South African foreign ministry officials say they “could not believe” Peter Dutton’s comments about immigration and that when they asked Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, about them she effectively said they should ignore him.
In comments to Guardian Australia, Dutton has again rejected claims that Australia has retracted its offer to white South African farmers to settle them in Australia on humanitarian visas.
The difference of opinion suggests Australia has attempted to smooth over offence by walking back the home affairs minister’s earlier comments that South African farmers deserved “special attention” but will still consider any applications for visas in the existing humanitarian stream.
Dutton triggered outrage in March when he said the farmers deserved “special attention” for visas to Australia to flee their “horrific circumstances” for a “civilised country”.
Ndivhuwo Mabaya, a spokesman for the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation, said South African officials had met the Australian high commissioner initially to confirm the accuracy of the reports because they “could not believe that this comments were correct[ly] reported”. When Australia confirmed the statements, the South African government demanded a retraction.
“The high commissioner returned to us and indicated to us that our relationship … is based on the Australian immigration policy, not on what Dutton said,” Mabaya said. “We then received a letter from the [Australian] foreign minister in which she says that it’s our foreign policy and our immigration policy [that is pertinent] and not what was said in public by the home affairs minister.”
The Australian high commissioner reassured South Africa’s government that Australia did not consider it an “uncivilised” country.
The South African government says it will not release the letter because of diplomatic conventions.
“When the minister of foreign affairs says judge us on our policy, that’s what we will do, not [on] what politicians will say … the policy does not say what Mr Dutton says,” Mabaya said.
“Our strong relationship with Australia goes back to the time under apartheid and today we can take the letter from the ministry and move on to focusing on beating the Australians in the next Test.”
On Tuesday Dutton told Guardian Australia he had only seen the public comments from South Africa’s foreign minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, claiming Australia had retracted its offer. He responded: “There has been no retractions of my comments or our desire to assess some of these cases.”
Dutton told Australian Associated Press he was considering “several” applications from South African farmers for refugee or humanitarian status in Australia. He said he had seen a letter from Bishop to Sisulu but it contained no suggestions of repudiation or retraction.
“I’m not sure what domestic issues are at play in terms of the politics in South Africa that would bring this comment out but it’s not based on any factual statement of anyone within the Australian government,” he told Sky News.
Dutton said the government’s position was “as I stated it a couple of weeks ago” – that the refugee and humanitarian program was available to eligible people, with cases considered on an individual basis.
In March the Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Bishop, appeared to contradict suggestions of “special attention” by stressing the non-discriminatory nature of the humanitarian visa program. But neither explicitly rejected the claim that South African farmers would qualify.
Dutton’s call was supported by the former prime minister Tony Abbott and prompted a group of seven MPs in the ruling Coalition parties to raise the matter in the party room.
MPs were told that applications from white South African farmers, including from referrals in Australia, would be considered. Bishop stressed the consistency of her stance with Dutton’s because both agree that South Africans would qualify under existing humanitarian visa rules.
Dutton’s comments were triggered by reports of violence after a legal change allowing the expropriation of farm lands to redress the land confiscations of the colonial and apartheid era.