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. It has garnered support from a number of leading Liberal Party figures, 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 would be unlikely to claim welfare. There has been repeated talk of widespread and brutal killings of white South African farmers. 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. The empathy shown for the plight of white South African ‘kith and kin’ stands in sharp contrast to the distinct lack of empathy for the many darker-skinned refugees arriving on Australian shores, or indeed for Aboriginal Australians.
Here I want to look at what this white-farmer call says about the state of domestic 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 to both 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 that not all South African Australians support Dutton’s call (perhaps most do not) and to suggest what the appropriate ethical response to the Dutton 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 polemics against ‘African gang violence’ in Melbourne and against a backdrop of a drive by him to cut back on migration generally. All are part of a single strategy, as is the Trumpian response of accusing 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 these party members are pushing back against a wider societal consensus in favour of multiculturalism—a consensus that has been in place since the 1980s, though, admittedly, one that has been fraying in recent years. They are also drawing on older traditions and practices of white racism in Australia, 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: 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 on 7 April in Perth, 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. Speakers made many superficial references to Nelson Mandela, 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. In the midst of the white-farmer controversy she 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.
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-era 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 page to do so. A march held in Adelaide in late May attracted about 100 participants. Doubtless other shows of support will follow; in Sydney, where the largest cluster of South African Australians live, including the wealthier migrants, a march is planned for June.
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. It 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 it 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 (now ex-President) Zuma, wish they were here 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’? In short, official disapproval stands alongside public awareness of 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 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.
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 in 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 lived; often they had lived there for generations. Most of those displaced ended up unemployed in small rural towns. No wonder tensions in 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 escalates violence and violence enacts retribution. The legacy of dispossession and unequal ownership of farmland persists.
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 twenty years after the end of apartheid farmland remains overwhelmingly in white hands. Only 9 per cent 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 one, 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 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 is trying to mobilise more broadly and it is having some success. 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 its 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 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.
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 part of this. Similar campaigns can be expected in New Zealand and Canada. 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.
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 its 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 it receives 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 one black scholar, 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. 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 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, 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 that solidified under apartheid persist even after migration and after the apartheid era? When I ask other South Africans I get different answers. ‘I 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 the Indian immigrant community.
Migrants everywhere struggle to adapt to their new homes. Their past achievements are often undervalued, 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 that 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.
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 made 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 rewrite 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 the 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.
There are five arguments we South African Australians need to make in the current climate. This is because 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 we are South African.
First, any murders in South Africa are regrettable and even one murder is one too many. This holds for farmers and farm workers, 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 with calling on the South African government to tackle the crime and murder rate and even being angry about its failure to do so effectively.
Second, it is simply not correct to say that the government is targeting white farmers. 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’. The minister of police, in a meeting with the Transvaal Agricultural Union in November, agreed on the need for an improved rural safety strategy, that tackling farm killings was a priority, and that police needed ‘to create a conducive environment for farmers to produce and ensure food security for all’. It is legitimate to question the effectiveness of that strategy but totally inaccurate to suggest that government is encouraging killing. 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 flights between Australia and South Africa would hardly be oversubscribed if those travelling were returning to genocide.
Third, a more peaceful and prosperous South Africa will be 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, 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 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 the fate of such family members 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.
 The 2016 census showed that 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, or the many thousands who identify as South African but weren’t born there (for example, English immigrants to apartheid South Africa now living in Australia).