The word that seeps into South Africa’s history more than any other is apartheid.
It comes from the Afrikaans word “apartness” that depicts the system of racial segregation and the strong divide between black Africans and white Europeans.
The system of apartheid did not become official law in South Africa until 1953.
In a country plagued by racial injustice, apartheid was the keystone of a system of violence and terror instituted by an all-white National Party.
The end of the regime would not come until 1994, when revered public figure Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president after 27 years in jail, saving the country from entering a civil war.
However, Mandela did not heal all of South Africa’s social wounds, and the country is now witnessing rising racial tensions in its farming heartland.
The Historical Problem
Farmland ownership is a highly-charged and polarising issue for the South African government, with pressure mounting to address concerns of racial injustice and economic inequality.
During apartheid, the Group Areas Act (1950) enforced a system of dispossession and separation, pushing black farm owners into rural and urban reserves.
In 2014 the South African Government admitted it would not reach its target of redistributing 30 per cent of the land it had bought back since the end of apartheid, most of which belonged to black farmers.
South Africa’s land reform debate has taken on a new sense of urgency, with the country’s parliament taking a resolution to fix land ownership by amending the constitution.
The proposed legislation aims to address a history of land dispossession due to colonialism and apartheid.
The process of reconciliation after the fall of apartheid has been criticised for its incremental approach, especially in regions such as the countryside where a majority of workers are farmers.
Furthermore, the majority of farmers are black South Africans who are amongst the poorest group of workers.
The White Farmer Violence
According to a 2017 survey undertaken by the Institute of Race Relations, South Africa remains one of the countries with the highest rate of murder in the world.
The group claims a white farmer is twice as likely to be murdered as a policeman and, in 2017 alone, more than 400 farmers were attacked.
As the new president Cyril Ramaphosa pledged to seize back land without compensation, the rise in fatality rates for white farmers has risen to one a week.
South Africa’s inherently white commercial farmers have labeled the killings against them as “white genocide.”
What the Politicians Say
The most vocal advocate for the resettlement of white South African farmers is Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.
Mr Dutton drew Australia’s attention to the issue on March 14 in an interview with News Corp.
“If you look at the footage and read the stories, you hear the accounts, it’s a horrific circumstance they face,” Mr Dutton said.
“We have the potential to help some of these people that are being persecuted.
“I do think on the information that I’ve seen, people do need help, and they need help from a civilised country like ours.”
Mr Dutton comments sparked a divisive response from both sides of politics.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott backed Mr Dutton’s stance while speaking to 2GB on March 19.
“I think that Peter Dutton was absolutely right to say that under our humanitarian intake program there ought to be a place for people who are being persecuted this way,” Mr Abbott said.
“If the boot was on the other foot we would call it racism of the worst sort.”
However, Mr Dutton’s comments caused a split in his own party, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop reasserting that each visa application would be “assessed on its merits”.
“That’s been the case under the Turnbull government, and as far as I’m aware, there are no plans to change that visa program,” Ms Bishop said.
The South African Foreign Ministry slammed Mr Dutton’s implication that South Africa is an uncivilised country, and rejected the notion of white farmers being persecuted.
“We regret that the Australian Government chose not to use the available diplomatic channels to raise concerns or to seek clarification on the land redistribution process in South Africa,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said.
After Ms Bishop retracted Mr Dutton’s statement and reasserted Australia’s current visa policy South Africa’s Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwie Sisulu thanked the Australian government for condemning Mr Dutton’s comments.
“We welcome the assurance by the Australian government as reported in the media that the comments made by their Home Affairs Minister are not in line with Australian immigration policy,” Ms Sisulu said.
“We must emphasise, as we have stated before, that no one is being persecuted in South Africa, including white farmers.”
Greens leader Richard Di Natale labeled Mr Dutton as a “racist” saying the call to bring white South African farmers to Australia would be a return to the White Australian policy.
“There’s no debate as far as I’m concerned, the bloke is an out-and-out racist,” Senator Di Natale said at a press conference.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten echoed a similar sentiment speaking to Sky News on April 4.
“I don’t know what’s motivating Mr Dutton with his comments about South Africa,” Mr Shorten said.
“If Mr Dutton wants to enter a beauty parade to win the right wing of the Liberal party for votes in the future to undermine Mr Turnbull—that’s a matter for them.”
White Farmers in Context of Other Refugee Situations
The insistence on fast tracking white South African visas under Australia’s humanitarian immigration program has been criticised for contradicting Australia’s recent treatment of asylum seekers.
Of most concern is Australia’s offshore detention policy for refugees.
The Coalition Government argues detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island are imperative to counter the growing number of people smugglers illegally bringing refugees into the country.
Despite the United Nations Human Rights Committee calling on Australia to immediately shut down the camps—claiming the mandatory and often indefinite detention of refugees is “unlawful”—the Coalition argues it’s in Australia’s national security interest to keep them open.
Australia has violated international laws, such as the United Nations Convention against Torture (1987), in order to keep detention centres open, while also “forcibly returning people to countries where they would face a real risk of serious violations,” an annual report by Amnesty International found.
In fact, the Australian government has offered persecuted Rohingya refugees detained in Manus Island up to $25,000 to go back to Myanmar, a country where Muslims still face “ethnic cleansing” according to a UN Human Rights Envoy.
Mr Dutton’s contradictions on immigration policy were heavily criticised on social media by controversial Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
“This is the same man who has refused to extend the same generosity to the Rohingya… suggesting they might be returned to Myanmar,” Ms Abdel-Magied said.
“This kind of behaviour and rhetoric is so deeply racist, to call it ‘thinly veiled’ would be offensive to the term ‘thinly veiled’.”
Mr Dutton’s comments have engaged the nation in a broader discussion on Australian immigration, but whether the situation in South Africa will instigate a significant policy shift remains to be seen.
Image Courtesy: Daily Mail