JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Canada’s decision to grant refugee status to a South African who said he was persecuted because he is white drew accusations of racism from the country’s ruling ANC on Tuesday.
Race is a highly sensitive issue in South Africa, still scarred by decades of apartheid, which ended in 1994.
Whites still dominate Africa’s biggest economy. But some say they face reverse discrimination, and are deprived of jobs by a black economic empowerment program.
A Canadian immigration board ruled that South African Brandon Huntley could stay in Canada.
Canada’s Ottawa Sun newspaper quoted the panel’s chairman, William Davis, as saying Huntley would stand out like a “sore thumb” due to his color in any part of South Africa.
“The African National Congress (ANC) views the granting by Canada of a refugee status to South African citizen Brandon Huntley on the grounds that Africans would ‘persecute’ him, as racist,” the party said in a statement.
“We find the claim by Huntley to have been attacked seven times by Africans due his skin color without any police intervention sensational and alarming. Canada’s reasoning for granting Huntley a refugee status can only serve to perpetuate racism.”
A spokesman for the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada said he could not comment on individual cases.
“The IRB is an independent tribunal that operates at arms’ length from the Canadian government. Its decision-makers are not subject to outside influence, and make decisions solely on the basis of evidence presented at the refugee hearing. Each case is decided on own merits,” said IRB spokesman Stephane Malepart.
Huntley’s story, carried in several local newspapers and on radio stations, could spark intense public debate on race in South Africa, where millions of poor blacks still live in grim townships, glaring reminders of institutionalized racism.
As part of a push to right the wrongs of apartheid and give blacks a stake of the economy, South Africa requires firms to meet quotas on black ownership, employment and procurement.
But critics say the empowerment drive has benefited only a few black millionaires with close ties to the ANC and creates a culture of cronyism and entitlement.
Home Affairs spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said it would have been “courteous” for Canadian authorities to get the South African government’s side of the story before making its decision on Huntley.
“We should reject these ridiculous allegations that have been leveled against our people and the country,” he said.
Last month, Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the ANC’s militant Youth League, drew criticism after complaining that whites did not attend the welcoming home ceremony for a world champion South African runner embroiled in a gender row.
The official unemployment rate for white South Africans is 4.6 percent, compared to 27.9 percent for blacks, despite the affirmative action drive.
Willie Spies, legal spokesman for civil rights initiative AfriForum, established by traditionally white trade union Solidarity, accused the government of indifference over the rights of minorities.
“The mere fact that the race card is so often played by people in positions of power and positions of authority, is definitely a red light as far as we are concerned,” he said in response to Huntley’s case.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Peter Galloway