Peter Dutton has denied claims his Coalition colleagues, including Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, advised South Africa to ignore his remarks on refugee visas for the country's white farmers.
Mr Dutton has revealed he is considering "several" applications from South African farmers who are seeking humanitarian protection in Australia, denying South Africa's claim his offer to help white farmers had been "retracted".
The minister hit back at South Africa's foreign minister for suggesting the Australian government had withdrawn Mr Dutton's controversial offer to give "persecuted" white farmers from South Africa "special" consideration for refugee visas.
South Africa Foreign Minister Lindiwe Sisulu had earlier said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and foreign minister Julie Bishop had made a "retraction" of Mr Dutton's comments.
"We have received a letter from the [Australian ministry of] foreign affairs that indicated that what was said by the minister of home affairs is not the position of the government of Australia," foreign ministry spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya told AFP.
In comments to Guardian Australia, the same spokesman said South African officials "could not believe” Mr Dutton's comments had been accurately reported and sought clarification from the foreign minister, Julie Bishop.
“When the minister of foreign affairs says judge us on our policy, that’s what we will do, not [on] what politicians will say ... the policy does not say what Mr Dutton says,” Mr Mabaya told the Guardian.
“Our strong relationship with Australia goes back to the time under apartheid and today we can take the letter from the ministry and move on to focusing on beating the Australians in the next Test.”
On Tuesday, Mr Dutton said he had seen the letter but strongly denied the claim it amounted to a retraction.
"I'm not sure what domestic issues are at play in terms of the politics in South Africa that would bring this comment out but it's not based on any factual statement of anyone within the Australian government," he told Sky News.
SBS News has asked the South African foreign office for a copy of the letter, but such documents are rarely made public due to the convention of privacy in diplomatic communication.
Mr Dutton said the government's position was "as I stated it a couple of weeks ago". The minister has not suggested a new visa for white South African farmers but suggested they be considered for existing refugee and humanitarian visas.
"And in fact we're having a look at several now," he said.
The South African spokesman said their foreign office had also received an effective retraction from the prime minister, via Australia's ambassador.
"We also had a meeting with the high commissioner [ambassador] who conveyed a message from the prime minister, who said the same thing, to indicate that this is not the view of their government," Mr Mabaya said.
Hours later, a spokesman for Australia's Home Affairs Minister told The Australian that South Africa’s comments did not "accurately reflect" the position of Mr Turnbull or Ms Bishop.
"There was no rebuttal of the words of Minister Dutton," the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for Ms Bishop told SBS News: "The Prime Minister and the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs have been clear and consistent in reiterating that Australia’s current humanitarian visa program is non-discriminatory, with each application assessed on its merits. The program can accommodate those fearing persecution."
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said he "didn't know" what was motivating Mr Dutton's comments, but then said they were an appeal to conservatives within the Coalition to improve his chances of securing the leadership one day.
"If Mr Dutton wants to enter a beauty parade to win the right wing of the Liberal Party for votes in the future to undermine Mr Turnbull, that's a matter which is up to them," the Labor leader told reporters in Melbourne.
Mr Turnbull said South Africans who felt persecuted at home could apply for a humanitarian visa to come to Australia like anyone else.
"It is non-discriminatory and it is a very generous program, people in South African who feel that they have been persecuted are certainly able to apply, there is no question about that," Mr Turnbull told ABC Radio.
Mr Dutton's original comments did call for "special" consideration under the existing humanitarian program, and the Home Affairs deparment confirmed it was considering "potential resettlement" offers for persecuted minorities.
Foreign minister Julie Bishop said there were no plans to change the "non-discriminatory" nature of the refugee visa, but said she was "working with the home affairs minister to ascertain if any changes are needed".
Mr Dutton's offer to help settle persecuted farmers in a "civilised country" like Australia drew an angry response from South Africa, kicking off a diplomatic row.
Mr Dutton's comments have found support among conservatives in the parliament. Backbench Liberal Andrew Laming and independent Fraser Anning, once of One Nation, spoke at a march in support of white farmers in Brisbane recently.
Senator Anning told SBS News he would support any move to extend special consideration, describing the violence as an attempted "genocide" of white South Africans.
- with AAP