SOUTH AFRICA (The Guardian) – The Australian home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has denied that the Australian government retracted his offer for white South African farmers to come to Australia on humanitarian visas.
A spokesperson for Dutton reportedly issued the denial after the South African government claimed Australia had gone back on plans to offer fast-track humanitarian visas to “persecuted” white farmers.
The difference of opinion suggests Australia has attempted to smooth over offence caused by Dutton but will still consider white South African farmers for humanitarian visas, despite the United Nations high commissioner for refugees warning that refugees should be prioritised.
Dutton triggered outrage in March when he said the farmers deserved “special attention” for visas to Australia on humanitarian grounds.
He said the home affairs department was examining options to enable the farmers to flee their “horrific circumstances” for a “civilised country”.
His offer was in response to a pledge by the South African government to enact land expropriations without compensation to redress the land confiscations of the colonial and apartheid era.
The Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and foreign minister Julie Bishop both appeared to publicly contradict suggestions of “special attention” by stressing the non-discriminatory nature of the humanitarian visa program. However, neither explicitly rejected the claim South African farmers would qualify.
The South African government said it was offended by Dutton’s call and demanded a full retraction from Australia.
“We have received a letter from the [Australian department of] foreign affairs that indicated that what was said by the minister of home affairs is not the position of the government of Australia,” a South African foreign ministry spokesman, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, said on Monday.
“We also had a meeting with the high commissioner who conveyed a message from the prime minister, who said the same thing, to indicate that this is not the view of their government.”
South Africa’s foreign minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, claimed the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and foreign minister, Julie Bishop, had made a “retraction” of Dutton’s comments, and she welcomed it.
“We must emphasise, as we have stated before, that no one is being persecuted in South Africa, including white farmers,” she said. “We call upon all non-governmental organisations to desist from spreading untruths and misleading information.
“South Africa is a law-abiding country and, through a constitutional process, it will arrive at solutions on land redistribution that will take the country forward without violating anyone’s rights.”
On Tuesday a spokesperson for Dutton reportedly told Sky News the statement “does not accurately reflect the prime minister or minister for foreign affairs position on this matter”.
“There was no rebuttal of the words of minister Dutton,” he said.
In March Dutton’s call was supported by the former prime minister Tony Abbott and prompted a group of seven MPs in the ruling Coalition parties to raise the matter in the party room.
Concerns were expressed white South African farmers may not qualify as refugees, even if they left South Africa, because of the possibility they could move to cities in the country and be free of persecution.
But the party room was assured Australia could still grant humanitarian visas. MPs were told applications, including from referrals in Australia, will be considered.
Bishop stressed the consistency of her stance with Dutton’s because both agree that South Africans would qualify under existing humanitarian visa rules.
Land is a hugely divisive topic in South Africa, where 72% of individually owned farms are in white hands 24 years after the end of white-minority apartheid rule.
By contrast just 4% of such land is owned by black people, according to an audit cited by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
According to police, 74 farmers were murdered between 2016 and 2017 in South Africa, which has one of the world’s highest crime rates.
Up to 500,000 white South Africans have left the country in the past 30 years, according to official statistics. Australia is the most popular destination for relocation.