I’m often reminded that South Africans migrate to Australia, not the other way round. This weekend I was drinking a quiet cup of tea, minding my own affairs in a charming café. I interrupted the two women at the next table when the conversation turned to novels.
Like a curse, my accent prompts an irritating honk like a Windows fault: “Runtime Error 97 – Why’d you come here?”
“There’s a catalogue of reasons an Australian will travel or emigrate,” I explained, assuming she was referring to my foreign tone and looks. “We’re weaned on the folklore of settlers…”
“Convicts!” she snickered.
“…who not so long ago ventured into the silence of the interior to struggle against the unknown. Hardship is a national icon; naïve adventure a pastime. It doesn’t matter whether the settlers triumphed nobly or succumbed to defeat, their stories are celebrated. They travelled; they tried; they lived. Then they died.”
Before I finished the speech, the women had paid for lunch, not bothering to collect the change. But I continued to ponder the reasons to leave “Aussie”.*
There’s the modern reality: it’s a beautiful, sun-baked, fun-loving country with quality services and low inequality,** but it’s a nanny state cushioned by diapers. This isn’t such a stretch given its elderly population.
Melbourne, the city where I first got drunk (and was raised) has had e-tolls for over a decade. Cops treat traffic infringements with the dedication of the tactical response team. And the smoking laws touted in SA are already in effect Down Under, curtailing one’s right to self-inject lung cancer.
Turns out we’re also dumb, drunk and racist, but I left because of a girl. I was chasing love and not running away from it. In a strange twist, if I was to leave Johannesburg it might be because of the crazies I attract. Let’s not mention names, but you know who you are.***
Now, if a political issue were to have driven me from the land bound by sea, it would have been one of two. Both concern minorities: the plight and treatment of Australia’s indigenous population, and the “boat people” drama.
Boat people aren’t a community of beings with the limbs of a man and the body of a boat. It’s a term given to asylum seekers who come to Australia by sea. The rickety vessels often come from Indonesia and are usually organised by people smugglers.
They travel from countries where battles aren’t confined to sporting metaphors, hoping their rights under the UN Refugee Convention are recognised. The majority are deemed valid refugees, unlike those who fly into the country. Yet they’ve been locked up and are seen as “illegal” and “queue jumpers”.
Last week, one of these boats capsized while travelling from Indonesia to Christmas Island. Seventeen bodies have been found, 110 people rescued and 90 feared dead at sea. In December 2010, over 50 asylum seekers died as their boat crashed on to the island’s jagged rocks in a storm.
When I got word of the tragedy, I wasn’t able to register the heartbreak of drowned hopes. Instead, I had flashbacks of an Australia drunk on the “boat people” drama.
It was like a decade of The Spear saga. You were either with “us”, “them” or in a mental institution somewhere in between.
I remember hearing former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser speak on the issue. Being from the Liberal Party, my mum hated him when he was in government, but he’s gone bald, wrinkled and is regarded more as a grandfather who perhaps wasn’t liked by my mum but is fine now to reference in an important article.
He was born in 1930, had a role in Zimbabwe’s independence, the land rights of indigenous Australians, and the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons in South Africa. Fraser saw his share of racism.
He thought we’d never regress, he said, after witnessing the gains made in the second half of the 20th century. But he was wrong. “I now see it’s a fight every generation has to have.”
The boat people issue has been a political football in Australia for more than a decade. Even those who despised the discourse, as blunt as a sealing club, couldn’t help but get in the game.
Those despicable do-gooders tried to bring some finesse and point out the myths regarding asylum seekers. Some people were convinced, others were not. Politicians from both sides just kept on beating the drum, winning and losing elections on the populist vote.
When I heard about the recent tragedy, the rhythm of that beat came back to me. Like 40 million legs marching in different directions, the sound could smother any other discussion. All policy felt subservient to what we would do about a few thousand people, most of whom were arriving from war-torn homes.
For solace, I called my sister who works as a teacher in an indigenous community in the Northern Territory. Jo sounded like a yeti. A wild wail came across the line. It’s still going, I thought. And Jo’s gone mad.
I’d forgotten about the time difference and had woken her. “People are still dumb,” she said, “but the issue seems to be calming down. They’re starting to release asylum seekers into the community while they wait to be processed rather than continue with mandatory detention.”
Quite a lucid response considering I’d just woken her, I thought. Was this the Australia I left? She may have been dreaming.
As I hung up the work phone, I hoped it was true. If a sensible discourse prevails, the Australian government can find a viable solution to the complex problem. And perhaps I can recognise last week’s events as what they are – a tragic loss of life fleeing in search of a new home.
Now, would it be too much to ask that the country start to address the struggle of the only Australians that aren’t new on the shores – the indigenous population? DM
* Australians say it, of course, but it sounds so confused when South Africans try. Invariably, they’re missing the Southern Cross tattoo, tinny, and corked hat.
** Please take note, border patrol officials: I hope to get back into Oz when I return in September for my mate James’s wedding.
*** Kindly direct hate mail to [email protected]