Much emotion has been vented around the recent call by Peter Dutton, Australia’s minister for immigration and border protection, for farmers from South Africa to be granted preferential access to his country. On talk shows, on social media, and within South Africa’s foreign affairs bureaucracy, this has been met with anger. The idea that part of the country’s population is enduring "horrific circumstances" is a serious one: it offends South Africa’s conception of itself as a democratic, non-racial, inclusive democracy.
The immediate context is, of course, the volatile security situation as well as government’s plans to embark on a land reform drive in which holdings will be seized without compensation.
And herein lies another implication – that not only are farmers threatened, but that they are threatened by their government. Hence the aggrieved statement put out by the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco): "There is no reason for any Government anywhere in the world to suspect that any South African is in danger from their own democratically elected Government. That threat simply does not exist."
Here and in Australia, critics have charged Australia with hypocrisy for favouring "white" farmers from South Africa over others, not least those being held in its offshore detention centres. It has attracted charges of racism. Others have asked anguished rhetorical questions about how Australia, given its historical record with its aboriginal population, can claim any moral standing in criticising South Africa.
But these considerations are unlikely to be the only ones in Mr Dutton’s mind, or even the dominant ones. Less attention has been paid to what Australia as a country might gain from this proposal. The answer is simple: farmers.
Australia is a major agricultural producer. The gross value of its farm production in the 2016-2017 period exceeded AU$60 billion (over R550 billion). Australia is substantively self-sufficient in the production of its foodstuffs, and with an increasingly prosperous Asia on its doorstep, lucrative export opportunities have presented themselves. It exports more than three quarters of its farm production, amounting to earnings in the region of AU$45 billion (R416 billion). Farm products account from some 15% of the country’s total exports.
But shortages in agricultural capacity constitute a growing problem for Australia. Farming is an ageing profession, with the country’s statistical authority reporting that the average age of a farmer is 56 – against 39 for the workforce as a whole. As in dynamic economies across the world, farming is not a greatly sought-after career for young people, even those raised in a farming environment. The bright lights and rich opportunities of Sydney or Melbourne, if not of Hong Kong or London, beckon…
And in common with successful and innovative economies, Australia is very much a participant in the global competition for skills. This is so despite a reduction in the visas available for potential migrants recently. Farming skills are already among those which the country’s immigration authorities prioritise: agricultural technician, agricultural economist, beef cattle farmer, mixed crop farmer, grain, oilseed or pasture grower, and so on.
South Africa’s commercial farmers, respected worldwide for their skills in a tough environment, would be a good fit for Australia.
The policy direction that South Africa seems intent on taking is Australia’s opportunity – very much as the decimation of Zimbabwean commercial agriculture was turned into an opportunity by the likes of Zambia and Nigeria. With little detail as to what the final policy will look like, profound insecurity is inevitable in the farming community. When the proposed policy change is hedged in a vocabulary of racial nationalism (as was on display during the debate on the issue in Parliament) or a hostility towards farmers (as is so often voiced by commentators in the media and by politicians), insecurity can rapidly become fear. All of this will predictably create a situation in which farmers are amenable to otherwise inconceivable options.
Ultimately, though, the comments of an Australian minister is only one of a number of problems that Dirco, and foreign minister Lindiwe Sisulu – and for that matter the government in general – is going to face, and by no means the most significant one. South Africa is a country very much in the global eye. We South Africans, and our government, have revelled in this attention. South Africa has, so the cliché goes, punched above its weight.
But this means that its problems and pathologies are always open to scrutiny. So, too, inevitably, are its doubtful policy choices, of which expropriation without compensation is a glaring one.
Dirco may wag its finger at domestic groups for supposedly encouraging "panic" about the probable outcomes of this policy, but in the grand scheme of things, their efforts are probably a matter of limited concern. Worries about the security of foreign investors’ holdings in South Africa are already clearly evident – investors and diplomats can observe, and are observing, these developments for themselves. President Ramaphosa was compelled to try and explain it away to Moody’s, and South Africa’s investment roadshow abroad has been dogged by this issue.
As the debate grinds on, government will face ever tougher criticism. It may be surprised – as may many others – that this will not come only from the likes of Australia. Investors, whether Canadian, Chilean, or Chinese, whether based in Dallas, Dubai or Delhi, will not lightly concede the security of their assets: this is something that the government seems unable or unwilling firmly to guarantee.
* Terence Corrigan is a Project Manager at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.