Sisonke Msimang is the author of “Always Another Country.” She is a South African who divides her time between Johannesburg and Perth.
Three years ago, when my friends and family in South Africa heard of my decision to move to Australia, many of them were apprehensive. They were worried about how I, an outspoken black woman, would cope. The stereotype of white South Africans who go to Australia because they are skeptical of black people running the country runs so deep that, in South Africa, telling a white person to “go to Australia” is shorthand for telling them they are racist.
Over the last three decades, Australia has become a symbol of racism to many South Africans. The country has come to be known as a site of racist fantasy — a place where black people have an insignificant physical and political presence. As I have learned over the last few years, race matters in Australia just as much as it does in the United States, or in South Africa where I come from. Indigenous Australians are the most incarcerated people in the world. Though the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, data from the World Prison Brief and the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest the proportion of Indigenous Australians behind bars is the highest in the world — higher than that of African Americans.
So it was no surprise to me this week when Peter Dutton, the Australian minister for home affairs, weighed in on the plight of white South African farmers. Dutton suggested that Australia might look into supporting white farmers in South Africa whom he believes to be under threat and persecuted. He proposed offering them emergency visas, and that they needed protection in a “civilized country.” Dutton has been asked to retract his comments, but he is unlikely to do so. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused to condemn Dutton’s statements, though he hasn’t exactly supported him either.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of South Africa will understand that white farmers are not an oppressed group. In the decades since apartheid ended, wealth has continued to be concentrated in the hands of the country’s tiny white minority. Whites represent less than 10 percent of the South African population, but they own more than 73 percent of agricultural land. To address this, South Africa’s parliament has voted in favor of a motion that will begin the process of amending Section 25 of the country’s Constitution, allowing the state to expropriate land without compensation where it may be necessary.
The legal process will be long and protracted, and will include a range of measures to prevent the arbitrary seizure of land. Sadly, it is unlikely to have any material effect on South Africa’s land-ownership patterns, making Dutton’s anxiety ill-founded.
Still, in his latest salvo, Dutton is acknowledging an open secret. Australia has been welcoming significant numbers of white South Africans since the end of apartheid nearly 25 years ago. At the end of the apartheid era, many white South Africans, fearful of South Africa’s new democracy and the prospect of having to live alongside black people in genuinely equitable relationships, fled the country. Many of them made their way to Australia — a country that had only ended its shameful White Australia immigration policy in 1973. Between 2006 and 2016, according to South Africa’s statistics agency, the highest proportion of emigrants from South Africa moved to Australia.
Dutton’s bombastic style is quite similar to that of President Trump. His main agenda is to further the culture wars in which “the West” is pitted against Islam or the Third World. In 2016, Dutton found himself in trouble when he suggested that Australia should never have allowed Lebanese Muslims into the country as refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. He implied it was their children and grandchildren who were involved in terrorist activities with the Islamic State. Earlier this year, in a widely mocked statement, Dutton suggested that residents of Melbourne avoided going out to dinner because they were fearful of “African gang violence.” He also blamed poor citizenship testing for high levels of crime, arguing that if people “are not prepared to integrate” by sending their children to school and preventing them from “wandering the streets at night committing offenses,” then “they don’t belong in Australian society.”
Given the large presence of white South Africans in places such as Sydney and Perth — where I live — Dutton’s remarks could likely have been aimed at placating both his right-wing base and a very specific (and moneyed) white South African lobby. There remains a strong perception in South Africa that Australia serves as a safe haven for white South Africans with retrograde views on race.
And when it comes to true refugees in need, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and some minority groups can easily be described as racist. Since 2001, Australia has carried out a shocking detention program for refugees. Flouting international law, Australia has refused to allow asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka to arrive on its shores. Asylum seekers have instead been housed on Manus Island, which is part of Papua New Guinea. Essentially, the government has used its economic muscle to turn the island into a detention facility. People who need humanitarian assistance are being detained in prison-like conditions. Harsh measures have been taken to prevent journalists from covering the detention centers. Dutton has been a primary implementer and defender of this program.
That Dutton cares more about the plight of white people in a faraway land than he does the circumstances of black and brown people in his own country speaks volumes about his allegiance to global white solidarity.
Should Dutton apologize, it would make little difference. His comments are no mistake. They merely underscore the Australian government’s commitment to keeping dark people out and letting white people in. The White Australia policy — a symbol of crude discrimination — was supposedly abandoned in 1973. More than four decades later, Dutton’s comments remind us how little has actually changed.