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Envying Australia makes a lot of sense

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.

Author

  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.

22 Comments

  1. Andrew Andrew 17 September 2008

    The lack of respect you refer to is clearly echoed in so many posts across ThoughtLeader recently. It’s a very sad situation.

  2. Neil Neil 17 September 2008

    David,

    some nice observations, but not the full story.
    Australia has an ever rising number of anti-semetic attacks, that far outnumber attacks on Jews in South Africa (but lets be honest, wherever Jews live, hatred, fear and violence have followed).

    Talking of history. Australia has a bloodstained history. The main factor being the massacre of the aboriginies by the white colonists. In fact the british government paid australias inhabitants per every aboriginy head hunted!! makes you think

    Yes it is a wonderful country, far exceeding South Africa in every aspect, but there are many social ill’s. and if you ask me perth is the last place I would visit. Sydney, Melbourne, Gold coast .. all better examples of Australia. I doubt the enclave of SOuth African Jewry in Perth is a fair representation of Australia.

    During the recent Lebanon war there was almost an uprising by the muslim inhabitants of Australia which nearly turned into a pogrom. Their has been tons of ethnic violence in Sydney driven by fear and isolation of new ethnic immigrants. Only westerners and east asians seemed to have been absorbed into Australian society.

  3. david saks david saks 17 September 2008

    Just to clarify – I was in Melbourne as well as Perth (far preferring it to the latter). Most of my time was spent at a conference on a rural retreat. The countryside is pleasant enough, but it doesn’t begin top compare with what we have in RSA. Not even Shane Warne can do anything about that!

  4. Luddite Luddite 17 September 2008

    David
    This is hardly a balanced argument. Contrasting the apparent pros of living in the Prison Yard vs. the well document cons of living in SA.
    I hope you will soon provide us with the companion piece that contrasts the cons of the shackle-draggers with the pros of SA.

  5. Steve Mackay Steve Mackay 17 September 2008

    Thanks for a well thought out blog David. Having left South Africa in the mid eighties to escape PW Botha and his mates mad rush to destruction, Oz has been singularly good to me and mine. Unfortunately Africa (and South Africa) is like a virus in your system. You can’t quite leave it behind with its marvellous people and environment no matter how old ones gets. Even though there are the inevitable problems.

  6. Nick Nick 17 September 2008

    David I am working on an article titled THE LIFE DOWN UNDER. Could you email so that I can ask you a few interview-style questions. [email protected]

  7. Rodney King of Sydney Rodney King of Sydney 17 September 2008

    Remember Maslow mate. When you are fed and secure the niceties are easy.

    In Australia only one racial group decimated the Aboriginal population so sharing the spoils was easy. In South Africa a range of black and white colonisers committed genocide on the San. Now they are still squabbling about who gets what share.

  8. Joe Joe 18 September 2008

    How refreshing it is to read objective, open-minded observations about Australia in the South African media, instead of the nasty, envy-fuelled sniping you usually see. Anybody who comes here with a flexible attitude and without an overly inflated opinion of his own importance will agree with David that it is a unique place where most of the people do indeed like one another. Equally, there is a “can do” attitude that is reflected in the sporting success, and even in cultural life.
    The thing the country’s critics don’t like is that it is very difficult to insult an Aussie. Call him a convict and he will glow with pride; call him a sheep shagger and he will think you are confusing him with New Zealanders.

  9. Haiwa Tigere Haiwa Tigere 18 September 2008

    David me mate- please show this article to the case officer they assign for your resident application and they will show you the green route straight into Goondiwindi or Blackbutt(yes there are two blackbutt-s in australia)
    or whereever you want to settle.
    what you say is spot on.The stress simply leaves you as you move from SA to australia

  10. Sarah Britten Sarah Britten 18 September 2008

    Interesting comment on the friendliness of Australians. I can’t say every Australian I have encountered has been friendly – there have been a couple of have been anything but. And their customer service leads a lot to be desired.

    (The Castle did show in SA – I remember seeing it at Rosebank.)

  11. Scarface Scarface 18 September 2008

    Good article.Exactly what I am experiencing in Perth at the moment. The things I like best is greeting someone on the street and getting a warm smile back (Albeit that 1/3 is either English or American). Haven’t seen that in Joburg for 15 years.

    In the week of being here, I haven’t heard a car hooter, it’s custom here to rather be patient and let the offending driver get on his/her way without blaring hooters! R50 for anyone who can go a normal day through Johannesburg without hearing a hooter.

  12. Mike Mike 18 September 2008

    You say “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.”

    I used to live in Aust and I know exactly what you are talking about! People here in SA need to begin treating each other like human beings, with all the respect which it entails. I think South Africans are so used to treating each other so poorly that they have forgotten how to treat each other with respect (and with a genuine smile on their face!).

  13. Ash Ash 18 September 2008

    Oh hello, does anyone NOT know why Australia does so well at so many sports? They (govt etc) put an absolute fortune into them, that’s why …

  14. Jonathan Jonathan 18 September 2008

    You have heard of ,or even seen, local movies like Tsotsi,or Yesterday, right? or do only Schuster type movies register with you?

  15. Jabulani Jabulani 18 September 2008

    I have to agree with luddite in that it is hardly a balanced viewpoint. Dave – write us a piece on the cons of living with emancipated convicts ;-)

  16. Bingo Bently Bingo Bently 18 September 2008

    David, the only reason the Australians were happy to see you is that you’re white. For some of us who are black and have been to Australia, we don’t have nice goody! goody! stories to tell. You ask Indonesians about the Australians, you’ll get a different story. Most of them are just like some of our Afrikaaners. Racist and narrow minded.

  17. Gus mkandla Gus mkandla 18 September 2008

    Bingo Bentlys comment has some validity.White SAcans get better treatment than Black people but for the black person its a much better treatment than one would get from white SA.
    White australia hates aborigines though and the subject is closed to discusion.Its their collective guilt to having almost exterminated the race and the aborigines allergy to work of any kind.
    Given the choice of living in SA and living in australia- wild horses will have to drag me away from oz

  18. Cassandra Cassandra 19 September 2008

    Interesting article although I’m not sure that I agree that all Aussies are genuinely friendly – not in Sydney at any rate! But I have heard that it is different in the different areas.

    As for Bingo’s comment, I feel that a lot of people look for racism where there isn’t any and any rudeness is interpreted as being based on race where it could just be that the person is being rude – regardless of colour.

  19. Janet Janet 19 September 2008

    “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.”

    Australia, too, has an ‘interesting history to read about’ – the most exciting thing to have ever happened being characterised by genocide, racial hatred, and brutality. In fact Australia continues to have aboriginal reservations (seem familiar…just like the ‘homelands’ of South Africa) in which the majority of people live in poverty and are routinely discrimintaed against.

    While Australia is a fantastic country, and has wonderful people, it has an incredibly brutal story that is less public simply because it is the minority of the population (partly due to genocide) that is indigenous…

    The recent treatment of immigrants in detention has been another issue under the spotlight of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International.

    So yes, Australia is unreservedly fantastic – as long as you’re of ‘acceptable’ origin and race.

  20. amused reader amused reader 20 September 2008

    The biggest reason for Australia’s success is its’ immigration policy.

    What does Australia have that we don’t. We have vast amounst of land, good infrastructure (At the momnent), good weather and a beautiful country.

    The only thing that stops us attracting high calibre, highly skilled individuals into South Africa, who can create a country even better country than Australia, is our stupid race polictics.

    Most of those immigrants (and millions are leaving Europe in search of a better life) would be made feel most unwelcome here, because, despite what they could do for our country, they do not have the requisite skin colour, and are therefore, unwelcome.

    Africa for the Africans!!!

  21. wayneroberts wayneroberts 24 September 2008

    Ya say what you wanna say. A year in aus and I am as happy as a pig in shit. The perception of Australia and the reality of australia are two totally different things. Aus is better then SA in almost every regard, contrary to what people in SA say about it. There was so much negativity expressed when I decided to move here. Few supported it, most said I would come crawling back, others said I would starve out here and would live a poor mans life.

    How wrong everyone has been. Even I have been surprised at just how much better it is here.

    People even talk about the natural beauty that SA has to offer as being better then what Aus has to offer. Anyone that has seen a fraction of Australia knows what a beautiful country it really is. Saying that, I dont think one country in the world could be considered ugly. Typical SA arrogance to think that SA offers a better landscape then its peers.

    I want nothing to do with South Africa or Africa anymore. I still have to travel there on business unfortunately. Its a crime infested shit pit of a continent, and SA will go the same way every other african country has gone. All the sentimentality in the world is not going to change that.

    People chide South Africans for leaving. They then complain when we have the audacity to complain about how much better off we are for the move. Considering the negativity and total lack of support i received from fellow South Africans I find great joy in rubbing your noses in it.

  22. Harold Harold 3 October 2008

    If you enjoyed “The Castle”, have you checked out “Kenny”?

    For reasons I can’t articulate, I don’t think anyone but the Aussies could come up with a film like that.

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