Australia's Minister for International Development says her country has been a long-term friend of South Africa.

Australia's Minister for International Development Concetta Fierravanti-Wells flew across the Indian Ocean this week with two goals in mind: to lobby the AU summit for Australia’s candidature for the UN Human Rights Council and to cement relationships between her country and South Africa.

This is the first time Australia has advocated for a seat on the council; in fact the first time a Pacific country is “putting its hand up” to take a leadership role in this forum. And, for Fierravanti-Wells who is passionate about human rights, “it’s not just about Australia but about a large area of the world having a say at a particularly critical time”.

“Australia is a country that has always taken a principled view, but also a practical view to its involvement at an international level. We believe that we will bring that same degree of commitment to the seat on Human Rights Council,” she said during an interview in Pretoria.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, presenting a AUD500,000 (ZAR5 million) grant to Sonke Gender Justice in Johannesburg. Credit: Sonke.
Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, presenting a AUD500,000 (ZAR5 million) grant to Sonke Gender Justice in Johannesburg. Credit: Sonke.

“Migration is our past, our present and our future,” says Fierravanti-Wells, herself a descendant of Italian migrants to Australia. “Australia has had a very ordered and effective migration programme which sees close on 200 000 people coming to the country each year. It made a once-off decision to accept 12000 Syrian refugees and welcomes those who are part of the UN Agency for Refugees initiatives.”

The refugee situation in Europe she concedes has been difficult, but a lot of UN bodies and NGOs are involved in the humanitarian space.

Aside from resettlement programmes, she believes it is vital for the world to support countries that are hosting large numbers of refugees and offer better humanitarian assistance to people in refugee camps but, ultimately to repatriate refugees when the situation in their home countries can be stabilised.

She stresses the need for a good settlement service. “It is important, when you bring people from different parts of the world together, to integrate those people into a socially cohesive framework”, and that, she believes, has been the secret of Australia’s success as a unique multicultural country with a population that today boasts more than 300 heritages.

While at the AU, Australia also made an announcement of a million-dollar partnership to support women’s social and economic empowerment and governance issues.

“Gender is a key component of our development assistance,” says Fierravanti-Wells, an advocate of gender equality. “We have a target that 80% of our aid investment needs to be gender-related and last year we (Australia) achieved 78%,” she says, citing projects which mainstreamed gender equality in very practical ways which “help shape the thinking in the gender space”.

Among her visits in South Africa, was to Sonke Gender Justice where she was to present a grant for its “What’s Violence Got to Do With It?” programme in South Africa and Tanzania. Sonke’s work resonates with Fierravanti-Wells, and the project hosts two of Australia’s 18 volunteers from the AVID group in South Africa, including one who is doing groundbreaking research on sexworkers.

Through its aid programme, Australia looks at practical ways to empower women and boost their participation in leadership and peace building, how to mainstream gender equality in projects, and how to protect women from violence.

Another project visited was the Smile Foundation where financial support saw a burns unit built at George Mukhari hospital.

The relationship between Australia and Africa is vast with 200 Australian stock exchange companies invested in about 600 projects across 40 countries in Africa, and Australia punches above its weight in terms of assistance offered in developmental aid and peacekeeping.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, visiting the children at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg, and seeing the impact that the Australian Direct Aid Program funding, through the Smile Foundation’s work, has on South African children and their families. Credit: Smile Foundation.
Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator the Hon. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, visiting the children at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg, and seeing the impact that the Australian Direct Aid Program funding, through the Smile Foundation’s work, has on South African children and their families. Credit: Smile Foundation.

The friendship between Australia and South Africa is particularly mature.

“We have been a long-standing friend for South Africa, with Australia very supportive of the anti-apartheid movement” – including through the trade embargo and sports boycott, she said.

“When we look at the relationship today it has many different dimensions. Two-way trade is over A$3 billion(R30m), and two way investment around A$9bn. Investment in the past was mainly in mining, but it is much more diverse today, including gas, renewable energy, infrastructure, the financial sector, agricultural products and retail.”

Australian retailer Cotton On is to open its largest African store at the Mall of Africa, and Woolworths purchased David Jones clothing and Country Road, for example.

Another key area of co-operation is in the science and technology field with the two countries co-hosting the Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, which carries with it not only scientific benefits but benefits that flow to local communities and schools, according to Australia’s High Commissioner in South Africa, Adam McCarthy.

The countries have strong academic and research ties, with the South Africa-Australia universities network headed up by University of Pretoria vice-chancellor Professor Cheryl de la Rey, and work being done by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

“We use the benefit of agri-business research that ACIAR does to benefit other countries, and the scope is there to do much more,” says Fierravanti-Wells.

“We are a young country by comparison to many, but we are a ‘can-do’ country. We are doing lots of things in Africa, and our relationship with South Africa is a very good one we hope will continue,” Fierravanti-Wells added.

Her visit to the country, the first she’s undertaken, and the meetings held with her South African counterparts served to reinforce the bonds and look at ways to continue to grow them, in South Africa but also into Africa.

Notable actions

Among notable anti-apartheid actions by Australia was the country’s sporting and trade boycott.

After protests during the Springboks’ rugby tour of Australia in 1971 prime minister Gough Whitlam ann- ounced that sporting teams selected on race would not be allowed in Australia.

Prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s support of a UN General Assembly resolution on apartheid in sport.

Bob Hawke established scholarships for black South Africans to study in Australia and under him the ANC established an office in Sydney, helping to facilitate visits by activists to Australia.

Hawke pushed for the establishment of a Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group which was instrumental in Commonwealth countries imposing trade sanctions on South Africa.

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