When Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton used a particular c-word this week, whatever message he intended for his home audience, a very different one was received by South Africans.
“The majority African population regard a reference to civilisation as an insult,” prominent South African advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi said.
Commenting this week on reports about violence against white farmers in South Africa, Mr Dutton said they deserved “special attention” and he was looking into whether Australia could help them with visas or humanitarian programs.
“I do think, on the information that I’ve seen, people do need help and they need help from a civilised country like ours,” Mr Dutton said.
The South African Foreign Ministry asked for a full retraction of Mr Dutton’s comments.
In Mr Ngcukaitobi’s view, references to “civilisation” revive memories of the racism of colonial settlers and the discrimination perpetrated during apartheid.
He believes many South Africans, regardless of their ethnicity, would reject the idea that some countries are more civilised than others, and consider the idea a racist stereotype built on an outdated view that Africa was a “dark continent” whose inhabitants were savages with no religion.
Ian Rijsdijk, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s Media Studies Centre, said he was alarmed a government minister would use that word.
“It seems incredibly retrograde,” he said.
The ‘standard of civilisation’
The concept of civilisation suggests groups of people progress along a path towards an end point that is considered to “civilised”, and that some groups of people are therefore more advanced than others.
This way of thinking has been widely discredited by historians and political scientists.
International relations scholar Gerrit Gong traced the origin of the legal device that came to be known as the “standard of civilisation” back to the latter half of the 19th century, and noted that by 1965 it had fallen into disrepute and had been replaced by ideas of non-discrimination.
In South Africa, however, the idea persisted and came to underpin the political philosophy that justified the apartheid policies of separate development, forced removals and the prohibition of mixed marriages.
In the late 19th century, the British governor of the Cape Colony Sir George Grey and imperialist Cecil John Rhodes carried out what they considered to be a “civilising mission” to convert Africans to Christianity, give them a Western education and encourage them to adopt the Western way of life.
A few decades later, the policy of “civilised labour” was used in South Africa to justify policies of preserving certain jobs for whites only.
By the mid-1940s, Professor EP Groenewald of the Dutch Reformed Church argued apartheid was needed for the survival of Afrikaners so that they could take responsibility for acting as guardians towards the less “civilised” people.
“When the apartheid state took over in 1948 the term acquired a racial tone, being used to separate whites [the civilised] from blacks [the uncivilised races],” Mr Ngcukaitobi said.
South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd — known as the architect of apartheid — went on to rely on the concept when he responded to UK prime minister Harold Macmillan’s “Wind of Change” speech to the South African parliament in 1960.
“They [white men] are the people … who brought civilisation here, who made possible the present development of black nationalism by bringing the natives education, by showing them the Western way of life, by bringing to Africa industry and development, by inspiring them with the ideals which Western civilisation has developed for itself,” Dr Verwoerd said.
If the Western way of life is the high point of civilisation, then South Africa’s second-last white leader PW Botha was clear on what would bring it to an end.
“If the principle of permanent residence for the black man in the area of the white is accepted, then it is the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it in this country,” he said in 1964.
“Any politician nowadays knows that ‘civilised’ is a loaded word,” Mr Rijsdijk said.
Dutton’s comments were Trumpian: commentator
Writing for a South African audience, Greg Barns of Australian Lawyers Alliance said Mr Dutton’s choice of the word was intended to shore up support among the right-wing voter base in Australia, and is an extension of his “African gangs” rhetoric.
“He is appealing to the racist element in the Australian body politic that doesn’t mind immigration so long as those landing on Australia’s shores are white and middle class,” he wrote in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper.
As he sees it, arguments that make use of “civil versus uncivil”, “them versus us” characterisations are Trumpian, and have similarities to rhetoric used by fascists in Europe.
“It’s straight out of Steve Bannon’s playbook,” Mr Barns told the ABC.
A spokeswoman for Mr Dutton has declined to respond to the Mr Barns’ comment, saying: “The Minister has no comment.”
Jeremy Martens, a South African who now teaches courses in the history of racism and immigration at the University of Western Australia, said there was no doubt white farmers were the victims of violence, but that to focus on a small group of people and ignore others favoured white people at the expense of other groups.
Mr Martens said the idea that white South African farmers were being targeted with systematic violence used to be a far-right fringe idea, but that it recently began to permeate mainstream thinking.
“Crime in South Africa is an important story, but it shouldn’t be used for the agenda of the far-right who perpetuate a narrative of white genocide,” he said.
Shortly after taking over as President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa announced the Government would speed up the country’s land redistribution program.
Under colonial rule, South Africa’s Natives Land Act of 1913 barred most black people from owning property, a policy that the apartheid government later reinforced.
In Parliament this week, Mr Ramaphosa said South Africa was not heading towards the type of violent seizure of white-owned farms seen in Zimbabwe.
“We cannot have a situation where we allow land grabs, because that is anarchy,” he said.
Mr Ngcukaitobi said the question of who owned the land in South Africa was of immense significance to the future of the country and it was being debated responsibly and within the strictures of the law.
“It is not helpful to resort to emotive stereotypes about South Africa, when we engage in the debate.”