farm vehicles in strategic locations, or extending walls or hedges between farm buildings to prevent people some distance away from getting more than a glimpse of the “interior lines” between them.  Despite all such precautions, moving from one building to another when under attack could be a “sporty” proposition, to put it mildly, particularly when terrorists had full-auto weapons, rocket launchers and grenades.

Some farmers, particularly those who were part of neighborhood defense units or regional military units, went further.  They would design their defenses around features of the landscape that could “channel” attackers into areas where they could be targeted.  One particularly – and fiendishly – ingenious farmer in Rhodesia, whom I had the pleasure of knowing, was particularly inventive.  He appeared to lack tactical sense, because he “left” or “neglected” small piles of rocks or thorn bushes at various distances from his farm buildings.  They appeared to provide perfect cover for terrorists wanting to shoot at the farm.  However, when said terrorists were firmly ensconced behind them, and preoccupied with their attack, said farmer would trigger the explosives he’d carefully concealed beneath and around them.  Result:  dead terrorists, and a rock pile or thorn bush that need extensive reconstruction or replanting.  This was done with all dispatch, so that the next group of terrorists to come along didn’t notice anything that might have forewarned them.

That farmer ran up quite a score before the word spread (largely because there were so few survivors to spread it!).  After a while, terrorists learned to steer clear of his farm.  In due course, others followed his example, to the point where terrorists started to avoid any such feature of the landscape in the vicinity of farm buildings, regarding it as more likely than not to be a trap.

Terrorists planted land mines on many farm roads, aiming to prevent workers from getting to and from the fields and/or caring for farm animals.  I personally witnessed some of the results, in particular one mine that exploded beneath a tractor-drawn trailer carrying children to a farm school.  15 were killed, some outright, some dying of their wounds before they could be treated, while many others were injured more or less critically.  The terrorists didn’t care, of course.  By working for the farmer, the children and their parents were automatically considered “sell-outs” or traitors, and deserved no mercy.

(The terrorists who planted that particular mine did not live to plant another.  They were hunted down and killed without mercy.  A couple of injured terrorist survivors were handed over to the families who’d lost children.  Shortly thereafter, they ceased to be survivors.)

Mine-protected vehicles were rapidly developed to combat the danger from such explosives.  Rhodesia pioneered the field;  you can read more about that country’s ingenious home-made armored vehicles in this two part article.  South Africa improved on those early designs, and produced thousands more vehicles of the same type.  Farmers weren’t forgotten.  A number of manufacturers designed special anti-mine bodies that could be fitted to a pickup chassis.  They worked well, protecting their occupants from injury even if the vehicle beneath them was destroyed.  Such vehicles are still being produced in South Africa today – for example, this one.  (That article’s reference to a “bakkie” is an Afrikaans slang term meaning “pickup truck”.)

Farmers organized themselves into mutual defense units.  In Rhodesia they were usually reservists of the British South Africa Police, while in South Africa they were under the umbrella of the local Commandos (military units that protected their own area, drawing on locals for their manpower and equipped for internal security operations as well as military missions).  Many were issued with (or acquired by “other means”) assault rifles, sub-machine-guns and other weapons of war.  When one farm was attacked, its residents would alert other farms and their local defensive unit by means of a radio network, whereupon a reaction squad would gather as quickly as possible to go to their aid.  Sometimes terrorists would try to ambush responders, which led to some large-scale firefights.

To get some idea of the strain this imposed on farmers, see this 1975 article in the New York Times, or the 1979 booklet “The Farmer at War“, published in Rhodesia and now available online.  I don’t have similar South African or Namibian articles at my fingertips, but I know some are out there if you look for them.

Attacks on farmers were deliberately encouraged by terrorist movements (we discussed the ANC’s strategy in that regard last week).  Even after independence was achieved, it proved impossible to put that particular genie back into its lamp.  Attacks on farms have continued and intensified.  It’s not as simple as some would like to portray it:  there were, and still are, continuing injustices that make white-owned farms magnets for resentment, even hatred.  I wrote about that some time ago, and followed it up by explaining why animist religion, dominant in black Africa, attaches such importance to the land, further motivating anti-farmer resentment.  All those underlying factors were exploited by communist terrorists to underpin their anti-farmer tactics.  The situation is far, FAR more complex than most of the simplistic black-versus-white race-war analyses would have you believe.  Do please read those earlier two articles to get some idea of how far back the problem goes, and why it’s so intractable.

With the disbandment of local security organizations after Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and after South African majority rule, farmers have found themselves bereft of the mutual security they formerly provided to each other.  Undaunted, many have continued their former practices on an informal basis, even without official sanction.  I know for a fact that large quantities of weapons, ammunition, communications gear, even vehicles, that were supposed to be handed in after the disbandment of local units, “fell off the back of a truck” and vanished without official notice or trace, and are still in use today.  I won’t be surprised if literally thousands of assault rifles, machine-guns and other ordnance aren’t still deployed on and around farms, and proving just as effective as when they were officially issued.

In the next article in this series, we’ll discuss how farmhouse design and construction changed in response to the terrorist threat, and how that became an integral part of self-defense for farmers and their families.  I’ll follow that with a look at how those “lessons learned” can be applied to urban life and homes.



  1. I recall reading, maybe even 50 years ago, about a farmer that kept a loaded shotgun in the middle of the floor in multiple rooms in the house, muzzle facing the door. Everyone knew just to work around it.
    May have been written by Robert Ruark. It's just been too long. The Mau Mau were over 60 years ago. History rhyming and all that.

  2. The site you linked above had an article about the riots there, and a statement by Pres Rhamposa that the street riots had provided cover for ex t ensive infrastructure attacks on things like cell towers, distribution centers, transport assets, rail and roads, and power generation and transmission. There were also notes that the looters and the arsonists appeared to be two different groups.
    The article mentioned that 45% of SAs' economy was in KwaZulu/Natal provinces.
    Another site (appeared more sensational / less credible, but …) noted that most of the after-riot fires and infrastructure destruction had occurred in areas that the Chinese had contracted to build new assets on.
    John in Indy

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