I was struck by a lot of things about Australia on my visit there a couple of years ago. Such as the fact that it took only fifteen minutes from my arrival for someone to call me “mate”. Then there was the bus driver who brusquely refused my offer to give him a hand in unloading our luggage, the implication being that this was his job and I should back off. And there were the relaxed and cheerful shop workers, many of them of East Asian origin, who served me with such unfeigned friendliness.
Perhaps the most meaningful little vignette concerned tuning in to a news broadcast and hearing that there had been — wait for it — an attempted mugging in Perth. The public was requested to keep its eyes open and pass on any relevant information to the police. South Africa, with its 18 000-plus murders every year, seemed to be on another planet.
Naturally, there are exceptions, but Australians genuinely seem to like and respect one another, probably because they don’t feel a need to point fingers and also because there is enough room for everybody to find a comfortable niche for themselves in their vast and prospering land. Maybe that’s why Australian Jewry is so upbeat as it settles into its de facto role of being the southern hemisphere’s premier Jewish community, ahead of deeply troubled Argentina and numerically declining South Africa, once the front-runners. It also explains why so many South Africans are relocating there, or at least casting yearning glances in that direction.
There are other more prosaic reasons for the attraction.
I don’t know if the brilliant Australian comedy The Castle was ever screened in South Africa, but few films can have encapsulated so perfectly the spirit of egalitarianism that governs Australia, without, moreover, having to be preachy about it. Its hero is a lower-middle class family head fighting to save his home after it has been “compulsorily purchased” by the neighbouring airport. He is none too bright and his tastes in just about everything are awful, but his exuberant enthusiasm for life and complete conviction that he is the luckiest man in Australia, even as jumbo jets are roaring relentlessly over his head at all times of the day, prevents him from becoming wholly a figure of fun. It’s an intelligent and affectionate lampoon of the Australian working man, and while the many satirical thrusts are invariably on target, there is no malice behind them. In the end, the hero’s faith in the system, sorely tested at one point, is triumphantly upheld.
One can’t imagine a film of this kind of wit and intelligence coming out of this country. The average South African’s idea of home-grown humour is a Leon Schuster movie in which the characters get defecated on by an elephant. It is also not accidental that some of the most popular local comedies have been Candid Camera type flicks, vehicles designed to enrage and humiliate some poor Joe Shmo who wants nothing more than to be left alone.
And how is it that a country whose population is little over 21 million can consistently feature in the top six of the Olympic medal winners? Australia amassed 46 medals this time round; South Africa managed one. This is not even to mention the country’s record in cricket, rugby, tennis, golf etc etc. It testifies to an intense national pride that — forgive me if I’m wrong — just does not seem to exist here.
One ‘advantage’ – if one can call it that — which South Africans have over Australia, is that at least we have an interesting history to read about (forgetting for the moment the wording of the proverbial ancient Chinese curse regarding living in interesting times). The most exciting thing that ever happened to Australia would seem to have been the career in violent crime of Ned Kelly and the closest Australians have gotten to persecution in modern times was when several over-zealous English bowlers gave their test batsmen a few unsportsmanlike bruises during the infamous Bodyline series in the 1930s. South Africa remains a harsh and dangerous place, even for those who have money in the bank, but we have survived and may yet prosper. One wonders, though, even if the democratic consensus holds and the economy remains more or less afloat, whether our racial and ethnic divisions will ever be properly healed.
It is a simple matter to list the many positive aspects of Australia, be they economic, political or public-amenity related, but what impressed me most of all was the relaxed and friendly nature of the actual people and their underlying respect for one another. It is this aspect of human interaction that is so sorely lacking in this country, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we do not pay a high psychological price for it.
One of the last things I did before boarding SAA for my return flight was to ask one of the airport officials for directions. He obliged with a good-natured smile and before I knew it I was responding “Thanks mate”. There was a genuine lump in my throat as the plane lifted off the runway.