Dystopia and Disengagement: Diaspora Attitudes Towards South Africa
Series Editor: Jonathan Crush
Migration Policy Series No. 63
In 2008, South African Brandon Huntley was given refugee status in Canada by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The unprecedented decision, based on Huntley’s claim that as a white South African he was the victim of racial persecution in South Africa, caused a firestorm. Interest in the case was particularly intense in South Africa itself where the decision was derided in the media and the South African government lodged a formal protest with the Canadian government. Over 140 high-profile South African academics also filed a petition protesting the decision with the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria. Within weeks, the Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration had lodged an appeal against the IRB decision with the Federal Court of Canada. Some have claimed that the decision of the Canadian Government to seek to overturn the decision of the IRB was motivated by a desire to appease South Africa. This is highly unlikely. Rather, the Canadian government was concerned about the precedent-setting nature of the case and that it could set the stage for a flood of applications from similarly unskilled white South Africans seeking a route into Canada.
In late 2010, Justice James Russell of the Federal Court of Canada issued an extended judgement upholding the Canadian government’s appeal and sending the Huntley case back to the IRB for reconsideration. The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear an appeal of this judgement in mid-2012, so the case will be got back to the IRB. Huntley’s lawyers are confident of a second success at the IRB, indicating that the attention given to his case will make him a marked man if he is returned to South Africa. However, Justice Russell provided a systematic and painstaking demolition of virtually every element of the original IRB decision and it seems highly unlikely that Huntley will ever be able to prove that he qualifies for refugee protection status in Canada. The case may still drag on for several more years, however, as Huntley would be entitled to institute a second round of appeals in the courts if his claim is rejected this time.
In constructing a narrative to convince IRB judge William Davis that he qualified for protection under the UN Refugee Convention, Huntley and his lawyers attempted to show that he had been the victim of a series of racially-motivated personal assaults and that the state had failed in its duty to protect. None of these supposed attacks were ever reported to the police which proved rather awkward for his case. However, this was explained away with the circular argument that since the police did nothing when whites were attacked, there was no point in reporting the assaults. Huntley’s recounting of his experiences make interesting reading but they were not, in fact, central to the Davis decision.
The survey also collected information about the attitudes and perceptions of this group towards their country of origin. The dystopian views advanced by the Kaplan view in the Huntley case fit comfortably within a broader narrative about South Africa by white South Africans in Canada. A considerable number of survey respondents portrayed South Africa as an extremely violent society in which whites live in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Many argued that whites were targeted not because they own a disproportionate share of the wealth in a highly unequal society, but simply because of their colour. The idea that the white population is under siege because of their skin colour extends well beyond personal knowledge of incidents of crime and violence. The theme of racial targeting was driven home by the frequent use of terms such as "apartheid in reverse" and “reverse discrimination.” Attacks on white farmers feature prominently in the narratives and are used as a platform for broader commentary on the supposed brutality of Africa and all Africans. Personal and hearsay stories of violent crime were laced with vituperative accounts of the callous and indifferent response of the police and the government.
To rationalise their departure, disengagement and decision never to return to South Africa, this post-apartheid diaspora draws on the same narrative reservoir of images as the lawyers in the Huntley case. It is therefore inadequate to conclude that the Huntley case was simply a rather egregious but exceptional miscarriage of justice. Huntley is, in many ways, emblematic of a more general and troubling discourse about South Africa that circulates amongst white South Africans in Canada.