On Wednesday, an Australian minister lamented the plight of white South African farmers, saying that they “deserve special attention” and need help “from a civilized country like ours.” During his remarks, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton also suggested fast-tracking visas for the farmers based on humanitarian grounds.
Now the South African government says the concern is unfounded and the comments uncalled for, and it is demanding that Australia retract its statement.
As The Guardian reports, South Africa formally responded to Dutton’s comments on Thursday.
“The South African government is offended by the statements which have been attributed to the Australian home affairs minister and a full retraction is expected,” said the foreign ministry.
Earlier, South African officials had called Dutton’s comments “sad” and “regrettable.”
Australia offered up their “civilized” help following news that South Africa had passed a constitutional amendment allowing the government to take back land from white South African farmers. The new policy, commonly referred to as “land expropriation without compensation,” is a kind of land reform that addresses the major racial disparities that still exist in farmland ownership more than 20 years after apartheid.
White South Africans make up just 8 percent of the country’s population, yet they own almost 75 percent of all South African farmland.
In response to the news, some Americans have petitioned the U.S. to grant white South Africans refugee status. Dutton’s comments were of a similar vein and were informed by reports that Boers living in rural areas were facing high levels of violence.
“If you look at the footage and read the stories, you hear the accounts, it’s a horrific circumstance they face,” Dutton said, according to the BBC.
“We want people who want to come here, abide by our laws, integrate into our society, work hard, not lead a life on welfare,” Dutton added. “And I think these people deserve special attention, and we’re certainly applying that special attention now.”
Dutton’s loaded comments—the emphasis on Australia’s “civilized” status and wanting to attract migrants who wouldn’t “lead a life on welfare”—are all the more jarring considering Australia’s recent agreement to pay $70 million in compensation and damages to 2,000 asylum seekers who reported physical and psychological abuse at an Australian detention center in Papua New Guinea.
Ndivhuwo Mabaya, a spokesman for South Africa’s foreign ministry, said that there was no cause for concern and that South Africa’s democratically elected leaders wouldn’t put any of their citizens in danger.
“There’s no need for anyone to be scared or to fear anything,” he said in a statement, according to the BBC. “The land redistribution program will be done according to the law. We want to say to our friends across the world that there’s no need to panic.”
That sentiment was echoed by International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, The Guardian reports.
“There is no need to fear,” Sisulu said. “We are engaged in a process of land redistribution which is very important to address the imbalances of the past. But it is going to be done legally, and with due consideration of the economic impact and impact on individuals.”
Australia doesn’t appear ready to walk back its comments, though. On Friday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that Australia closely monitors South Africa’s murder rate and was “very concerned that there were 19,000 murders reported in South Africa in 2017.”
But experts say there’s no evidence that white farmers are more targeted than other populations.
As Gareth Newham at the Institute for Security Studies, one of South Africa’s leading authorities on crime statistics, told The Guardian:
“In fact, young black males living in poor urban areas like Khayelitsha and Lange face a far greater risk of being murdered. The murder rate there is between 200 and 300 murders per 100,000 people.” The highest estimates of farm murders stand at 133 per 100,000 people, and that includes both black and white murder victims.
Another detailed report from Africa Check, a fact-checking organization, suggested that the farm murder rate may actually be as low as 0.4 murders per 100,000 people. It’s important to note that farm murders affect more than landowners and would include those who work the farm or perform other services.
Africa Check did acknowledge that an accurate estimate is “near impossible” to provide because of a lack of evidence.