South Africa has criticised an Australian government minister for suggesting that white South African farmers should get special visas so they can flee “horrific circumstances” in the country.
Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, who oversees immigration and has drawn international criticism for heading a tough crackdown on asylum-seekers from Asia and the Middle East, said the South Africans deserve “special attention” for acceptance on refugee or humanitarian grounds.
He cited reports of land seizures and violence targeting the minority white farmers, who control a disproportionate share of the country’s land.
“If you look at the footage, you hear the stories and you read the accounts, it’s a horrific circumstance that they face,” Dutton told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph late Wednesday.
“I’ve asked my department to look at options and ways in which we can provide some assistance because I do think on the information I’ve seen people do need help, and they need help from a civilised country like ours.”
The offer was swiftly rebuffed by South Africa, with its foreign ministry saying that no section of the country’s population was in any danger.
In a statement on Wednesday, South Africa’s foreign ministry said: “There is no reason for any government anywhere in the world to suspect that any South African is in danger from their own democratically elected government.
“That threat simply does not exist.”
The statement added that South Africa regretted that the Australian government “chose not to use the available diplomatic channels to raise concerns or to seek clarifications on the land distribution process in South Africa”.
Dutton’s comments come just months after asylum-seekers and refugees held by Australia in a remote Pacific camp were awarded Aus$70 million ($56 million) for being illegally detained and treated negligently in the country’s largest human rights class action settlement.
Canberra, which denied liability, sends asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat, rather than through official channels, to facilities on Nauru in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, said Dutton’s comments were “clearly racist” and demonstrated the “astounding hypocrisy” of the Australian government.
“We’ve often joked that if it were White Zimbabwean farmers or White South African farmers arriving by boat in Australia, there wouldn’t be any mandatory detention,” he told Al Jazeera.
“When they are from Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan, the attitude is very different. Boats are turned around, they are expelled to Nauru and Manus Islands.”
He added: “It is a deliberate ploy to appeal to racist folk in the context of a government that is declining in the polls and is desperately appealing to those folk to maintain some popularity.”
Land ownership is a sensitive subject in South Africa, 24 years after the end of apartheid rule.
White people still own around 72 percent of individually-owned farms, with the black majority holding just four percent, according to a Land Audit Report published in November.
The country’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has backed expropriation of land without compensation.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to escalate the pace of redistributing land from wealthy whites to poorer blacks.
But any transfer would be done legally, he told parliament.
“I can say now that we will not allow land grabs. We will not allow land invasions and those who are tempted to resort to such activities must be warned in advance that we will not allow it because it is illegal, but apart from being illegal, it begins to violate the rights of other South African citizens,” he said.