For centuries, white South Africans blissfully mythologised their history and the effects that their arrival on the southern tip of the continent had on the indigenous people.
White Australians engaged in a similarly elaborate myth-making concerning conquest. However, unlike here, whites are a majority in Australia – the white Aussie extermination of the indigenes was more calculatedly vicious than here – so they have never faced the drastically changed political circumstances that have in South Africa compelled a modicum of introspection and re-assessment.
But a documentary film by journalist and activist John Pilger might ignite at least a small bushfire of debate in his native Australia, following its British release this week. It opens in Australia only in January, on Australia Day, which Pilger has dubbed “Invasion Day”, and which commemorates the 1788 arrival of the British First Fleet.
Called Utopia, the film deals with the “trail of tears and betrayal” of the Aboriginal people, arguing that their marginalisation is part of Australia’s own pernicious and endemic strain of apartheid. Writing in The Guardian, Pilger says that having reported from SA during the apartheid years, he had long been struck by Australia’s similarities as regards “white supremacy and the compliance and defensiveness of liberals. Yet no international opprobrium, no boycotts, disturb the surface of ‘lucky’ Australia”.
More than any other colonial society, “Australia consigns its dirtiest secrets to wilful ignorance or indifference”. While Australia is now per capita the richest country in the world, Aboriginal communities live in abject poverty, going deaf and blind from preventable infections and “dying of Dickensian diseases”, as a result of having been systematically excluded from the benefits that mining, oil and gas revenue has brought the whites.
He quotes a former Prisons minister, Margaret Quirk, describing the justice process in some states as being one of “racking and stacking” of black Australians. The Aboriginal rate of incarceration is five times higher than it was for black South Africans during the apartheid years.
Pilger describes the first Australians as the “oldest, most enduring” human presence on Earth, yet for white Australians it was always as if they did not exist. More first Australians were killed than Native Americans on the American frontier or Maoris in New Zealand.
“Of those who fought the British invaders of Australia, the Sydney Monitor reported in 1838: ‘It was resolved to exterminate the whole race of blacks in that quarter.’ Today, the survivors are a shaming national secret.”
The implication is that the extermination continues, albeit more subtly. “The town of Wilcannia, in New South Wales, is twice distinguished. It is a winner of a national Tidy Town award, and its indigenous people have one of the lowest recorded life expectancies. They are usually dead by the age of 35.”
Pilger cites also deaths in police custody and high rates of suicide. “When I first reported on indigenous Australia a generation ago, black suicide was rare. Today, the despair is so profound that the second [highest] cause of Aboriginal death is suicide.”
Pilger’s film raised some Australian hackles already in the making. He was refused permission to film on Canberra’s Anzac Parade, where the Australian National War Memorial is sited, because “I had made the mistake of expressing an interest in the frontier wars in which black Australians fought the British invasion without guns but with ingenuity and courage – the epitome of the ‘Anzac tradition’.”
And when he questioned Warren Snowdon, the former minister for Indigenous Health, on why after almost a quarter of a century representing the poorest, sickest Australians, he had not come up with a solution, Snowdon snarled “What a stupid question. What a puerile question.”
Pilger, often criticised for being more activist than journalist, is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea. As a response to his sometimes tendentious writing, the author Auberon Waugh coined the verb “to pilger’, meaning “to present information in a sensationalist manner to reach a foregone conclusion”. It made it into the Oxford Dictionary but was removed on the threat of legal action by an unamused Pilger.
Nevertheless, such hypocrisy and oppression that Pilger describes on the part of white Australia should surely carry a price. During the apartheid years the Aussies lobbied enthusiastically for SA’s sporting isolation and the boycott of our wine, fruit and minerals.
Contrary to churlish South African suspicions, this was supposedly to bring about political change here and had nothing to do with these being the arenas where South Africa competed most fiercely with Australia.
So time to return the favour, methinks. Dump that Aussie plonk in the bin and kick the buggers out of international rugby and cricket.
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