Note: A version of this article was published in the Australian magazine Arena in June 2018.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s call to prioritise a refugee intake of white South African farmers because they need “special attention” and “help from a civilised country like ours” has received a great deal of ongoing press coverage in both Australia and South Africa.
The call has garnered support from a number of leading figures in Australia’s Liberal Party, mostly MPs with right-wing leanings. Dutton’s most vocal supporters on the Liberal Party/One Nation Right have gone even further, accusing South Africa of white “genocide”, of expropriating “their” land without compensation, and arguing that white farmers would be “great settlers” with shared Christian values and be unlikely to claim welfare.
There has been repeated talk of widespread and brutal killings of white South African farmers. The former Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed, inaccurately, that “something like 400 white farmers have been murdered, brutally murdered, over the last 12 months”. In public discourse and media coverage there has been heavy emphasis on the “barbarity” of the killings. Indeed the binaries of civilisation/barbarism, white/black, right/left have been present throughout. And the empathy shown towards the plight of white South African “kith and kin” stands in sharp contrast to the distinct lack of empathy shown to the many darker-skinned refugees arriving on Australian shores, or indeed to Aboriginal Australians.
Here I want to look at what this white farmer call says about the state of electoral politics and race in Australia, but only briefly as this has been the focus of Australian commentary to date.
In order to understand the issue more comprehensively, I will also examine how it is seen in South Africa, in relation both to the historically significant land question and the troubled state of the post-apartheid nation. I will look particularly at the way in which the emergence of the white farmer issue in Australia is a by-product of a larger initiative in South Africa aimed at re-mobilising white Afrikaners post-apartheid and winning allies for this internationally. In this instance Australian racism meets South African dysfunction and non-transformation. Both are linked to the emergence and internationalisation of alt-right politics, the resurgence of racially defined nationalism globally, the need for white victims in alt-right internationalism, and amnesia about history generally.
Finally, I want to reflect on what it means to be a South African Australian today, to make clear not all (perhaps most) South African Australians do not support Dutton’s call and to suggest what the appropriate ethical response to the minister’s call should be.
At one level Dutton’s call is aimed at sandbagging a few marginal parliamentary constituencies, including his own, which contain a cluster of white South African neighbourhoods. Former South Africans make up a small but significant minority in key seats in Western Australia and Queensland.
Dutton’s call is also aimed at building the profile and populist appeal of the Liberal Party’s right-wing faction, and of Dutton himself—he aspires to be a future Liberal Party leader. So far, so normal.
More troublingly, Dutton’s call to favour white, Christian farmers should be seen alongside his recent polemic against “African gang violence” in Melbourne and against the backdrop of a drive by him to cut back on migration generally. All are part of a single strategy, as is the Trumpian response to accuse opponents of this obvious racialisation of political discourse and policy of being “politically correct”.
In short, the signs are that the Liberal Party, and its right-wing faction in particular, has decided to use the racist dog whistle for electoral advantage. Electoral opportunism has combined with the ideological proclivities of parts of the Liberal Party and resulted in pressure within the party to take an alt-right turn. In doing this they are pushing back against a wider societal consensus since the 1980s in favour of multiculturalism, a consensus that has admittedly been fraying in recent years. They are also drawing on older traditions and practices of white racism in Australia1, as well as newer anti-elite discourses.
All this was extensively commented upon in the mainstream media. There was a spate of articles and opinion pieces, especially in the Murdoch press, alleging genocide of whites in South Africa and supporting the Duttonites. Other articles have called out this racism, or tested the reliability of statistics on farm murders in South Africa, or questioned claims that land is being expropriated in South Africa. Demonstrations in support of Dutton by white South African Australians have been widely reported on television, and there has also been coverage of at least one counter-demonstration, although not by South African Australians, in Perth.
A vocal group of South African Australians have rallied in support of this campaign. Indeed, their lobbying partly prompted it. A thousand-strong demonstration in Brisbane took place in March involving white, predominantly Afrikaner, migrants. Many called for the offer to be extended to family members of theirs who were not farmers: indeed the white farmer call has drawn in many white South Africans who experience the common Australian migrant problem of struggling to get approval for relatives, especially elderly ones, to join them.
An even larger march, a couple of thousand strong, took place in Perth on April 7, where many South African Australians and former “Rhodesians” (as many still like to call themselves) reside. It comprised South African citizens living in Australia and South Africans with Australian citizenship, largely the middle-class migrants who regularly populate the daily Perth to Johannesburg flight. Judging by video of the event, the South African attendees were all white, even though a significant minority of South African Australians are not. Many superficial references to Nelson Mandela were made by the speakers, generally lamenting that the ideals he espoused were not evident in South Africa. I would be surprised if any of those attending ever voted for him.
The Nelson Mandela referenced was the one that inhabits the imagination of One Nation’s leader Pauline Hanson [One Nation is a populist, xenophobic party which garners around 10% of the vote in Australia]. In the midst of the white farmer controversy Hanson suggested that Mandela’s major quality was his ability to “forgive and forget”. Not for her the Mandela committed to fighting for justice and against racial discrimination by all means necessary, or the Mandela who stressed the importance of “returning land…back to the dispossessed majority [as] one way of addressing the injustices of apartheid”. The imagined Mandela, in Hanson’s account and in the marches, is one who aids historical amnesia and historical revisionism, one oblivious to Hanson’s own long history of racialised attacks on Aboriginal Australians, Asian migrants and, most recently, Muslims.2
Professionally produced banners predominated in both pro-Dutton demonstrations. “Let the Right Ones In” read one, playing to the trope that the “wrong” refugees (code for brown, Muslim, non-European ones) are being admitted into Australia, and also suggesting that the political leanings of white farmers would match those of their Australian supporters. Care seems to have been taken to avoid anyone carrying the apartheid South African flag. SA Events, a commercial organisation specialising in bringing Afrikaans performers to Australia, played a significant role in mobilising for these marches and has actively used its Facebook site to do so. A march held in Adelaide in late May attracted about 100 participants. Doubtless other shows of support will follow, perhaps even in Sydney where the largest cluster of South African Australians live, including the wealthier migrants.
Events in Australia were widely reported in South Africa, although with less prominence than in Australia. The South African government expressed its displeasure and called on the Australian government to clarify whether Dutton’s call reflected official government policy. They claimed to have been reassured that it did not, although in truth the issue was fudged by the Australian government using a choice of words that allowed both wings of the Liberal Party to claim vindication. The South African government also made clear that crime levels were a problem, that there was no policy to target white farmers or encourage their killing, and that the number of deaths being claimed was exaggerated. When it comes to members of the South African public, the response is varied. Certainly some have a positive vision of Australia and the Dutton intervention and, mainly because of crime and despair at state dysfunction under President Zuma (now ex-president), wish they were in Australia rather than in South Africa. A widespread, perhaps majority, perception is “what can you expect from Australians when you see how they’ve treated Aboriginal people and refugees”?3 In short, official disapproval stands alongside public knowingness about the racialised structure of global power and generalised frustration about government. “Let them go” is another common response from black South Africans, including from Julius Malema, the charismatic leader of the nominally left-wing populist opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). However, encouraging emigration is not South African government policy (if anything it is the reverse), and neither is it policy to prevent anyone from emigrating if they can get a country to accept them.
The timing of events meant the white farmer controversy was often viewed through the lens of the ball-tampering incident that erupted in March, and involved deliberate cheating by Australian Test cricketers playing in South Africa. Australia’s self-perception as the land of the “fair go” is not routinely shared in South Africa. It is widely argued that white South Africans are most attracted to Australia because it is both English-speaking and whiter than other destinations, and also closest to the physical environment of South Africa and the lifestyles whites enjoyed under apartheid. White South Africans moving to Australia are a regular butt of jokes in South African comedy routines.
The Dutton call also coincided with a re-emergent debate inside South Africa over the land distribution question and with efforts that have gained momentum recently to mobilise whites (Afrikaners especially) to resist aspects of the government’s transformation agenda such as affirmative action and land reform.
The land question has been a recurrent issue post-apartheid. At the risk of simplifying, under colonial rule land was seized from the indigenous inhabitants, and black people were forced off the land, out of farming, and into unskilled labour, including farm labour. Most land was reserved for white occupation. This process intensified under apartheid. Evictions and forced removals of black people continued into the early 1990s. Longer history and living memory are both in play. To compound the injustice, and this is relevant in understanding the rural crime rate, as apartheid drew to an end hundreds of thousands of farm labourers and tenants were forced off the white-owned farms on which they had lived, often for generations. Most of those displaced ended up unemployed in small towns in rural areas. No wonder tensions in the rural areas are high. Indeed some have tried to explain the undeniably brutal nature of some farm attacks in almost Fanonesque terms, where pent-up anger both escalates violence and violence enacts retribution. The legacy of dispossession and unequal ownership of farmland persists. At the same time it must be recognised that South Africa is now a predominantly urban society. Indeed many of the hottest land disputes relate to land access in urban areas.
The injustice of the land situation was recognised in the transitional constitution that ushered in the post-apartheid order. While it included some provisions for land expropriation to achieve redress, it placed the emphasis on a “willing seller, willing buyer” approach. In practice complex issues of land restitution (to those forcibly removed under apartheid), land redistribution and tenure reform are involved. However, more than 20 years after the end of apartheid farmland remains overwhelmingly in white hands. Only nine percent of commercial farmland has been redistributed or restored to its original owners, and tenure reform has been minimal. These are facts that the ANC government’s domestic critics have not been slow to point out. Not surprisingly, the racial distribution of land is an emotionally charged issue, even for those not directly affected. In February 2018 a motion calling for the Constitution to be amended to allow land expropriation without compensation was overwhelmingly supported by the parliament. The governing ANC felt unable to resist the opposition EFF’s motion even as it asserted that any expropriations would be done responsibly and without disrupting food production. The modalities of this constitutional change are currently being considered and no forced expropriations have occurred.
Another relevant dynamic is the political remobilisation of white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, primarily through a cash-rich NGO called AfriForum and associated trade unions, farmers’ organisations and political parties. Support for the Freedom Front Plus, the de facto political wing of AfriForum is limited (it has only four out of 400 seats in a strictly proportional-representation parliament) and it is still a fringe movement among white Afrikaners despite outsize press coverage in South Africa. But AfriForum tries to mobilise more broadly and is having some success doing so. AfriForum’s core constituency is the same one that sustained the apartheid regime, and their accumulated wealth means AfriForum is well resourced. It has been adept in its use of social media and at linking itself to a range of allies internationally. “Minority rights” is its universalist framing. While this might lead it to sympathise with the self-determination struggles of the Kurds or the Karen, in practice it has found its closest international allies in the white nationalist alt-right.
Within a political narrative of it being a defender of minority rights internationally, AfriForum focuses specifically on “the rights of Afrikaners as a community…[so that] Afrikaners – who have no other home – are able to lead a meaningful and sustainable existence, in peace with other communities [i.e. separately from them], here on the southernmost tip of Africa”. It has effectively developed a narrative of victimhood while simultaneously displaying amnesia about the role of the same Afrikaner identity in the oppressive practices of apartheid. Its leader refers to “so-called historical injustices” when reflecting on apartheid. In demanding that we treat the killing of white farmers separately from treatment of rural violence and crime more generally, Afriforum engages in a form of “self-othering”. This self-othering is necessary, as one observer has put it, “for its brand of identitarian organising”.
AfriForum has been a litigious and effective campaigner against post-apartheid government corruption and nepotism and has won a degree of sympathy in the wider public for this. It also campaigns against affirmative action in the workplace aimed at redressing racial imbalances in managerial roles, the erosion of Afrikaans language use in the official sphere, and de-racialisation of previously Afrikaans universities. A symptom of its “modernity” can be seen in the ways its environmental desk campaigns against such things as fracking on farmland and the decline in municipal water quality in rural towns. For observers of political strategy an intriguing role reversal has taken place. Many in the South African government speak admiringly, and seek to emulate, the way in which Afrikaner nationalists post-war used state power to assert control over the economy, nationalise key sectors and institutionalise white privilege. Today the new-look Afrikaner nationalists are adopting many of the international, legal and popular mobilisation strategies used by the mass democratic movement of the 1980s, strategies they had previously condemned.
The AfriForum network’s international strategy currently emphasises the murder of white farmers and potential changes to land rights. It encourages claims of “white genocide”, without explicitly making the claim itself. It is campaigning on these issues globally. The white farmer campaign in Australia is a part of this. Similar campaigns can be expected in New Zealand and Canada, although these are less likely to gain traction because the general political context in both countries is less receptive.
Most recently AfriForum’s leadership embarked on a high-profile tour of the United States in May. It has met with the Trump administration, been given substantial airtime on Fox News, and has generally found a sympathetic hearing in the constituencies that have supported Trump. In one interview in mid-May AfriForum’s CEO argued that apartheid could not be considered a crime against humanity because not enough people were killed during apartheid to justify using this term. Denial, amnesia, anger, victimhood and misplaced nostalgia come together in a toxic mix. One prominent Afrikaner legal scholar, Pierre de Vos, has suggested that such denial “reflects their anger at black people for reminding them that our parents (and sometimes, if we are old enough, us too) were (and sometimes still are) monsters who oppressed (or sometimes continue to use our economic and social power to oppress) black people, and that those of us whose parents did the oppressing are still benefiting from the effects of that oppression”.
AfriForum’s US trip, its global campaign and its general upping of old-style rhetoric will appeal to some. But it may backfire in South Africa and on its core constituencies there. AfriForum does not actually want white farmers to emigrate as their strategy depends on consolidating the Afrikaner community, not dispersing it around the world. Winning global allies on the alt-right will undoubtedly reduce the hearing they receive from the current South African government, although it may lead to some increase in diplomatic pressure. It is also likely to increase levels of violence, including violence by its supporters. As Oscar van Heerden, has put it: “Spreading hate speech, racist rhetoric and fascist drivel will ultimately lead to tension between white and black South Africans and unfortunately will find expression through physical violence, with devastating consequences”.
Being a South African Australian
Today there are around 200,000 people of South African origin living in Australia, about 0.8 per cent of the population.4 Most, but by no means all, are white South Africans. They arrived at different times and for different reasons. Some came in the 1960s fleeing from apartheid. Some came in the 1980s to evade compulsory (for whites) military service. From the early 1980s Australia accepted a number of black political refugees and many have stayed post apartheid. Significant numbers of mainly white migrants started arriving from the late 1980s on, seeking a brighter future for themselves and their children, or fearful of crime at home, or seeing no future for themselves in South Africa. This includes the generally well-off “Sailing for Sydney” migrants. Others “packed-for-Perth”, as it is termed in South Africa, and came to avoid majority rule and a post-apartheid democratic future: indeed over half have arrived since 2000. Yet others came for work or to join their Australian-born partners (full disclosure—I am one of these). In common with migrants generally, most left some immediate or extended family behind.
What does it mean to be South African Australian today, and must the differences and racial classifications solidified under apartheid persist even after migration and after apartheid? When I ask other South Africans in Australia I get different answers. “ think of myself as Australian now” or “I don’t think of myself as a white South African” is one line of response. Or they might express relief at living in a place where crime rates are low and racial difference is not present every day as it still is in South Africa. Others (you guessed it, black South Africans) will relate their extensive experiences of racist treatment in Australia, although this is not generally specific to their being South African but rather because they are black. Yet others, South Africans of Indian origin, will often express annoyance at being assumed to be part of Australia’s Indian immigrant community.
Migrants everywhere struggle to adapt to their new homes. Their past achievements are often under-valued, their previous networks count for little, and they may struggle to fit in, all of which can be dispiriting or, conversely, energising. But the extent of these struggles will be heavily affected by their difference from the dominant culture: visible difference, audible difference, cultural difference. Despite the official Australian embrace of multiculturalism, the dominant culture is still a white Anglo one. Most observers would be surprised to know there are not many more Vietnamese-born Australians than South African-born ones. The former are visible. Most of the latter are not.
It is especially easy for white English-speaking South Africans to be largely invisible, and to fit into their new home. They walk the streets unnoticed, largely understand the cultural markers, and with little effort can even sound the same. They can disperse and integrate more easily and there is less need to find comfort by living in the same suburb as each other. For white Afrikaners, invisibility is a little more difficult, but not much. Black South African Australians do not have this luxury. In these ways the divisions of apartheid persist among South African Australians. I was struck, at a recent 200-strong dinner in April held to celebrate South Africa’s Freedom Day and the end of apartheid, by how few white South Africans attended, even though the overwhelming majority of South African Australians are white. The crowd is more diverse when someone like comedian Trevor Noah visits, and it is almost entirely white when visiting Afrikaner musicians, under the auspices of the AfriForum-linked SA Events, visit. In general, it seems to be the case that the social divides of South Africa are largely replicated here. These divides become even more entrenched when the end of apartheid is lamented rather than celebrated, when South African Australians as a category are assumed to be white, and when the most publicised intervention into politics by South African Australians is to call for special treatment for whites and align themselves with racist politicians. When some are assumed, by outside observers, to speak for the whole community it is always troubling. It is especially troubling in this instance given our apartheid past.
How widespread is support by South African Australians for the initiative to privilege white South African farmers? Has the Afriforum vision of South Africa become the hegemonic one among South African migrants in Australia? I suspect a great many (most?) South African Australians do not support Dutton’s call. It is certainly not being done in my name. But I concede that apartheid nostalgia, especially among white South African Australians, and among the post-2000 migrants in particular, is widespread. For many, not supporting Dutton’s call takes the form of silence rather than opposition. In this regard the tradition of silence in the face of apartheid persists.
South African Australians, of all backgrounds, have a particular duty to call this campaign out, and not collaborate with it. Having experienced apartheid we need to speak out against racism in all its forms and resist attempts to re-write the past or encourage historical amnesia. We need to oppose any efforts to re-racialise Australia’s immigration policy, especially when it is being done in our name. We need to call out apartheid nostalgia and be especially exercised when it is suggested that some are better than others on account of their race or their supposed Christian values. We also need to speak up for, and with, the Australia and many Australians that resisted apartheid in the 1980s, and for a vision of an Australia of today that encourages many cultures and languages to co-exist and flourish. Taking a stand against racism is the right thing to do. For some it is also for the self-interested reason of avoiding being tarred with the racist brush by the wider community simply because of being South African.
There are five arguments we South African Australians need to make in the current climate. First, any murders in South Africa are regrettable and even one murder is one too many. This holds for farmers and farmworkers too, black and white. The murder rate in South Africa is unacceptably high. But white farmers are not a special category. The overwhelming majority of murder victims are black. There is absolutely no problem calling on the South African government to tackle the crime and murder rate and even being angry about its failure to do so effectively. In truth, all South Africans worry about the high crime rate and almost everyone knows or has been a victim of criminal violence. They also all know the high crime rate is closely connected to massive ongoing inequality and unemployment combined with often incompetent and ineffective policing.
Second, it is simply not correct to say that white farmers are being targeted by government. There is no evidence of such targeting, and much evidence to the contrary. As Sisonke Msimang, a South African resident in Australia, has put it: “Anyone with even a passing knowledge of South Africa will understand that white farmers are not an oppressed group.”
It is especially wrong to claim that genocide is under way. This cheapens the term: are we really comparing events in South Africa to the Holocaust or Rwanda or the treatment of the Rohingya? It also seriously mis-describes what is happening in South Africa. Even the most casual visitor to Johannesburg would be hard-pressed to see white South Africans as an oppressed or exploited minority. The daily airline flights between Australia and South Africa would hardly be over-subscribed if those travelling were returning to genocide.
Third, a more peaceful and prosperous South Africa is difficult to achieve if the current levels of inequality persist. This includes inequality in access to land. The overwhelming majority of farmland remains in white hands. One may have differing views on who is to blame for this, and on how best and at what pace to achieve land reform, and what compensation to existing owners is appropriate. But there can be little doubt that land redistribution and land restitution are prerequisites for a more stable long-term future in South Africa.
Fourth, many South African Australians are experiencing problems with family visas that would allow relatives or elderly parents to join them. They share this problem with many other migrant communities. Australia has a highly restrictive points-based immigration policy. It is far better to work with other migrant communities to address these issues. Using a race card (“civilised white farmers”) to campaign for special treatment is ethically wrong. It is also strategically and politically short-sighted – it ties their fate to the far right, is likely to inflame racial tensions here and in South Africa, and makes the ongoing integration of South African Australians into their new home more difficult.
Finally, we should unambiguously support the argument that refugee policy in Australia should be grounded in need and not in race, and that migration policy should be colour-blind. Nostalgia for a simpler, whiter Australia needs to be opposed, not least by South African Australians. Hopefully most South African Australians accept this and will find the courage to say so. Standing up for justice and non-racialism—now that would honour the Mandela legacy in this the centenary year of his birth, and build respect in the Australian community. DM
Jeremy Baskin spent years under a banning order. He was active as a trade union leader (COSATU) and in the movement against apartheid generally. He also worked in the post-apartheid government. He moved to Australia ten years ago and is currently an academic in Melbourne.
The murderous practices that accompanied the colonisation of Australia are well documented, as is the fact that Aboriginal Australians were only recognised as citizens in 1967, and the country’s long-standing ”White Australia” policy only ended in the 1970s.
Intriguingly, an inverted version of the same argument is made against Mandela by many South Africans who accuse him of too much forgiving and not enough fighting for redress once he came to power. Mandela’s legacy is contested and the image of him as saintly pacifist commonly found in the West is not widely shared in South Africa.
There has been less acknowledgement that South Africans of all colours are not immune to xenophobia, and that there have been a number of large-scale murderous attacks on non-South Africans, especially in poorer areas.
The 2016 census showed 162,448 people living in Australia were born in South Africa. But this doesn’t account for the 35,000 born in Zimbabwe, who migrated first to South Africa before re-migrating to Australia, nor the many thousands who identify as South African but weren’t born there (e.g. English immigrants to apartheid South Africa now living in Australia)