The Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, has gratuitously interfered in the internal affairs of South Africa. His comments on what he termed ‘the horrific circumstances’ relating to white South African farmers, at the urging of white right-wing extremists, has done harm to finely balanced race relations in South Africa and to the relationship between the two countries.
Had he sought a briefing from the Department of Foreign Affairs he would have discovered that the situation relating to the ‘persecution’ of white farmer’s bears no resemblance to his ill-informed remarks. The Australian High Commission in Pretoria keeps DFAT well informed.
I feel qualified to comment. As a young diplomat posted to South Africa at the height of Apartheid, 1976-79, I chose to assist those opposing the regime. There seemed little point in helping it to survive. Apartheid was not something to be observed, like the fundamental evil of Fascism, it had to be destroyed.
For me there was no other option. I sheltered people running from the police in my home, I delivered messages for people who were banned and could not use phones for fear of interception and police brutality and I took people to safety in neighbouring countries under the protection of my diplomatic immunity.
I got to know many activists including Steve Biko, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Dr Nthato Motlana, Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Donald Woods, whom I assisted in leaving South Africa. This escape was portrayed in the Richard Attenborough film, ‘Cry Freedom’. Together with my predecessor, Di Johnstone, I helped found Ifa Lethu, which amongst other things assists with the education of youngsters in black townships.
No independent observer will deny that attacks on farm properties have occurred. The reasons vary. South Africa has a population of 56 million; in 2016-17, 19,000 murders were committed of which 74 occurred on farms, of these 60 per cent were white farmers, their families and/or friends, 34 per cent were black workers and 5 per cent were Asian. There were 49 deaths in 2015-16; 72 per cent of agricultural land is owned by white farmers with whites comprising 8 per cent of the population. South Africa ranks tenth in the world in relation to violent deaths. Jamaica ranks sixth and Brazil sixteenth, with a population of 200 million had 65,000 murders in 2012.
Black violence is endemic in South Africa with blacks living in poverty most likely to be affected.
Fatal violence associated with theft also affects whites in the suburbs. Black violence is a sad legacy of Apartheid which relied on the use of state sponsored armed force to exist and maintain the segregation of blacks from whites. The system was cruel and ruthless and the response to it was often violent.
Some white farmers have not accepted change. They continue to support the notion of Apartheid of which they were a primary beneficiary; they are right wing and often treat their black work force badly, showing little respect, with some resorting to violence as a means of enforcing their will.
Some still fly the old South African flag. They live in the past. It is these sad and divisive characters that Dutton has chosen to support.
Land re-distribution was not addressed by the corrupt President Zuma. The new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, has put it back on the agenda much to the annoyance of white farmers who are alleging persecution. Ramaphosa, who I know to be a good person, is seeking to act in the interests of all of South Africans. Reform is overdue, it is 25 years since Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela became President.
As a nation Australia was at the fore in seeking to end Apartheid. Dutton is destroying a legacy which was difficult to achieve and hard to build. Former Prime Minister Abbott, who has joined with Dutton on the issue, did not oppose Apartheid.
The South African government is offended and angry and is disinclined to let the issue rest. It said it was, ‘…offended by the statement which has been attributed to the Australian Home Affairs Minister and a full retraction is expected.’ In offering fast track visas to South African farmers Dutton had the temerity to state that they were being offered protection in a ‘civilised country’. The arrogance of that statement has left South Africa gob smacked.
They are saying in what way does Dutton consider Australia civilised in light of his policies toward refugees?
Left unaddressed Dutton’s statement will affect trade, business, sporting and educational relationships. There are currently 52 Australian travel agents touring South Africa as guests of SA Tourism, it can be expected that if relations deteriorate these exchanges will end. Last year 10.3 million tourists visited South Africa.
Dutton needs to realise he has committed a major diplomatic gaffe. He has brought shame on Australia. Given the mood of the South African government nothing short of an apology is likely to satisfy them.
Bruce Haigh is a retired Australian Diplomat
This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on March 23 2018