Bruce Cohen
Bruce Cohen

Australia, where is your humanity?

There’s a smug little reality show on Discovery Channel called Border Patrol that shines a spotlight on the work of Australian customs officials. In a recent episode I sat riveted as two Ozzy pensioners quivered tearfully before an officious bitch in blue that had seized their contraband bunch of bananas. The threat level stuttered to a crescendo as the venal Sheila dragged out the misery for as long as she could milk the mounting terror of those two dazed, geriatric sods.

Then there’s the man just daring to try and enter Oz wearing an undeclared leather hat. Or the usual parade of minor, dodgy drug smugglers. And the dishevelled flotsam with iffy passports, all worn down into a catatonic stupor by tedious and repetitive interrogation until, finally, almost gratefully, they’re ejected from the country like sheep.

Watching the Border Patrol at work kindled a smouldering anger in me at the memory of a truly nasty aspect of the Australian national character: its petty-bureaucratic sadism against elderly people. I wonder how many South African-Australian families have experienced the same mindless, mental cruelty from Australian visa authorities that was visited upon my late father.

Almost two decades ago my brother immigrated to Oz with his family, and each year my father would make a brief pilgrimage to Adelaide to visit a growing brood of grandchildren. Months in advance, he would start the process of applying for an Australian visa.

As a man in reasonably good health (he did his daily Canadian Airforce calisthenics until into his Eighties), my father would stoically assemble all the medical records required for the visa application. He would back-up his application with an annually-updated (Australian-approved) doctor’s letter saying his rather mild type-II diabetes was well controlled and that he was under regular medical supervision for it. (My father would eventually pride himself on his knowledge of which doctors and specialists in Jo’burg were Oz visa-approved. Such knowledge was a readily tradable social currency at synagogue on Saturdays where, it seemed, just about everyone seemed to have family Down Under.)

All this, mind you, for an annual three-week tourist visa which, anyway, required him to have full health insurance that covered evacuation back to SA in the event of a health crisis. A letter from my brother assuming full financial responsibility should my dad have fallen ill while in Oz was brusquely declined — according to my father, they didn’t even want to read it.

For the first decade or so, after jumping through all the hoops, dad’s visa would be approved relatively quickly and he was able to look forward to that most important annual highlight of a somewhat bleak old age.

My dad loved Australia. He would return home with glowing descriptions of Australian cleanliness and orderliness, of its super-efficient, free-for-pensioners, public transport system, the always-smiling cashiers. I dreaded his first weeks back in SA when, over Sunday lunch and a glass or too many of wine, he would repetitively detail all that was good about Oz and shit about home. My father was no patriot — for all the wrong reasons.

About five years before his death late in 2009, aged 83, the visa noose tightened and the process became longer, harder, the outcome much less certain. More medicals, more X-rays, more blood tests, more questions, more referrals back to specialists for more opinions and even more tests. Records were sent all the way to Canberra and back again and there were nail-bitingly long delays in getting answers, approvals. Each year seemed worse than the one before.

As he trudged from waiting room to waiting room year upon year, my father’s spirit slowly but surely ebbed away. Shunted from doctor to doctor, ratcheting up bills he could not really afford, his already narrowed world grew smaller, more fragile, more desperate as the prospect of never again seeing his son and grandchildren loomed large. I’m sure my father felt, as Christopher Hitchens does as he writes about his impending death from cancer, that each day (waiting) subtracted more and more from less and less.

In the last years of his life, the ordeal of fulfilling the visa demands and the wretchedness it caused him became an obsessive subject of my father’s attention and conversation; any tiny development became a headline news item in our lives, immediately shared and dissected. Nothing else mattered except getting that damn visa. Best I could do was to humour him, make light of the agonising uncertainty. “Of course you’ll get it,” I’d tell him. “They’re difficult bastards but the visa always comes through, doesn’t it, dad”. But both of us knew he had a really shitty ticket in this cruel lottery.

When, at the last minute (if not exactly, it’s certainly how it felt to him), the visa came through — it was received by a man whose mind and body were numb.

I firmly believe that the years of continual stress caused my father by the Australian visa section contributed to the cancer which finally consumed him. If you don’t believe that sustained stress causes cancer, try a little Googling of the subject — you will be unpleasantly surprised.

And if the stress didn’t actually destroy his body, it certainly tormented his mind and broke his spirit. The torture really worked.

Australia, you sure know how to draw a grotesque curtain of Kafkaesque darkness over the souls of the elderly wishing nothing more than to see their beloved grandchildren for a few lousy weeks. Where is your humanity?