COLUMN

Fairness and white refugees

Barbara Amiel February 3 1986
COLUMN

Fairness and white refugees

Barbara Amiel February 3 1986

Fairness and white refugees

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

One of the best-selling books last Christmas in South Africa was a slim volume called Leaving South Africa. The book is crammed with information for panicky South Africans wanting out: immigration requirements of various countries are rated, job skills evaluated, necessary documents listed. According to an article by Stephen Robinson, the South Africa-based correspondent for the British magazine The Spectator, the book was a sellout in his local bookshop.

In spite of the attempts of the South African government to minimize what has become known as the “chicken run,” the exodus of English-speaking South Africans is clearly accelerating. But where can they go? Robinson says that poring over the family tree in search of a long-lost Irish relative has become a national pastime, while the newspapers are crammed with advertisements from North American, Australian and British companies keen to pick up skilled talent at bargain prices. A recent national opinion poll said that close to 20 per cent of Englishspeaking whites planned to leave South Africa within the next five years.

The debate over whether to let South African refugees into this country has not yet really begun. In the dying days of Rhodesia there was, of course, the famous Vetat c'est moi declaration of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who stated that in the event of bloodshed whites would find no refuge in Canada. But such a debate looms on the horizon. At the moment, while South Africa remains relatively stable, few white South Africans would qualify for refugee status. One assumes that South Africans now applying to Canada are treated the same as all other applicants and evaluated on the basis of our country’s need and their skills. But the violence in Durban last December—when more than a thousand black youths turned a peaceful rally into a riot unprovoked by police or outsiders—indicates the inability of even such black nationalist organizations as the United Democratic Front to control the ominous situation. Bombs in supermarkets and Zulu tribes pitted against Pondo tribesmen in Natal are the drumbeats of a confrontation building up.

In the event of a bloody war, what

should the stand of Canada be? If the white regime collapses, the regime that replaces it will likely not be one of accommodation but one that will put the lives of the white minority in danger. As a result, millions of white refugees will be trying to get into other countries, including Canada, and they will no doubt be opposed by some voices who will argue that white South Africans were the authors of their own misfortune and deserve no sanctuary in this nation.

There is no question that they will be the authors of their own misfortune. Both the theories and practices of South African apartheid are indefensible, inhuman and ultimately highly impractical and self-defeating. But we would be faced with a situation in which a group of people face extinction and, in the manner of all living organisms from cockroaches to whales, they

The Canadian response to a potential flood of white South African refugees should he unequivocal: let them in

will want to get out of the path of destruction.

The response of true liberals should be unequivocal. Let them in. Saving lives is the first priority. A liberal understands clearly that by saving someone’s life one is not remotely concerned with helping save his ideas. One responds to disaster in much the same way a doctor responds to an accident or a fireman to a burning house: you don’t ask the philosophical and political credentials of people before you save them. Ideally, in wartime sailors might pluck their mortal enemies out of the water five minutes after they had repelled an attack by them. It is not surprising that often this didn’t happen; it is more to the point that often it did.

There will be those who argue that some sort of screening system should be set up to evaluate South African immigrants regarding their level of involvement with apartheid. This would be a mistake. I do not object to attempts to punish or extradite those West German Nazis resident in Canada who committed major war crimes and against whom there is admissible

evidence. But I am happy that after the Second World War Canada did not try to separate “good” Germans from “bad.” In the chaos after the war it was difficult enough to get into Canada without having people sit in transit camps for 10 years while evidence was gathered and analysed and every German was subjected to intense scrutiny. The lives of thousands of people who were essentially innocent of the events of Hitler’s regime would have been ruined. Similarly, in the event of massive violence in South Africa it would be a tragic error to create procedures to determine which immigrants were relatively “innocent” of practising apartheid. Should 100,000 innocent victims waste away in detention centres in case 100 active racists get into Canada?

It will be argued that no South African can lay claim to being innocent of complicity in the demented philosophy that has governed that nation for so many years. Those of us who are Jews have some empathy for this argument. Except for a few high-profile people, one will never know how active a person was in the system of apartheid. You will not know whether a man was vehemently proor anti-apartheid or simply a plumber who worried about rust and joints and never gave apartheid much thought. It may be one of the great tragedies in the world that most people don’t give the political systems in their countries a moment’s consideration. Most people seem to take their societies for granted and if they are told, for example, that their system of jurisprudence is fair, or that apartheid is necessary, they simply accept such assertions without further investigation.

But a person in immediate danger is still in danger, and we should pluck him out of the water whether he is a terrorist, a Communist—or South African. If we want a better world, we must try to convince those people who embraced an inhuman belief that they were wrong. We prove our superior humanity by saving their lives.

So when the debate begins, this must be the position of all liberals: to give sanctuary not because one endorses the philosophy that gave rise to South African apartheid but precisely because one abhors it and does not want to engage in action that resembles it—namely allowing people to suffer death or deprivation for ideological reasons.