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White South African given refugee status in Canada mars what it means to be “persecuted,” re-invokes racist flare

September 8, 2009

Last week a white South African was given refugee status in Canada, claiming that the violence and discrimination he faced within his home country was not being adequately dealt with by the ruling ANC party. Brandon Huntley is a 31-year-old unemployed irrigation sprinkler salesman from Cape Town. The only member of the immigration board to hear Huntley’s claim stated that he would “stick out like a sore thumb due to his colour in any part of the country.”

 This ruling is preposterous, dangerous, and an insult to the notion of what it means to be a refugee. Not only does it set the precedent for a more lenient status on what it means to both face persecution, and to need legal protection to flee that persecution, it has re-opened the precariously closed floodgates of racism within South Africa, with hundreds of the country’s white citizens flocking to on-line blogs hailing the “good-old-days” of Apartheid and lamenting the country’s mostly-black rule.

 This ruling troubles me for many reasons. Firstly, I’m not convinced that Huntley’s newfound status fits with the original U.N. definition, which follows that a person is a refugee if they have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” During the case Huntley testified that he had been attacked seven times in South Africa “by black people,” who called him a “settler” and a “white dog.” The immigration board’s assertion that he would stick out “like a sore thumb” is certainly correct in some parts of South Africa: countrywide, approximately 10% of the population is white. But, having lived in Huntley’s hometown of Cape Town for a year and a half—and residing in his neighbourhood of Mowbray for part of it—I can assert with certainty that, while my white skin was noticeable, my colour was by no means exceptional. Cape Town is one of the whitest cities within South Africa, and—sad to say—most whites can and do easily exist in a mostly whites only bubble, socialising and working with people primarily of their own colour. Therefore while Huntley’s skin colour would be by no means unnoticed, and while I concede that his being white may certainly have contributed to some violent attacks on him, I do not think that he stuck out anymore than any other white, black or coloured person in South Africa, where identity politics still rules and the colour of your skin certainly matters. Furthermore, even if Huntley for whatever reason “stuck out” more than any other white person living in Cape Town, I am not convinced that this qualifies him as being persecuted. South Africa is currently a violent country, laying claim to the highest rape and murder rates in the world. But it is by no means more violent for a white person than a black: anyone may be the object of violent crime, and in many cases being black may put your body and possessions in greater risk due to the fact that African South Africans generally live in poorer, less secure areas, with little access to the police stations and barbed-wire fences that consume most white South Africans lives.

 Huntley comes from a violent society, to be sure. And he is white in a country where lighter skin is associated with more wealth, which may put him at greater risk of crime. But this does not mean that Huntley specifically is persecuted against, or that his case necessitates the protection of the Canadian courts. If Huntley’s subjection to crime means that he can claim refugee status in a country where his chances of employment are much greater, then Huntley’s case sets a precedent for any South African to gain the same treatment from Canada. All South Africans are at risk of violent crime, and all South Africans are still faced with ever-present race politics: does that mean that all South Africans are “persecuted” against, and can also apply for refugee status? Is Canada prepared to open it’s doors to each and every person who has had a family member killed, or been robbed at gunpoint, or felt unsafe in an area populated primarily by people of a different skin colour? If so—prepare for our population to skyrocket.

 I know a handful of Africans—mostly from the Congo and Sudan—who have tried to enter Canada as a refugee only to be repeatedly rejected. Canada’s inclusion of Huntley into this country becomes sadly laughable when you consider the thousands of people living in war zones, their papers continually thrown to the wind despite undeniable persecution against them.

 In addition the questionable interpretation of Canada’s definition of “persecution,” Canada condones policies used by the current South African government to aid in reversing decades of white-only rule and Bantu education. By ruling in Huntley’s favour, the immigration board condoned the argument of Russell Kaplan, Huntley’s lawyer, which follows that affirmative action and black economic empowerment (BEE) “are discriminatory.” This argument is nothing new, of course, with anti-affirmative action statements thrown across the U.S. and Canada, arguing that ensuring that African Americans and First Nations, respectively, have access to education, jobs, and grants is a form of “reverse racism.” Both the Canadian and American government, legal groups, and social justice organisations have fought hard to defend these policies, and continually face a vehement group of mostly white opponents. While affirmative action and BEE are unquestionably abused and open to corruption in South Africa, these policies were set up for very legitimate reasons and their existence, in-and-of itself, is not inherently flawed. Furthermore, the immigration board’s agreement with Kaplan’s assertion not only undermines affirmative action in our own country, but also condemns the internal policies of a country thousands of miles away. How would our government react if Canada’s domestic policies were attacked by a foreign entity that knew little of our own affairs?

Canada’s ruling has unleashed a barage of hateful comments from South Africans, who, it would seem, also feel “persecuted” by the new black rule. I’ll leave you with two of my favourites from the website of the South African newspaper The Times: “Affirmative Action = Apartheid; Affirmative Action = Discrimination; Affirmative Action = Racist.” And my favourite, from a South African living in Canada, urging his counterparts to “come and live the life that we knew back in the seventies.”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. shane permalink
    April 17, 2010 8:22 pm

    yeah sure lets bring the trash of the world into Canada but as soon as someone shows up who just might actually integrate into our society we need to reject him… because thats the new canadian way. South Africa was a prosperous 1st world country until the 21st century when it became a 3rd world sh !t hole because of us telling them what to do. we are responsible for what happened to these people

  2. September 12, 2009 7:11 pm

    re the conversation above,

    “I think BEE, like its North American cousin “affirmative action”, is quite obviously a form of racial discrimination, but exclusion from job opportunities doesn’t necessarily amount to persecution.”

    I’m not very educated on the pros and cons regarding legal and social understandings of what constitutes “affirmative action” and “racism” – again, both seem to be constructs worthy of definition, research. The commentary/statement above just feels a little to “sure” and I get nervous around such sureness. My “lazy-person ‘research” on google, yielded this interesting link,

    The introductory blurb states:
    “This site presents diverse opinions regarding Affirmative Action topics; rather than taking a singular pro or con position, it is designed to help lend many different voices to the debates surrounding the issues of affirmative action. This site is an academic resource and it provides scholars, students, and the interested public with on-site articles and theoretical analyses, policy documents, current legislative updates, and an annotated bibliography of research and teaching materials.” The site is based in California.

    A recent edition of the New York Review of Books contains a beautifully written, densely argued essay on some aspects of affirmative action as it is found in U.S. law (state and federal) by legal scholar and social critic, Ronald Dworkin, in the context of the Sotomayor hearings and her ruling on the “Firemen case”

    Dworkin takes issue with Sotomayor’s representation of her own ruling during her U.S. Senate confirmation hearings. His discussion touches on several points of relevance to both the post above and to the comments. It’s been a long time since I was required to read, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality by Dworkin but it might help inform the discussion of whether “affirmative action” is “racism.”

    • corsullivan permalink*
      September 14, 2009 11:45 am

      I was actually quite careful to say “racial discrimination” rather than “racism”. The latter term is so loaded with extreme connotations that I tend to reserve it for the really unambiguous cases – describing a particular ethnic group as evil or inferior in some deep, pervasive sense, or at least casting a lot of negative aspersions without much evidence.

      Like you, I’m normally allergic to excessive certainty, but I really can’t get away from the idea that the only defensible definition of “racial discrimination” is “treating people differently based purely on their race, irrespective of any other characteristics”. Affirmative action and BEE clearly fit this definition. Obviously I’ve heard the arguments that are made in favour of both policies, and I wouldn’t take the simplistic position that racial discrimination – in the way I’ve defined it – is always a bad idea.

      However, it does strain credulity when “progressives” rail against discrimination, period, while simultaneously defending affirmative action programmes. You really can’t have it both ways, and the more realistic and fruitful approach is to have a conversation about which kinds of racial discrimination are justified. For example, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to adopt the discriminatory policy of not letting people of Scandinavian descent audition for Othello, unless of course you happen to be doing something rather avant-garde.

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    September 11, 2009 9:21 am

    This may be the most magnificent tirade we’ve had on our blog so far (and I mean that almost entirely in a good way). I agree with the basic thrust of your argument – it is indeed preposterous to say that being attacked several times by criminals (even criminals who call you names), plus not being able to get a job because of BEE policies, makes someone a refugee. I think BEE, like its North American cousin “affirmative action”, is quite obviously a form of racial discrimination, but exclusion from job opportunities doesn’t necessarily amount to persecution.

    However, let’s not get too distracted with the racial politics of South Africa here. What this decision really shows is that sometimes the bar for refugee status in Canada can be ridiculously low. The best thing about the splash Huntley’s case has made in the media is that it may add to the already-existing impetus to radically tighten up the system. And it’s hard not to wonder how many thousands of other refugees have been admitted to Canada on equally specious grounds.

  4. September 11, 2009 8:55 am

    I am remiss in not posting earlier – I’ve been re/reading and reflecting – thank you for taking the time not only to write out details but to “involve yourself in the telling” – did you get a chance to probe at all into the context or background of who/how/why this decision was made at the Canadian tribunal level? Why now? Who led the decision/signed it? Any info available about the machinations behind the decision making? What’s the current/recent history of decisions from the tribunal (I believe it was the federal body not a provincial one, is that correct?)

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