By Olivia Kumwenda
ERMELO, South Africa (Reuters) - In a country cursed by one of the world's highest murder rates, being a white farmer makes a violent death an even higher risk.
Whether attacks have been motivated by race or robbery, a rising death rate from rural homicides is drawing attention to the lack of change on South Africa's farms nearly two decades after the end of apartheid - and to the tensions burgeoning over enduring racial inequality.
Some of South Africa's predominantly white commercial farmers go as far as to brand the farm killings a genocide.
On the other side of the divide, populists are seizing on the discontent among the black majority to demand a forced redistribution of white-owned farms along the lines of neighboring Zimbabwe.
"The issue is potentially explosive," said Lechesa Tsenoli, deputy minister for land reform, arguing that South Africa's future depends on ending inequality on the farms.
The economic change promised by Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) when white-minority rule ended in 1994 has been even slower in the countryside than in cities and mines, where at least small elites of black South Africans have prospered.
Land ownership ratios are little changed from 1913, when the Natives' Land Act set aside 87 percent of land for whites. Meanwhile, black farm workers are among South Africa's poorest.
Life is getting more uncomfortable for the white farmers too, however. Their number is down a third, to some 40,000, in the past 15 years. Headlines about the farm killings are another incentive to sell up.
For while South Africa's overall annual murder rate has more than halved since the end of apartheid to around 32 people per 100,000, figures for commercial farmers show a near 50 percent rise to an average rate of some 290 per 100,000 a year in the five years to 2011.
IN THE NECK
Shot at his home by black attackers two years ago, 34-year-old Johan Scholtz believes he was the victim of a racially motivated attack rather than a robbery.
"I was shot through my neck, I was shot through my chest and as I fell to the ground they came and stood over me and they shot again - two times - just missed my brain," Scholtz said, fighting back tears as he recalled the incident.
"My sheep were there around the house, they could've taken the sheep. My house was open, they could've easily gone in. But they left with nothing," he said, adding that the family did not own much worth stealing.
Scholtz now keeps a baseball bat by his bed at his livestock farm in Ermelo, in the undulating veld some 230 km (140 miles) east of Johannesburg. He is asking himself how long he will stay in the business.
Despite the ANC's pledge to build a "rainbow nation", South Africa's income disparity - which had already been among the top few in the world - has widened further since apartheid ended, according to World Bank figures.
Among the very poorest are the black farm workers, suffering not only from the economic hardship, but - all too often - a brand of racial abuse unchanged since the end of white rule.
"For farm workers at the bottom like me, we are not allowed to talk to farm owners directly," complained one 28-year-old fruit farm worker from the northeastern Limpopo province, asking that he be called only by his first name, Frans.
"The farmers disrespect us to a point they would use the 'K-word'," he said. The "K-word" is "kaffir", apartheid-era slang for a black person and highly offensive.
While wages for most workers have increased steadily since apartheid, they have risen more slowly for farm workers - who earn only 10 to 30 percent of a typical factory worker's wage. About half those in rural areas live on less than $3 a day.
Anger has boiled over in violent strikes in recent weeks in the Cape Town wine region, where thousands of farm workers demand a doubling in wages from about 70 rand ($8) a day.
ROBBERY NOT RACE
The motive for nearly 90 percent of farm attacks was robbery rather than race, according to the biggest government study on the subject, published nearly a decade ago.
"There might be segments within the South African population that would like to use words such as genocide, but farm attacks are a result of criminal activities," said Andre Botha of Agri SA, the largest farmers' union, which points out that the small number of black commercial farmers are also victims of crime.
"It's an obvious result of the lifestyle that we chose. Farms are a soft target," he said.
Disentangling motives is no easy task, however, in a society where whites have the vast majority of the wealth on display and the history of discrimination can add another edge to attacks on isolated homesteads.
"Sometimes it degenerates into racial conflict," said Johan Burger of the Institute for Security Studies, who has been studying farm violence for more than a decade.
When white supremacist leader Eugene Terre'blanche was hacked to death by two farm workers in 2010, racial motives were suspected, but it turned out to have been caused by a wage dispute.
The racial discontent on the farms has also become an element in the political equation at a time of tensions over wildcat mineworkers' strikes and factional struggles within the ruling ANC.
"SHOOT THE BOER"
Before being told to stop by the courts, populist leader Julius Malema stirred up crowds with his singing of "Shoot the Boer" - deepening unease among whites in a country where the Afrikaans word for farmer is synonymous with the people who make up most of the 10 percent white minority.
Although the ANC has decided to drop the apartheid-era song after firing Malema as its youth leader, the affair has pushed race further onto the political agenda.
AfriForum, a vocal advocacy group for Afrikaans-speakers - who descend mostly from Dutch and French settlers - blames the song in part for the rise in crimes against farmers as it catalogues murders, rapes and other attacks.
"The amount of violence is horrific," said AfriForum's Ernst Roets.
Meanwhile, Malema and the ANC's youth wing are demanding that white-owned land be turned over to black South Africans.
For radicals, Zimbabwe's experience set a good example to follow - even though the forced seizures of land helped push South Africa's neighbor into nearly a decade of economic decline.
According to a plan drawn up under Mandela, 30 percent of farmland was meant to be handed to black South Africans by 2014. Only 8 percent has been transferred, however, and the government is now reviewing the plan.
The direct economic impact of any radical change in land ownership might be less dramatic in South Africa than in Zimbabwe because farming accounts for only about 3 percent of gross domestic product rather than 20 percent.
But no matter how it is addressed, the potential for growing confrontation over race and land raises another dangerous prospect for Africa's biggest economy.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz, Tshepo Tshabalala and Lynette Ndabambi; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)