Are White South African Farmers Facing “Genocide”? Why These Claims Illustrate Australia’s Discriminatory Refugee Policy

Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection enters the House of Representatives before Question Time on February 5, 2018, in Canberra, Australia. (Photo: Michael Masters / Getty Images)Peter Dutton, minister for Home Affairs and minister for Immigration and Border Protection, enters the House of Representatives before Question Time on February 5, 2018, in Canberra, Australia. (Photo: Michael Masters / Getty Images)

In March, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton explored the possibility of granting South Africa’s white farmers access to fast-track visas on humanitarian grounds. Claiming “horrific circumstances” faced by South African white farmers, Dutton told reporters that they needed help from “a civilised country like ours,” adding that, “We want people who want to come here, abide by our laws, integrate into our society, work hard, not lead a life on welfare. And I think these people deserve special attention.”

The home affairs minister’s call to provide fast-track visas for white South Africans is inherently racist, given the Australian government’s treatment of non-white refugees from the Asia-Pacific region. While Dutton has been reaching out to white South Africans, non-white refugees have been languishing in Pacific camps in subhuman conditions. Further, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is refusing to consider resettling refugees until the US fulfils its promise to take up to 1,250 of them. Dutton’s statement is also couched in inherently offensive terms to both refugees and South Africa, as it implies that South Africa is uncivilized and that only white farmers would be “hard working.”

These remarks were met with widespread criticism, with the South African Foreign Ministry labelling them offensive and demanding a full retraction. However, Dutton’s remarks resonated among Australia’s right wing, with hundreds of protesters marching down Roma Street in Brisbane in support of his comments.

On March 25, Senator Fraser Anning, a former member of the hard-line, ultra-right party One Nation, supported Dutton’s visa proposal for white farmers. Further, Anning called the white-farm killings “genocide” and labelled attackers “subhuman,” despite no clear evidence of a genocide being underway. To really understand why these remarks were made and why they have gained traction among the right, we must engage with the surrounding context and the issues of land expropriation and farmer-killings in South Africa.

Land Expropriation and “Farm Killings”

Dutton’s comments occurred in the context of increased pressure to resolve the issue of massive land ownership inequalities in South Africa. In his remarks, Dutton even referred to plans by newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa to allow expropriation of much of the country’s land. The radical populist political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, heightened tensions in February after introducing what was known as the “land expropriation without compensation” motion. This motion aimed to redistribute land from white farmers, a minority of the population who own a majority of the land, to Black farmers without compensation.

Though the motion was backed by a majority of members of parliament last month, it remains unclear when or if a vote will take place, and whether it will attract the two-thirds majority necessary to change the country’s constitution. Further, the possibility of land appropriation without compensation was dismissed by President Ramaphosa, who stated that “We will not allow land grabs. We will not allow land invasion.”

The debate over the issue of land appropriation is linked to the perception of white farmer persecution in rural South Africa and the attendant, “horrific circumstances” they face. South Africa is an incredibly unequal society, with 76 percent of the population either living in or threatened by poverty and 29 percent living in extreme poverty. Further, as a result of the lingering legacies of racial discrimination during apartheid, the overwhelming majority of those living in poverty are Black. Land ownership, and in particular farming land ownership, is intimately connected to the issues of racial inequality, with huge disparities remaining between Black and white landowners more than 20 years after apartheid. As such, the issue of farm killings is linked to the perception of white farmers as the beneficiaries of apartheid policies of racial segregation and spatial planning.

Discussion of farmer-killings remains highly problematic in South Africa, with the South African Human Rights Commission noting that the term “farm killings” is characterized by “divisive” racial stereotypes. These include the stereotype of the “brutal, racist Boer” who dominates his workers through casual violence, despite good relations between farmers and non-white farmworkers on many farms. In addition, the number of farmer-killings — and specifically white farmer-killings — remains heavily contested. The Afrikaner-dominated Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU) counted 64 murders on farms in 2015, 71 in 2016 and 68 in the first nine months of 2017 alone, whereas the South African Police Service noted that 58 people were killed between April 2015 and March 2016, and 74 between April 2016 and March 2017. Johan Burger from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) noted that the murder rate for farmers (97 per 100,000) was almost triple that of the general population (34 per 100,000) whilst the Belfast Telegraph found that it was four times more likely for a farmer to be killed than a police officer. However, though these sources may make it seem like white South African farmers are being persecuted, the accuracy of these numbers is highly dubious and often misleading.

Inequality and Violence

Both the TAU and the police include farmers’ families, farm employees and visitors in their statistics, regardless of race. Any attempt to break down the status of the victims is complicated by the lack of available data, as these are not parameters analyzed by the police. Further, claims of white racial persecution are complicated by the findings of a 2003 police inquiry which found that 38.4 percent of farm-attack victims were non-white.

Similarly, although the TAU performs perfunctory crosschecks, its figures are equally inaccurate, lacking a breakdown of the status or even race of victims. That these figures are widely used by independent bodies such as the ISS is highly problematic, though Gareth Newman, head of the crime and justice program at ISS, has conceded that he does “not really know how one could get an accurate estimate of the murder and attack rate on farms given the complexities involved.”

Additionally, claims about farmers being more likely to be murdered than the general populace is simply not supported by reliable data. As Burger from the ISS notes, “We have no idea how many people there are in total on farms and therefore we cannot calculate a ratio for farm murders in general.” Any attempt to try to estimate the number of farmers in general, or white farmers in particular, by making a set of assumptions about the rural population would be misleading at best, and grossly misleading at worst. As such, it is increasingly clear that we have no clear idea about the murder rate on South African farms. Moreover, farmer-killings cannot be viewed as a separate phenomenon from violent crime nationally, as rates of violent crime and murder are exceptionally high throughout South Africa, and disproportionately affect poorer Black people. This has led researchers to conclude that the South African people “arguably live in as much peril as farmers do.”

“Farm attacks” and killings must be understood within the context of broader inequality and poverty. This can in part be explained by the racially skewed distribution of wealth in rural areas, with over 80 percent of the overwhelmingly Black rural population living in poverty, in contrast to the relatively wealthy Afrikaner farming homesteads. As such, the violence inflicted upon victims may be a secondary and spontaneous outcome resulting from apartheid-era grievances. ISS’s Burger suggests this may also be explained by the elderly age of the victims (on average 56 years) and the failure of these farmers to acknowledge the reversal of roles during a farm attack, resulting in an escalation of violence.

No White “Genocide”

Dutton’s claims that South African white farmers face “horrific circumstances” is simply not borne out by the facts. Given the lack of available statistical data relating to violent crime in rural areas, it is unclear whether farmers are subjected to heightened persecution or experience a higher-than-average murder rate. Where information is available, it is clear that although there may be a small racial bias, farm attacks and killings affect both Black and white farmers. Further, these attacks are crucially linked to wider trends of rural violence and overwhelmingly motivated by the same economic drivers: poverty, unemployment and inequality. Given the above, the rationale behind providing humanitarian visas to white South African farmers is non-existent, especially following the dismissal of the argument to redistribute land without compensation. Instead, Dutton’s remarks must be located within Australian politics as an attempt to bolster the support of the conservative Liberal Party given increased competition from far-right, anti-immigrant parties, such as the National Party of Australia and One Nation.