South Africa demanded on Thursday that Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton retract comments that suggested white farmers were being persecuted and deserved protection with special visas from a "civilised country".
Pretoria hauled in Canberra's High Commissioner for a diplomatic ticking off over Dutton's remarks, which also included a description of white farmers facing "horrific circumstances" - a characterisation South Africa has rejected.
READ: Minister Sisulu issues a diplomatic démarche to the Australian High Commissioner following statements made... https://t.co/hqHFe63ibj— DIRCO South Africa (@DIRCO_ZA) March 15, 2018
"The South African government is offended by the statements which have been attributed to the Australian Home Affairs Minister and a full retraction is expected," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Friday sidestepped a direct question about whether Australia would retract the statements, saying the High Commissioner has regular discussions with the South African government "on a range of issues and concerns" and citing the country's high murder rates.
Commenting this week on a documentary about violent rural crime in South Africa, Dutton said the farmers deserved "special attention", according to the Sydney Morning Herald and other Australian media.
"I do think, on the information that I've seen, people do need help and they need help from a civilised country like ours," Dutton said.
He also pointed to plans by new President Cyril Ramaphosa to allow expropriation of land as a solution to the massive land ownership inequalities that remain more than two decades after the end of apartheid.
Speaking to parliament this week, Ramaphosa said South Africa was not heading down the road towards the type of violent and chaotic seizure of white-owned farms that triggered economic collapse in Zimbabwe nearly 20 years ago.
"We cannot have a situation where we allow land grabs, because that is anarchy," Ramaphosa said. "We cannot have a situation of anarchy when we have proper constitutional means through which we can work to give land to our people."
Although violent crime is a serious issue across South Africa, killings on farms, the vast majority of which are white-owned, has become a particularly racially charged issue.
Bishop on Friday cited official statistics showing that more than 19,000 people were murdered in the country in 2017.
"The message that we urge upon the South African government is that they seek to ensure the security of all their citizens and we certainly urge the South African government that any changes to land ownership for example are not disruptive to the economy nor lead to violence," Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Radio.
Afriforum, a rights group that mainly represents the views of the white Afrikaner minority, describes being a white farmer as one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, saying a white farmer is twice as likely to be murdered as a policemen, and four times as likely as a private citizen.
Is @afriforum lying to the world as the SA government claims? No, the facts are that on average 1.8 people die per week in farm attacks in South Africa and the ruling party, the ANC, voted to accept expropriotion of property without compenstion as their policy. Prove me wrong... pic.twitter.com/sieJBuLt0R— Kallie Kriel (@kalliekriel) March 15, 2018
However, Gareth Newham, a crime expert at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said the evidence was inconclusive, with murder rates for young black men in townships likely to be far higher that for white farmers.
The government denies that whites are deliberately targeted and says farm murders are part of South Africa's wider violent crime problem.
Reporting by Ed Cropley. Additional reporting by Jane Wardell in Sydney.; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Richard Pullin