Peter Dutton's white SA farmer priorities: Bringing shame on Australia

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Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton has gratuitously and outrageously 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 great 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 (DFAT) he would have discovered that the situation relating to the "persecution" of white farmers bears no resemblance to his ill-informed remarks. The Australian High Commission in Pretoria keeps DFAT very well informed.

I feel well 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, among 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% were white farmers, their families and/or friends, 34% were black workers and 5% were of Asian origin. There were 49 deaths in 2015-16. 72% of agricultural land is owned by white farmers with whites comprising 8% of the population. South Africa ranks tenth in the world in relation to violent deaths, Jamaica ranks sixth and Brazil 16th — with a population of 200 million there were 65,000 murders in 2012.

Black violence is endemic in South Africa with blacks living in poverty are the 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 often right wing and often treat their black workforce 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 redistribution was not addressed by the corrupt former 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.

How dare Dutton seek to nurture white supremacy in South Africa? As a nation, Australia was at the fore in seeking to end apartheid. Dutton is trashing a legacy that was difficult to achieve and hard to build. Former Prime Minister John Howard did nothing to help — he did not lift a finger to oppose apartheid and nor did Abbott or any of those who have followed in his right-wing Coalition.

I know the South African Government is deeply offended and angry and will not let the issue rest until there is redress to the insult. Dutton – and for that matter, Turnbull – have no idea the harm that has been done to the relationship.

The South African Government has said that it is 

‘ ... offended by the statements 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 dumb arrogance of that statement has left not only South Africa gobsmacked but many other states in Africa and Asia. They are asking in what way does Dutton consider Australia civilised, in light of his policies toward refugees?

Left unaddressed and unrepented, Dutton’s tirade will affect trade, business, sporting and educational relationships. I have been informed by the Australian High Commission that there are currently 52 Australian travel agents touring South Africa as guests of the South African Tourism Commission. It can be expected that if relations deteriorate further, these exchanges will end. Last year, 10.3 million tourists visited South Africa.

Dutton needs to eat humble pie. This is a major diplomatic gaffe, by a man steeped in ignorant hubris. He has brought shame to Australia. Nothing short of a full apology will suffice.

It is my opinion that the right wing of Australian politics is destructive, negative, cruel and shallow; it has brought nothing of value to the country. I am sick of them.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired Australian diplomat. Among his many diplomatic postings, he served in South Africa from 1976 to 1979. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh.

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