Did Canada Get it Wrong? A Refugee Asylum Case Reflecting on South Africa’s Race Relations

Recently Canada has granted a refugee status for a white South African, who won his claim based on fear of persecution by black South Africans because of his race. South African government condemned Canada’s decision as ‘racist’ and ‘alarmist’. The news has sparked angry debates from both white and black South Africans, which is making its own reflection on the politics of race in the country.

The reasons that convinced The Refugee Board to approve Mr. Brandon Huntley’s case have touched sensitive racial realties of South Africans. Mr. Huntley convinced the board that South Africa can’t protect its white citizens from ‘persecution’, which are robberies and attacks by black South Africans. As a victim of such seven cases, he said he was termed a ‘white dog’ and ‘settler’, which convinced the Refugee Board that he is a ‘victim because of his race rather than criminality.’ Huntley also argued that, as a white man he couldn’t get employed because of affirmative action that is laid by the South African Government to support black South Africans, who were disadvantaged by apartheid and its aftermath.

With a high crime rate, South Africa is one of the most dangerous places in the world. The question is- is race a motif for crime? In response to this question many people believe that it is not race-biased, but rather income biased, since blacks are also victims of crimes. The Country’s Human Rights Commission, as Mail & Guardian Online reports, said that ‘the vast majority of the victims of violent crime are black’ and most whites are even ‘safer because they can afford to pay for private security’.

South Africa is second in the world, next to Brazil, with a high gap between the rich and the poor, which could be easily seen from the disparities in cities’ and towns’ infrastructure. This big gap accounts as one of the factors that are flaming violence and crime incidents. Savo Heleta, a white South African, wrote that ‘crime in South Africa is a huge problem, but to say that whites are deliberately targeted by blacks and that the government and police do nothing to protect them because they are white is an outright lie.’

Rodney Warwick, in an article ‘Is SA Crime a ‘Race War?’, argues that ‘whites are under criminal siege explicitly because of their “race”. Many whites also think that the government’s effort to increase black South Africans opportunity to better education and employment opportunities is racist. These kind of views are reflected in blogs like ‘I luv SA…but I hate my government’. Christi van der Westhuizen, author of “White Power and the Rise and Fall of the National Party,” explains that a denial by whites to recognize the aftermath of the past is mainly accountable for such resentments. Why do white South Africans believe that they are suffering more than their black counterparts even though most of them enjoy better lives? Gunnar Theissen predicts a gloomy future, which in his own words puts as follows: ‘The end of apartheid has contributed to an end of the economic crisis of the 1980s, but it is unlikely that South Africa will experience economic growth and overall prosperity on the same scale. Instead, many white people might perceive that they are worse off, because the privileges they enjoyed in the past will have been greatly diluted and the scrapping of racist job reservation policies has made the job market more competitive for some white South Africans. Given all of this there is therefore reason to be sceptical about the extent to which the political culture of South Africa’s white population will move towards democratic and non-racial values in the foreseeable future.’

Weather it is because of the crime or looking for better opportunities, just like other African countries brain drain through immigration is an issue. According to the economist, the number of white South Africans fleeing the country is more than their black counterparts, and many citizens show interest to leave if given the chance. Even if apartheid is crashed for good, another form of separation is alive in today’s South Africa. Threatened by crimes, ‘white Johannesburgers have been retreating from spacious old houses in lush green places to live packed together in what they call “townhouses”: blocks of terraced homes, which are not in town at all, but out in the city’s treeless, remote suburbs, surrounded by secure walls.’

What enraged most South African is also Huntley’s claim for unemployment since the unemployment rate for black South Africans is 27.9 per cent, compared to 4.6 per cent for white South Africans. In spite of the Affirmative Action, major senior and managerial positions are occupied by white South Africans. Analyzing racial discrimination in labour market, a study released in July 2009 depicts that white men have the highest average annual income (81,701 ZAR), followed by white women (52,393 ZAR). Black men earn much less (14, 100ZAR), while black women remain as the least earners (8,900 ZAR). In addition to this, sources indicate that even though blacks constitutes 76% of the population, privet sectors and business are still mainly owned by whites, ‘including 80 percent of the country’s farmland and more than 65 percent of the equity on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange (JSE) (blacks own less than 5%).

Canada Refugee Board has decided to review Huntley case. Would they be deporting him after putting him on a hot spot? The answer by itself would ignite a lot of discussion from all parties. Whatever the future holds for Huntley, the situation reveals to the world the complicated issue of race in South Africa, which seems to get heated by this particular occurrence.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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