South Africa's ruling party has denounced Canada as "racist" for granting refugee status to a man who claimed he was persecuted in South Africa because he is white.
The decision by a refugee board member in Ottawa has ignited a firestorm of controversy in South Africa, damaging relations between the two countries and denting Canada's image in a country where it was once seen as a stalwart of the anti-apartheid struggle.
The refugee board member, William Davis, ruled that South Africa had failed to protect its white citizens from robberies and muggings, which he described as the "persecution" of whites by "African South Africans."
Brandon Huntley, a 31-year-old South African who stayed illegally in Canada in 2006, after first arriving on a work permit as a carnival attendant, was awarded refugee status after complaining that he was mugged and stabbed in seven attempted robberies in South Africa. He said he was called a "white dog" and a "settler" during these attacks, although he did not report any of the attacks to the police because he "did not trust them."
Mr. Davis said in his ruling that Mr. Huntley would "stand out like a sore thumb" in any part of South Africa because of his colour. He said Mr. Huntley had given "convincing proof" of the government's "inability or unwillingness to protect him." He added that Mr. Huntley would be unable to find a job in South Africa because of affirmative action in favour of blacks.
Mr. Davis ruled that Mr. Huntley had been attacked six or seven times "because of the colour of his skin" and had a legitimate fear of persecution. He said Mr. Huntley had scars on his body to prove the attacks.
(Lengthy excerpts from the ruling were provided by Mr. Huntley's lawyer, Russell Kaplan, who declined to release the entire ruling because it contained personal details about family members of Mr. Huntley and Mr. Kaplan.) The African National Congress, the party that liberated South Africa from apartheid under Nelson Mandela's leadership in 1994, said the refugee decision was racist and alarmist. "Canada's reasoning for granting Huntley a refugee status can only serve to perpetuate racism," the ANC said Tuesday.
A spokesman for the country's Home Affairs department, Ronnie Mamoepa, said the government was "disgusted" by the ruling and the "preposterous and laughable" claims by Mr. Huntley.
"It would have been courteous for the Canadian government to allow the South African government to respond to the allegations," Mr. Mamoepa told South African media.
The ruling, which made headlines around the world, has sparked an uproar in South Africa this week because it touched on sensitive issues of race and violent crime. While many agree that whites are often targeted by black criminals, others are outraged at the notion that whites are "persecuted" in South Africa, a country where they still enjoy vast privileges in an unequal economic system.
Many ridiculed the board member's claim that whites "stand out like a sore thumb" in South Africa. More than four million whites are living in South Africa, comprising almost 10 per cent of the population.
The ruling is "shocking and saddening," said an editorial Tuesday in The Times, a daily newspaper here.
"It says more about Canadian perceptions than South African reality. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of crime victims in this country are black and many of the perpetrators are white."
The chief executive of South Africa's human-rights commission, Tseliso Thipanyane, told the Cape Times newspaper that the refugee ruling was "rather odd" because racist attacks happen to blacks as well as whites. He also rejected the claim that whites cannot get jobs in South Africa, citing a recent survey that found that 61 per cent of South Africa's top corporate executives are white men.
The official unemployment rate for black South Africans is 27.9 per cent, compared to 4.6 per cent for white South Africans.
Stéphane Malépart, a spokesman for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, said the board cannot release the Huntley decision or make any comment on the ruling since all of its cases are heard in private and its tribunals operate at arm's length from the government. But he said the federal government could seek judicial review of any decision by appealing it to the Federal Court of Canada.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney declined comment on the matter Tuesday, stressing through a spokesman that the IRB is an independent tribunal that works at arm's length from the government.
"It would be inappropriate for us to comment on a particular IRB decision," spokesman Alykhan Velshi said.
Ordinary South Africans were divided on the ruling, with some saying it was absurd and others saying it highlighted the problems faced by whites in South Africa.
"I will never set my foot in Canada," commented one person on a South African website, condemning the ruling. "It's officially the most racist country in the world."
On another website, someone said: "What a load of b.s. Are the Canadians truly this gullible?"
Several people who had spent time in the Cape Town suburb of Mowbray, where Mr. Huntley lived, said they had never heard of anyone being called a "white dog" or "settler."
But others said they welcomed the ruling, predicting it would "open the flood gates" to a further exodus from South Africa. "The racism has increased tremendously and whites are not wanted or tolerated here," one person commented on a newspaper website.
With a report from Bill Curry in Ottawa