Document Type

Migration Policy Series

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


In 2008, South African Brandon Huntley was given refugee status in Canada by the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). The unprecedented decision, based on Huntley’s claim that as a white South African he was the victim of racial persecution in South Africa, caused a firestorm. Interest in the case was particularly intense in South Africa itself where the decision was derided in the media and the South African government lodged a formal protest with the Canadian government. Over 140 high-profile South African academics also filed a petition protesting the decision with the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria. Within weeks, the Canadian Minister of Citizenship and Immigration had lodged an appeal against the IRB decision with the Federal Court of Appeal. Some have claimed that the decision of the Canadian Government to seek to overturn the decision of the IRB was motivated by a desire to appease South Africa. This is highly unlikely. Rather, the Canadian government was concerned about the precedent-setting nature of the case and that it could set the stage for a flood of applications from similarly unskilled white South Africans seeking a route into Canada.

In late 2010, Justice James Russell of the Federal Court of Appeal issued an extended judgment upholding the Canadian government’s appeal and sending the Huntley case back to the IRB for reconsideration. The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear an appeal of this judgment in mid-2012, so the case will be got back to the IRB. Huntley’s lawyers are confident of a second success at the IRB, indicating that the attention given to his case will make him a marked man if he is returned to South Africa. However, Justice Russell provided a systematic and painstaking demolition of virtually every element of the original IRB decision and it seems highly unlikely that Huntley will ever be able to prove that he qualifies for refugee protection status in Canada. The case may still drag on for several more years, however, as Huntley would be entitled to institute a second round of appeals in the courts if his claim is rejected this time.

In constructing a narrative to convince IRB judge William Davis that he qualified for protection under the UN Refugee Convention, Huntley and his lawyers attempted to show that he had been the victim of a series of racially-motivated personal assaults and that the state had failed in its duty to protect. None of these supposed attacks were ever reported to the police which proved rather awkward for his case. However, this was explained away with the circular argument that since the police did nothing when whites were attacked, there was no point in reporting the assaults. Huntley’s recounting of his experiences make interesting reading but they were not, in fact, central to the Davis decision.

Here we focus on what Davis called the “lifeline” of the Huntley decision: that is, the case made by Huntley’s lawyer, Russell Kaplan and his sister Lara Kaplan, that all whites in South Africa are being systematically targeted because of the colour of their skin. Justice Russell rejected this argument, and the selective evidence presented by the Kaplans, in its entirety. He designated their portrayal of the situation in South Africa the “Kaplan view.” The core elements of the Kaplan view included assertions that all Black South Africans hated white South Africans; that the country was experiencing “reverse apartheid; that black South Africans have “no regard” for the lives of white South Africans; that most violent crimes are committed by black against white South Africans; that the police will do nothing about the crimes committed against white South Africans; that white South Africans are undergoing a form of racial genocide; and that there is systematic discrimination against whites in the workplace. Justice Russell concluded that the Kaplan view was rooted in the personal experience of violent crime by the Kaplan family itself in South Africa.

This paper argues that to attribute the Kaplan view purely to the negative personal experiences of the Kaplan family in South Africa is to take too narrow an interpretation. The central elements of the Kaplan view are not unique to the Kaplan family but are produced and reproduced by the white South African diaspora in Canada more generally. The evidence for this assertion comes from a survey of 1,485 South African immigrants in Canada conducted by SAMP in 2010, some 80% of whom had left South Africa after 1990.

Between 1991 and 2006, just over 19,000 South Africans moved to Canada, a migration that shows few signs of letting up. Most South African immigrants to Canada are white, highly skilled and educated with many professionals in their ranks. They enter Canada as permanent residents in the economic class. South Africans in Canada are high income earners. For example, 26% of the survey respondents earn more than $200,000 a year and 43% earn more than $100,000 (compared with only 6% of the overall Canadian population.)

The survey respondents reported visiting South Africa relatively often (only 18% had never been back since arriving in Canada) although only 20% return at least once a year. The rest make episodic visits and the vast majority of all visits are connected with family issues and events. Most have family in South Africa to visit. Half of the respondents (54%) have taken out Canadian citizenship and another 30% are permanent residents. South Africans in Canada are neither large nor frequent remitters. Forty-two percent had never remitted funds to South Africa and only 13% do so on a monthly basis. Patterns of asset holding in South Africa show systematic disinvestment over time. Allied to this pattern of disinvestment are low levels of interest in return migration to South Africa.

The survey also collected information about the attitudes and perceptions of this group towards their country of origin. The dystopian views advanced by the Kaplan view in the Huntley case fit comfortably within a broader narrative about South Africa by white South Africans in Canada. A considerable number of survey respondents portrayed South Africa as an extremely violent society in which whites live in a constant state of fear and anxiety. Many argued that whites were targeted not because they own a disproportionate share of the wealth in a highly unequal society, but simply because of their colour. The idea that the white population is under siege because of their skin colour extends well beyond personal knowledge of incidents of crime and violence. The theme of racial targeting was driven home by the frequent use of terms such as “apartheid in reverse” and “reverse discrimination.” Attacks on white farmers feature prominently in the narratives and are used as a platform for broader commentary on the supposed brutality of Africa and all Africans. Personal and hearsay stories of violent crime were laced with vituperative accounts of the callous and indifferent response of the police and the government.

Another recurrent complaint was how affirmative action discriminated against whites. There is no sympathy for or understanding of the reasons for these policies nor of how they personally might have benefited educationally and economically from the racist policies of the apartheid government. Instead, they represent themselves, and whites in general, as victims. In many cases, the sense of outrage spills over into overtly racist diatribes about Africa and Africans.

To rationalise their departure, disengagement and decision never to return to South Africa, this post-apartheid diaspora draws on the same narrative reservoir of images as the lawyers in the Huntley case. It is therefore inadequate to conclude that the Huntley case was simply a rather egregious but exceptional miscarriage of justice. Huntley is, in many ways, emblematic of a more general and troubling discourse about South Africa that circulates amongst white South Africans in Canada.