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ANALYSIS: A black day for racing and reporting at Fairview

horse, rider, horse riding

The Fairview saga provides a useful example of how careless reporting, along with flames fanned on social media, can inflame racial tensions.

On September 17, headlines across media platforms screamed that grooms at the Fairview racecourse in PE had slaughtered and hacked horses to death during a protest. The incident, appalling as it seemed, sparked outrage – and in some cases blatant racism –  across social media in the horse racing community and beyond. 

The problem is that it simply wasn’t true. As we will show in this analysis, the Fairview racecourse grooms were by no means angels in this saga, and the animals did indeed come to some harm. But the men were not the blood-thirsty demons they were made out to be, either. 

More than shining a light on tensions between grooms and racehorse trainers and owners, which is the central point of the story, the Fairview incident reveals how unverified reporting can exploit racial divides. 

What happened?

Soon after 6am on September 17, reports emerged which stated, often as fact, that the grooms went on a bloody rampage. Words like “hacking, stabbing, maiming, stoning, killing” horses were used across social media and in the press, with little to no proof. 

These are the facts as we now know them. 

On September 17, about 200 grooms at the Fairview racecourse released 28 horses from their stables in protest over a labour dispute (more on that later). The protestors were carrying knopkierries. The horses were chased, scattered, and many were injured with cuts and abrasions to their bodies. Two horses were more seriously injured with stab-like wounds, possibly the result of them running into the veld and surrounding areas. One horse broke its neck after running away and died. 

One of the grooms was arrested and charged with malicious damage to property, and will appear in court again on October 26. Police spokesperson Colonel Priscilla Naidu has confirmed that the charges did not relate to the injuries sustained by the animals, and as of Tuesday, October 6, no charges of cruelty to animals have been laid by anyone. 

Naidu said she could not comment on why no additional charges were laid. But it is understood that a vet’s report concluded the animal that died did not succumb to injuries directly inflicted by any of the grooms. Explain tried to verify what happened with the vet who wrote the report. 

We asked Dr Ashley Parker whether any horses were stabbed or injured by the grooms. 

This was his response via WhatsApp: 

“Flying back but just to let u know all but two of them have recovered well and have been moved to Durban to further their racing careers the other 2 are being looked after locally and are improving and will be monitored closely.”

We also reached out to the animal rescue team that treated the horses on the ground. 

Carla Hazel, an inspector from the Eastern Cape Horse Unit, said she saw stab wounds on one of the horses herself, adding that it was quite a specific kind of wound that would be hard to misdiagnose. When pressed for details about the weapons used, she said she was not sure if it was a stab wound or a gash from a panga. She added that some people had said the horses were actually injured when they ran into the bush. 

“Ja, but whatever, indirectly it’s the grooms’ fault. Bottom line is the wound on the critically injured horse is on the barrel of the horse. The other wound is a scrape wound.” The ‘barrel’ is the horse’s undercarriage which encloses the rib cage. 

She said that weapons had been confiscated on the scene, but that she didn’t see this herself, and that pangas could be seen on footage from the incident. It is not clear from any of the photographs in press reports that pangas or knives of any sort were used, although the grooms were carrying knopkierries.

“I suppose we live in Africa so you begin to accept this behaviour,” she said. 

The dispute

We also know that in February, a groom cut the ear of a racehorse during grooming. He said that it was an accident and that the horse jumped during grooming, while horse owner Hedley McGrath said the horse was intentionally stabbed. A vet’s report backed up his claim, McGrath insisted in press reports. 

McGrath wanted the groom to pay the R13 000 vet’s bill, and according to a groom interviewed by TimesLive, the grooms all wanted to share the cost of this to help the groom responsible because it was an accident that could have happened to anyone. 

A seven month long dispute ensued. Central to the dispute is that the grooms say they were dismissed, while McGrath says they simply went awol. The grooms lost their case during mediation but want to be paid their Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) money. Here things get murky, and McGrath claimed in an interview that the grooms did not want to accept a UIF offer.

It appears as though the grooms attempted to get their UIF through the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) but their case withdrawn. Some of the grooms claimed they withdrew the case because the process was taking too long due to Covid-19, and they were struggling without an income.

Whatever the situation was at this point, it was the UIF issue that led to the protest on September 17. 

Grooms and the industry generally have a long and fraught relationship, but more on that later. 

Reporting and racism

Now let’s turn to how the story was reported, and the racism that ensued. The racism ranged from suggestions that the grooms, being black, did not care for animals, to comments such as “this only happens in Africa”. 

The link between the race of the grooms and the alleged cruelty inflicted on the horses was made repeatedly.

It all began with a single quote from an animal protection spokesperson who claimed in a news report that one horse had been “hacked to death”. The quote spread like wildfire, and was picked up over and over again by the media and on social media without verification. 

At about 10am on September 17, a Timeslive headline announced, “Horse slaughtered with pangas as racecourse labourers feud.” 

That day, another TimesLive headline screamed, “Protest leading to hacking of horse has been simmering for months”. The story carried no proof that a horse was hacked and, as we now know, the horse who died was not hacked at all. The story carried an image of a horse lying on the ground with its back to the camera. Its injuries, if any, were not visible.

The story said that the grooms had been “killing and maiming horses”. This information was attributed to the International Racing Authority (IRA). 

In the same story, the IRA’s Mike de Haast was quoted as saying he had “personally lost horses in the attack” and that “maimed horses would have to be put down”. We now know from the vet who examined the animals that only one horse died, and the rest recovered. 

De Haast also claimed that “innocent animals are slaughtered and abused due to greed and hate”. 

He quoted Gandhi, who apparently said that the greatness of a nation can be judged on how it treats its animals. (You’ll find this quote used frequently by advocates of vegetarianism, and less frequently by advocates of sports involving animals like horse racing.) 

Later that day, the DA issued a statement condemning the “violent attacks” and noting that one of the animals was “killed”. This was shared widely on social media. 

IOL carried an article stating as fact that four horses had died, two with broken legs “and the rest hacked with pangas”. 

eNCA claimed that the horse that died was “ allegedly slaughtered with pangas and other weapons”.

EWN reported that a horse was “slaughtered”, that two of the nine horses that were “attacked with pangas” were in a critical condition, and that the grooms had gone on a “stabbing spree”. 

Only Business Day did not claim that the horses were slaughtered, but said one died when the grooms went on a “rampage”.

Soon, there were calls for the public to take up arms to protect the racecourse. One Facebook commenter wrote: 

“THOSE WHO CAN.. PLEASE HELP !!! Fairview racecourse is being set a light. Killed one horse with a panga and others with broken legs due to being chased. Masses are there to do harm. Police is there. They are asking for the publics assistance for those with fire arms !!!! Is anyone aware of this”

On September 18, TimeLive carried a story featuring an image of a group of protestors carrying knopkierries but no knives or pangas. The headline was “They stabbed and stoned my horses – Fairview stable owner in PE”. 

The story quoted a worker, Mbeko Kolisile, who said that one of the grooms accidentally cut the ear of one of the horses which jumped while he was grooming it. He claimed that McGrath wanted to fire the worker and charge him R13 000. The workers begged him to let the man keep his job and to deduct the R13 000 from all of their salaries, as it was a mistake that any of them could have made. 

When he refused, the workers were reportedly fired, and lost at the CCMA because they felt they couldn’t win, and were struggling financially without work. They then found out they were not eligible for UIF as they had apparently absconded from work. 

In an interview in The Herald on September 22, Fairview horse trainer and owner Yvette Bremner, who is the grooms’ real employer, and McGrath announced that they were leaving racing. Bremner claimed that the horse which died was still alive when its neck broke, and that it was dealt a final and fatal blow by one of the grooms. 

The article was shared on Facebook along with comments about “Racial terrorism sponsored by the state” and “farm attacks”. The idea that the horse was killed was repeated as fact, over and over. 

Another Facebook commenter on another page dedicated to the Fairview incident said, “They will rot in hell. Barbaric act of people with no brains, no integrity and no self-worth.” Another comment referred to the grooms as “black savages”. 

By 24 September, a backabuddy page had been created to raise funds for the “injured horses”. It had raised nearly R2000 with a fundraising target of R100 000. The accompanying image shows a horse with injuries above both eyes. 

McGrath

When explain contacted trainer Hedley McGrath for comment, he was at the police station, opening a case for what he called the “biggest case in equine history”, and said he could not talk at the moment. He later did not respond to a WhatsApp request for comment. 

But McGrath has been quoted widely in the press. 

He gave his version of events during a youtube interview dubbed “The Fairview Files.”

“At 6:10, (on September 17) I saw six guys open the gate. The horses were out. The horses were chased. It was just mayhem. ..they (the grooms) came back with masses. The poor police couldn’t open their weapons. 

They stoned the horses. They hit them with knopkierries. The doors were opened… they herded these horses out like savages,” he said. 

De Haast was in the same interview. 

He drove to PE from Bloemfontein when he heard about what was happening at Fairview. 

“We kind of prepared ourselves for the worst. We arrived just after 4. I was shocked, devastated to see the damage that was done. … the horses being maimed and damaged like this was heart-breaking to be honest. I burst into tears… How do you explain to English and Irish (horse) owners that this can actually happen in a civilised, so-called civilised society? 

I have to ask the question. Do they (the grooms) love the animals? Do they feel the same about our animals as we do?” he said. 

Later, McGrath said the grooms had “hacked Yvette’s horses” and said the horses were “slaughtered”.

“I watched a horse get stoned. I watched a horse get cut. Blazing Blue’s got three stab marks in his neck.”

He then claimed that he and others were “stoned on our horses” at some point and that their private security shot back at the grooms. It’s not clear whether this was during the same incident. 

“The sad thing for me is, I don’t know how this works in their culture, I come from the Transkei – a black state, I never had one iota of problems until I moved to PE,” he said, adding that Bemner has shut down the Fairview racecourse. 

De Haast said the International Horsing Association will be racing in black to protest against a lack of support for the plight of horse owners and trainers. 

“This is a black day for racing,” he said.  

Horse racing and grooms: a history of bad blood

Relations between grooms and the industry have been hostile for years. Generally, grooms claim they are mistreated and live in appalling conditions while caring for horses worth millions, while the industry and horse owners say they are under constant threat of violence and extortion from the grooms, and that negotiations are impossible under the circumstances. 

Accusations that the grooms have and will abuse the animals when negotiations break down is common. Strikes are an almost yearly occurrence in the industry and hostilities are clear from both sides 

As an investigation by the Sunday Times into grooms’ living conditions at the Randjiesfontein race course in Midrand in 2019 put it: “On a single weekend some of those horses will rake in more money than their grooms will see in a lifetime.” 

A New Frame investigation into the conditions at Fairview found similar problems. 

The investigation at Randjiesfontein described squalid, cramped living conditions with poor ablutions and some grooms sleeping in horse stalls because there are not enough beds. 

There were promises of things improving at the time and Phumelela, the JSE-listed entity which regulates horse betting in the country, and which leases accommodation for the grooms to the trainers, told the publication that Randjiesfontein quarters were being refurbished. 

Some years ago, an independent dispute resolution firm was appointed by the government to try and resolve hostilities in the industry. According to parliamentary records, industry bodies were reluctant to take part in the process, again citing attempted extortion by the grooms. But the appointed mediator said it was not so much a case of extortion as it was of miscommunication: many of the grooms spoke English poorly and so there was a communication logjam. 

Numerous efforts by explain to reach out to the South African Grooms Association, which claims to represent most of the country’s 4000 grooms, have proven fruitless. Perhaps this is one of the problems facing grooms: they have not been particularly organised in a formal way. The association is also  not registered on the Department of Labour’s website along with other trade unions, so it’s not clear whether they would be able to represent grooms during any kind of official negotiations over wages or accommodation. 

One of the most contentious issues has been the lack of an industry-recognised body to represent the grooms. The grooms have wanted to be recognised under SAGA, but according to the NHA’s January 2020 AGM minutes, this has not happened. 

The hold up, from the NHA’s perspective, appears to be that the full names, ID documents and work permits of the grooms will have to be provided before such a body can be registered. But an estimated two thirds of grooms might not be able to meet this standard. 

And in the absence of a formal negotiation with an established association, the industry’s regulator, the NHA, says it cannot move forward with mediation talks. 

Our take

The Fairview saga provides a useful example of how careless reporting, that is mirrored by other media without verification and shared on social media, can inflame racial tensions. But it also reveals how racism and prejudice still lies very close to the surface for many South Africans, particularly white South Africans, and how easily it comes to light when the right trigger comes long.