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Aided by enthusiasm in the Murdoch press, Peter Dutton’s concern for white South African farmers shows a minister detached from facts. By Mike Seccombe.

Behind Dutton’s ‘white farmers’ untruths

It was just over a week ago when the conservative Murdoch media commentator Miranda Devine passed the racial dog whistle to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and invited him to use it.

Devine, along with much of the rest of the conservative commentocracy, had recently found herself appalled to learn that white, Christian farmers in South Africa were being subjected to violence at the hands of politicised blacks intent on driving them from their land. So she lined up Dutton for an interview in the certain knowledge he would share her outrage.

“I know that you are very exercised and concerned about these South African farmers who are really, if anyone is persecuted, they are,” she told Dutton. “Are there any plans by the government to help them?”

He agreed that the farmers were being persecuted. He said they faced “an horrific circumstance” and told her he had asked his department to look at options to expedite their entry to Australia on humanitarian grounds, because they needed “help from a civilised country like ours”.

Not only would it help those farmers, Dutton went on, it would be good for Australia because they were the kind of immigrants we needed, prepared to “abide by our laws, integrate into our society, work hard, not lead a life on welfare …”

His enthusiastic endorsement of white South Africans as the right kind of immigrants stood in stark contrast to his outrageous exaggeration a couple of months ago of the threat posed by black African “crime gangs” in Australia. Then, he painted a picture of white Australians too scared to go out to dinner lest they be set upon. Dutton and Devine’s messaging about white victimhood and black violence could not have been less subtle.

Nor could their subsequent tag-team condemnation of the “hypocrisy” of the Human Rights Commission and Administrative Appeals Tribunal, refugee activists and lobby groups which frustrated the government’s efforts to deport asylum seekers, yet failed to stand up for the white farmers of South Africa.

No nuance was expressed by either party in the interview, no exploration of the shades of grey in the South African situation. For the tabloid target audience, as for Devine herself, issues are always black and white. Literally so, in this case.

There is no denying the impact of the interview, though. It further exacerbated the government’s internal tensions. In an appearance on the ABC’s Insiders program, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop hosed down the suggestion that special consideration would be given to white South African farmers. But others in the government, notably members of the religious right such as Andrew Hastie and Michael Sukkar, joined Dutton in expressing concern for the white race in South Africa. Malcolm Turnbull, eager as always to avoid confrontation with Dutton and the right wing, declined to either endorse or condemn.

The South African government was furious and demanded the retraction of the minister’s suggestion the country was not “civilised” and that white farmers were “persecuted”. Australia’s ambassador was called in for a dressing-down. It only added fuel to the fire.

On Monday, Tony Abbott went on radio to back all that Dutton had said, and paint a picture of a rapidly developing “national crisis” in South Africa.

“Something like 400 white farmers have been murdered, brutally murdered, over the last 12 months,” he told 2GB.

“Now just imagine the reaction here in Australia if a comparable number of farmers had been brutally murdered by squatters intent on driving them off their land.

“My understanding is that the new president has encouraged the parliament to pass a law allowing the expropriation without compensation of white farmers. If the boot was on the other foot we would call it racism of the worst sort, and I think we should acknowledge this as a very, very serious issue of justice and fairness and freedom …”

It was inflammatory stuff. And all of it was either misleading, inaccurate or flat out untrue.

Equally inflammatory and just as questionable was Peter Dutton’s outburst on 2GB on Thursday, in which he claimed there was no conflict between Bishop and himself. Reports to the contrary were “fake news” confected by “crazy lefties” in the media. He declared the ABC, Guardian Australia and others “dead to me”.

Dutton said he was pushing ahead with plans to import white South Africans, although he claimed it had nothing to do with the fact that they were white.

“I’m completely blind as to somebody’s skin colour, it makes no difference to me,” he said. “It concerns me that people are being persecuted at the moment – the number of people dying or being savagely attacked in South Africa is a reality.”

Indeed it is a reality, just as it is a reality that murder rates are higher among black South Africans.

So, what is the truth?

Pieter Groenewald, the long-time leader of Vryheidsfront Plus, a political party he co-founded in 1994, at the end of apartheid, told a large part of it in a speech to the South African parliament in March last year.

Groenewald is no liberal. His party has its roots in Afrikaner nationalism and Calvinist religion. It opposes reform of land ownership and it advocates the establishment of a self-determined Boer homeland, or Volkstaat. A quarter century before the reactionary media commentators in this country and the likes of Abbott and Dutton jumped on the bandwagon, Groenewald dedicated himself to protecting the rights and privileges of South African whites – particularly Afrikaner farmers – against black majority rule.

Yet he was prepared to acknowledge a reality Dutton, Devine and Abbott prefer not to mention.

“I put it up front,” he told the South African parliament. “There is a perception that if we talk about farm murders, we only talk about white people. It’s not true.”

In fact, he said, about 40 per cent of those murdered on farms were black.

Nor did Groenewald’s recitation of the statistical evidence of farm violence in South Africa support the claim that the situation was rapidly deteriorating.

It needs to be said that there is considerable disagreement in the figures from various sources about the extent of the violence. Most sources agree, though, that there were 74 murders on South African farms in the first 10 months of 2017, an increase over the average of the previous five years, of about 57.

On Groenewald’s numbers though, this was still below the long-term average. He had collated the police data. From 1991 to that year, there were 2393 murders from 14,589 attacks on the country’s farms. That’s an average of more than 90 murders a year.

Whatever the precise numbers, the murder rate on South African farms remains shockingly high – about 133 per 100,000 on the latest available figures. That compares with a rate of 34 per 100,000 across the country as a whole.

“That is a really scary homicide rate,” says Michael Humphrey, a professor of sociology at Sydney University with expertise in violence in South American and African countries.

“In Australia the murder rate is less than one. In Mexico, the national figure is about 23–25.”

The sociology of it is straightforward: unequal societies are violent societies, and South Africa, in various measures, is the most unequal society on Earth.

Things have not improved much, either, since the end of apartheid in 1994, says associate professor Kantha Dayaram, of the school of management at Curtin University, whose doctorate analysed public policy and transformation in South Africa.

On 2GB, Tony Abbott invited listeners to imagine a circumstance in which one racial group passed a law allowing the expropriation without compensation of land from another. It would, he said, amount to “racism of the worst sort”.

Dayaram does not have to imagine it, however: it is exactly what happened in South Africa under white rule.

“Currently 73 per cent of farmland is owned by white South Africans and 27 per cent by non-whites,” she says.

In considering these figures, it is worth noting that whites make up only 8 per cent of the population.

While it is true the South African parliament passed a resolution about three weeks ago calling for the amendment of the constitution to allow expropriation of land without any financial recompense, it was more an expression of black frustration at the glacial pace of land reform than of true intent.

Certainly, Dayaram says, “any suggestion of land just being taken willy-nilly is not true”.

“For a change to the constitution to happen, it requires a two-thirds majority of the national assembly, as well as approval of six of the nine provinces. That is a complex process and not about to happen overnight.”

As Humphrey notes, the South African government is only too aware of the consequences of forced expropriation of land by the Mugabe regime in neighbouring Zimbabwe, “which just devastated agricultural production”.

The situation in South Africa is dire, but that is essentially the status quo in a violent and deeply unfair society.

Dayaram is at a loss to explain why the killing of 74 farmers – 0.38 per cent of the 19,016 people killed in South Africa in the year – has suddenly become a huge issue for the political right in this country.

The Saturday Paper sought an explanation from News Corp. Why, having paid the subject little attention for so long, was the Murdoch empire suddenly devoting an enormous amount of news space to one relatively small section of that violent society?

We got no on-the-record response, but a senior management source offered background: the genesis of the organisation’s interest lay with one of its investigative reporters, Paul Toohey.

“It was an idea he pitched. We thought it would be interesting. There’s a lot of South Africans in Australia. He came back with strong stories. There was no agenda beyond that.”

There was nothing wrong with what Toohey did, either. He’s a good reporter and he accurately cited the statistics: 400 farm attacks in the past year and between one and two farmers murdered every week. One might question minor details – whether the motion passed by the parliament amounted to a “vow to seize back land without compensation”; whether the victims were all white, given the police statistics on farm murders do not record the victims’ race – but there is no doubt that the horrific violence was worthy of coverage.

It was the quantum of the coverage that was odd. As our News Corp source detailed: “Since the original report, The Australian has climbed into it. Sky has climbed into it. News.com.au has climbed into it. All the mastheads have been running stories. Miranda Devine has been running it in her podcasts, various other columnists have done it. Paul’s done a number of follow-ups. I couldn’t tell you how many stories there have been. It’s been extensive.”

And the tone has become increasingly ugly. The commentators, Devine in particular, stressed the fact that the victims were white and Christian. They used the issue as an excuse to condemn progressive activists for allegedly being too concerned with people who were not white and Christian. They overlooked the fact that there were many more victims of violence in South Africa who were black, and also Christian, for South Africa is 75 per cent Christian.

Once Dutton, Abbott and the religious right of politics glommed onto the issue, the facts were misrepresented – the death toll was inflated fivefold, for example – and all context and nuance was lost.

Proper analysis, says Dayaram, would have acknowledged that South Africa’s shocking violence “is more than a race problem”.

“It’s a crime problem. It’s a problem of inequality. Anyone, particularly anyone with any degree of wealth, is liable to be attacked. If the Liberal Party, via Dutton and Abbott, want to come in claiming white farmers need protection, you have to ask why those others are not equally deserving of protection.”

Michael Humphrey thinks he understands what’s happening.

“This issue seems to be tapping a global discourse about the protection of whites in the context of global threats. It is the same kind of politics that have emerged in Europe and the United States … of populist white nationalism.”

If he’s right, it makes perfect sense that Peter Dutton wants to import those white South African farmers. The white right has to stick together.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 24, 2018 as "Behind Dutton’s ‘white farmers’ untruths". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.