There are two common questions people ask when they decode my accent. They take a second and then ask me where I’m from. I pronounce Austraya as “Australia”, but still pronounce aunt as “ant” rather than “aren’t”.
“Why did you come here when so many people are trying to go there?” white South Africans often ask after I tell them I’m not from New Zealand or, shudder, England.
“Isn’t Australia racist? Didn’t you kill all the Aboriginals?” black South Africans sometimes ask. Most people don’t care or wait until the third beer before moving on from asking, “So, what do you do?”
The first question is easy. I explain how I moved to Johannesburg and stayed for both love and laziness, a love for the city and the partners I’ve been fortunate enough to meet, and laziness to pack up my apartment and try somewhere else. The second, on racism, is more difficult. “Yeah,” I grimace.
I think of my family and friends in Melbourne and want to discuss the complexities of systemic racism in Australia. I want to mention those I know who are at least welcoming and the few who tirelessly fight for equality.
As many times as I want to say “not all of us”, the conclusion is the same. The idea of Australia can’t be separated from racism. We preach “a fair go” but far too often think that those who don’t conform to the ill-defined and crude myths of what it means to be “Australian” should “go back to where you came from”.
When Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton made his comments this week, I thought about Australians at home and abroad. We’re law abiding, scared of committing minor crimes, but we grew up with an anti-authority independence, allowing us to travel the world and master planking. But we’re not good listeners; we’re poor public speakers. Our fragility means we become defensive when challenged and struggle to listen to an opposing argument.
Dutton said white South African farmers deserve special attention because of the hardships they face due to farm attacks and land expropriation. His department is investigating fast-tracking humanitarian or other visas to get them to Australia.
“If you look at the footage and read the stories, you hear the accounts, it’s a horrific circumstance they face,” he said. “We want people who want to come here, abide by our laws, integrate into our society, work hard, not lead a life on welfare. And I think these people deserve special attention and we’re certainly applying that special attention now.”
I want to offer complexities, but I can’t. He wants white people. The Australian minister is racist and confirmed every South African suspicion.
“Let them go,” laughed some of my black South African friends after hearing Dutton’s comments. In 2016, Statistics SA said 26% of South Africans emigrating from the country moved to Australia, more than the UK, US and New Zealand.
Local comedian Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show in the US, has mocked white South Africans fearing political instability. “Every since our first democratic elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela was about to become president, people started panicking,” goes the joke.
“There were people, you’d hear them: ‘I’m leaving! I’m going to Australia. I’m going. It’s been fun, Mary, but it’s time to go, hey. It’s time to go. They’re going to take over now’,” Noah says in a white woman’s accent, describing what everyone has heard.
Most South Africans who moved to Australia were able to because of the money and skills they inherited from apartheid and colonial privileges. For decades, if not centuries, the best properties, jobs and education opportunities were reserved for whites.
Some white South Africans have been pushing to be accepted as refugees. There was a petition to allow whites to return to Europe. One South African was accepted as a refugee in Canada, claiming he was persecuted by blacks, before that was revoked. Another family were rejected for spreading “white-supremacist hate literature”. Supposedly, 12 South Africans have received humanitarian visas from Australia in the last five years but it’s unclear who and for what.
Dutton’s comments follow a sustained campaign by white interest groups bluntly trying to convince the world that the murder of white farmers in South Africa amounts to “genocide”. Groups like Afriforum, a powerful and well-funded organisation established to defend the interests of Afrikaners, have for years fought to protect local white interests.
I didn’t know whether to respond when my cousin posted the article this weekend on Facebook. Is it even worth trying to explain the most complex society I have experienced to people who want to see things in black and white, to those who might have heard the names Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, but have no idea of the debates over their legacies?
I have a duty, the South African in me said, post your comment. The Australian said I should shut up, don’t rock the boat. In all things discourse, I’ve learnt to choose the South African side. It’s a country divided that has perfected controversial discussion.
The Daily Telegraph, an Australian paper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, published a horrifying feature detailing attacks on white South African farmers. The piece described assaults, robberies, murders and rapes suffered by farmers.
Farmers feel under attack, probably because of their race; their land is about to be expropriated without compensation, and they should be granted asylum in Australia, went the thesis. It provided an insight into the minds of those who closed highways to highlight farm attacks. The piece said more about the farmers and the article’s Australian audience than South Africa.
Come to Mzansi. There are a few things you learn pretty quickly. The Daily Telegraph‘s journalist appears to have spent so much time with Afriforum that he didn’t notice black people make up the large majority of the population.
His article used scary quotes from Julius Malema and Black First, Land First, but didn’t feature a single interview from a black South African. Not a farm worker, a black farm owner, a politician. Not one black South African, even though whites only account for 9% of the population here.
“The brutality is almost unheard of. There should be a special allowance for people who are the victims of these crimes,” Erns Hattingh, who had moved to Sydney, was quoted as saying.
In a country so divided, you also learn that statistics are debatable. The article repeats Afriforum’s figures on farm murders as fact, which fact-checking website Africa Check has consistently said are unreliable.
Dangerous crime in South Africa is a reality, one that we all live with. In Australia we might talk over a BBQ. In South Africa, a braai.
The Australian journalist took statistics cooked over a braai and made them a national topic. There’s no factual basis to say white farmers face a higher crime rate than other South Africans. They might be a target for violent crime because they are isolated and are assumed to own guns, but if Australians care about crime here they can read any newspaper, any day, and learn the reality.
The unreliable data Australian pundits are using, in fact, includes black people killed on farms. The hack, Paul Toohey, either didn’t bother to find out the facts or interview any black farmers or farm workers. He didn’t mention whether black South African farmers are going through the same experience, or whether most South Africans according to the stats, should also qualify for humanitarian visas in Australia.
The last time Australians really cared about South Africa was during the Oscar Pistorius trial. It was weird to see them lined up, their biases on display. Tragically, such brutal killings happen every day here and white farmers are no exception.
Sympathy, for who, for what, we might say. The article mentions the coffin case, where racist white farmers forced a black victim into a coffin and threatened to set it on fire. But it was only cited as a setback for the white movement. Few farm attacks on whites involve a political or racial motive, but a simple Google search will reveal the racially motivated attacks perpetrated by whites on blacks.
Why all the focus on the article published by The Daily Telegraph? Days after it was released, a journalist from the same newspaper asked Dutton about white farmers receiving a special deal, or “jumping the queue” as Australians like to say. That’s when Dutton embraced his racism.
“They are following the Zimbabwean path,” said the Liberal Party’s Bronwyn Bishop. During colonialism and apartheid whites violently took land from blacks. The democratic government, led by Nelson Mandela, committed to transferring land, still largely owned by whites, to black South Africans. Due to poor policies and failed implementation, the government failed.
Parliament recently decided to explore whether the Constitution needs an amendment to allow land expropriation to occur without compensation. A myriad political factors are involved and the issues are still being debated. What’s key is that South Africa didn’t seek to punish whites or seek reparations after apartheid.
Instead, it favoured “reconciliation”. White South Africans still own the majority of the land, the wealth, and on average take the top jobs. Just imagine Australia being controlled by a minority who invaded the country. How would you feel? Try telling Jewish people that the Nazis weren’t so bad.
Australia’s Bishop said Mandela’s legacy is dead. Yet Mandela’s chosen successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, is now President of the country. Unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa has legitimate elections and no leader has served beyond their mandated term. Corruption might be rife, but the country’s institutions established to defend democracy have often proved their independence. Otherwise most of my colleagues would be in jail by now.
The issues are heated. Black and white South Africans regularly use vulgarities against each other, but the Equality Court calls both to order and takes action against hate speech, against any race.
I wonder if my Australian compatriots care or whether they remain in their zero-sum game, both left and right believing they’re the champions of the world while taking far fewer refugees than most countries. Germany has survived, despite opening its borders to migrants (read: black migrants), so why can’t we?
Australia has been condemned by every international agency that matters for outsourcing the processing of asylum seekers to nearby islands dependent on our funding. Dutton is ready to accept white South African farmers before immigrants from a real war zone like Syria, rejecting doctors and engineers in favour of whites who might be able to till the land.
What must I answer now? The Liberal Party might be trying to appease a certain demographic, but its stance is clearly racist. Multiple Australian governments have failed to acknowledge what they have done to indigenous nations,
Before trying to give well-off South Africans a pass, Dutton should should try to resolve the inequality between white Australians and those of the First Nations. He must take Australia out of its pariah status in the international community and treat asylum seekers with respect.
Australia treats black and white migrants differently. I’m going home in the next week with my black South African girlfriend. I’m scared. Will someone shout at her on the street? Where are the white racist elements who recently protested?
I feel depressed to say they’re with Dutton. Like other white countries around the world, Australia will never embrace “multiculturalism” unless it means conforming to whiteness. This week makes me embarrassed to say I’m Australian. DM