Australia is a country that takes pride in its borders. Through the mass policing of Australia’s perimeters, a fantasy is maintained, one that paints Australia as a secure sanctuary. Australia takes so much pride in its ‘managed migration’ regime that a TV series is even broadcast globally to advertise this might and force. This illusion is steeped in white supremacist visions of a nation ‘untainted’ by brown and black bodies. And Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton’s most recent commentary confirmed those visions if there was ever a doubt.
Over the past week, Dutton has called for the special consideration of white South African farmers to seek asylum in Australia from the new government’s apparently fierce ‘land-grab’ policy. The Minister went even further, in a knee jerk reaction to a radio debate, by framing Australia as a ‘civilized country’ in contrast to South Africa.
The Home Affairs Minister has a track record of outright cruelty to the refugees in his care. This is the same Minister who labelled Lebanese-Muslim migrants arriving in Australia in the 70s ‘mistakes’; the same Minister who described asylum seekers in Australia’s offshore detention centres of Manus Island and Nauru as ‘Armani refugees’ lounging by the beachside. It is also the same Minister who is responsible for an inhumane offshore detention policy which Amnesty International has described as ‘tantamount to torture’.
The inception of Australia itself is rooted in the attempted genocide of Indigenous life and culture. It is a nation that continues to imprison thousands of people seeking refuge from war and persecution in isolated island prisons. And it is against this violent colonial backdrop that Dutton has suddenly emerged as a figure of pro-refugee advocacy. This begs the question, why now?
The decision to prioritise the interests of white South African farmers has damaging consequences for Australia’s role in the global fight against racism, and for South Africa’s ongoing struggle to reconcile its settler colonial and Apartheid past with its contemporary democratic government. The situation on South African farms cannot be separated from the history of racial discrimination, the continued unequal distribution of wealth and the governing party’s recent resolution on land redistribution.
If special attention is to be given to white South African farmers, then Dutton has the responsibility to take into consideration the disproportionate inheritance of agricultural land by white settler-colonial farmers and the treatment of Black workers on their farms. According to the November 2017 Land Audit Report, 72% of agricultural land is owned by white farmers although white people make up only 8% of South Africa’s population.
In many ways, Australia parallels South Africa’s history of settler colonialism as Indigenous people have been subjected to brutal policies that dispossessed them of their land. British colonialists carved out pieces of land under the justification of Terra Nullius and enforced their land grab through Western legal notions of ‘private property’. With the expansion of pastoral leases, countless Indigenous groups were cleared from their sacred lands, which were replaced with agricultural farming.
Unlike other forms of colonialism which turn to the exploitation of resources and labour of the colonised land, settler colonialism aims to replace existing institutions on the land with exogenous ones. These permanent institutions carry on the policy of removal of Indigenous populations and provide platforms of opportunity for the colonisers. Despite the disproportionate privilege enjoyed by white South Africans as settler-colonials, Dutton absurdly referred to them as people who ‘want to work hard’ and ‘contribute to a country like Australia.’ He even went so far as calling them ‘the sorts of migrants that we want to bring into our country.’ What ‘sorts’ of migrants are these?
Such reckless statements legitimise South Africa’s historic Apartheid ideology of white-Afrikaner-supremacy by inferring that non-white people are lazier, less determined or less capable than white people. This creates a situation whereby people of colour are framed as deserving of the impoverishment and oppression imposed upon them under the structures of colonialism.
Now juxtapose Dutton’s depiction of White South African farmers against his constant demonisation of asylum seekers. Within the Australian political sphere, refugees are seen to occupy two seeing contradictory positions: they are either unskilled foreigners savagely robbing Australians of jobs or they are lazy social welfare dependents burdening the Australian tax payers.
Racism reveals itself most tellingly at these moments of apparent illogicality. It is precisely in these instances that whiteness conspicuously reveals itself as the glue holding everything together in that it is only through the common-sense equation of whiteness with innate benevolence and true success that non-white subjects cannot but always be the wrong kind of migrant. Whiteness then becomes the arbitrating factor in deciding who enters Australia, a global ticket to the world. As a passport, whiteness holds more weight than its paper version, the entry point for economic prosperity spanning from South Africa to Australia.