South Africa: where ‘Australia’ is code for racist

I am sitting down to write this on Human Rights Day, a national holiday commemorating the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. It is a day that evokes memories of state violence and institutionalised racism, of the apartheid government’s determination to brutalise and dehumanise non-white South Africans, but it also points to more recent processes of nation-building and (as yet unrealised) healing. It is a significant day for many South Africans, in that it encourages people to think about the current state of rights in what is still a relatively new democracy. This year – in light of Peter Dutton’s announcement that Australia would consider fast-tracking ‘humanitarian’ visas for white South African farmers – the holiday has me thinking about the differences between Australia, my country of birth, and South Africa, my adopted home.

I have been thinking, for example, about the different ways in which the past is memorialised in the two countries and how this shapes broader attitudes towards human rights. Most South African public holidays pay tribute to the liberation struggle and the enormous sacrifices made during the decades-long fight for freedom; Australia, by contrast, obsessively cultivates a white-washed version of colonisation and glorifies the ‘mateship’ said to be at the heart of the ANZAC spirit. Australia is so determined to avoid confronting its colonial past and racist present that it even rebranded International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – a UN-observed commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre – as Harmony Day, in doing so replacing any serious discussions of racial inequality with a hollow celebration of multiculturalism.

Dutton’s endorsement of the ‘white genocide’ myth – a claim routinely debunked by academics, journalists and human rights bodies – saw swift international condemnation. Leading the charge were South African writers and activists – for example, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh and Sisonke Msimang – many of whom were quick to point out the racist undertones of Australia’s immigration policies and the country’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and First Nations peoples. I don’t want to rehash these valid critiques, but rather wish to share a few reflections on life in South Africa, from the perspective of an Australian.

When I woke to news reports of Dutton’s comments, I felt the deep shame and embarrassment that is so familiar to Australians living abroad. In the South African imagination, Australia is the racist state par excellence: a sanctuary for white South Africans fleeing the nightmare of black rule, a new home where they can play out colonial fantasies without all this talk of transformation or justice or restitution, a nation in which white privilege is rebranded as ‘hard work’ and a ‘fair go’.

As an Australian living in South Africa, I have come to expect a particular line of questioning: ‘Why did you move here? Don’t all white people want to go there? Is it because your family is from South Africa?’ Most of the time I half-joke that I am running away from the racists. The conversation inevitably turns to Australia’s shocking human rights record and the regular flight of white South Africans to the racist Promised Land. So many have emigrated since the transition to democracy in 1994 that saying someone should ‘move to Australia’ is shorthand for saying they are racist – so much so that comedians can drop a reference to Australia into a joke and every South African will know what is being implied. What often goes unsaid in these jokes is how generations of inherited wealth allow white South Africans to pack up their lives and move abroad. Of course, everyone here is aware of that reality – a few minutes in Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban is enough to recognise the astonishing wealth disparity that remains twenty years after the end of white rule.

In the six years I have lived in South Africa, I have witnessed the best and worst of the country. In my professional life, I work with LGBTIQ+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and so I am regularly confronted by the social divisions that plague South Africa. I have witnessed the very real consequences of homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia, and am reminded daily of the ongoing struggle for basic service provision, safe housing and quality healthcare. At the same time, I am constantly energised by the strength of local social movements and the widespread commitment to social justice. Granted, this on-the-ground energy is not always shared by the state – recent years have seen a surge in government corruption, crackdowns on public protests and heartbreaking failures to protect vulnerable populations – but these structural issues should not be used as the sole measure of South Africa’s commitment to human rights. Unlike most Australians, South Africans have inherited a political vocabulary that allows them to articulate a vision of the world they want to create. On any given day I am as likely to have a conversation about redistributing capital, decolonising education or tackling gender-based violence as I am about the weather, the football or the latest gqom hit.

Just last week I attended a mass meeting for the Johannesburg People’s Pride (JPP) movement. Formed as a response to the commercialisation of LGBTIQ+ spaces, JPP embodies for me the spirit of political organising in South Africa. The movement is made up of a wide spectrum of people: queer and non-queer, workers and the unemployed, black and non-black, disabled and able-bodied, rich and poor. Through a range of activities – culminating in an annual march through downtown Johannesburg – JPP builds solidarity among social movements by bringing together LGBTIQ+ communities, anti-xenophobia activists, trade unionists, sex workers, student organisers and other radical folk. Sitting in last week’s meeting, I was reminded of all the things that keep me in South Africa, of the passion, energy and kindness that I witness each and every day. I have been very lucky in that I have been welcomed into a range of activist spaces – sometimes as active participant, sometimes as ally or observer – and in each of these spaces I have been inspired by the courage and strength of my comrades.

This is why Dutton’s comments made me so furious. Yes, South Africa is struggling with a range of social issues, including very high rates of violent crime, but the country is by no means the uncivilised wasteland proclaimed by Dutton. By refusing to situate South Africa’s problems within their social and historical context, Dutton and his ilk reinforce racist depictions of a country teetering on the edge of civil war. To speak of violence in South Africa without mentioning the neoliberal economic policies forced on the country during the transition to democracy, or the ongoing accumulation of capital in white hands, or the deep legacies of the Bantu education system, or the crumbling infrastructure inherited by the ANC government, is misguided at best and intentionally misleading at worse.

Dutton’s argument rests on two claims: first, that white farmers are being targeted by criminal gangs because of their race and, second, that their ‘rightfully owned’ lands are under increasing threat. Apparently, Dutton warns, South Africa is soon to be overwhelmed with a Zimbabwe-style campaign of land grabs. Anyone with the slightest interest in evidence will know just how flimsy this logic is. As noted above, the claim that white farmers are at increased risk of violence because of their race has been contested again and again and again. This is not to say that farm attacks have not happened or that these crimes are not horrific, but rather an attempt to show how the right uses this violence to bolster its political agenda. What right-wing commentators fail to mention is that the statistics they offer up include black farm owners and workers as well as other visitors to the property. They also rarely contextualise these numbers in relation to national crime statistics that show that young black South Africans living in high-risk areas are much more likely to be murdered.

Similarly, the claim that hordes of crazed blacks are about to storm white-owned farms, spurred on by warlord politicians, is a distortion of the very necessary conversation about land redistribution happening in South Africa right now. White South Africans – like their counterparts in other settler colonies – are terrified of history repeating. This is, after all, not the first or even second time that a South African government has legislated for land expropriation without compensation, though in the past the racial dynamics were reversed.

Anyone who thinks there can be meaningful justice without land redistribution is living a fantasy. This is true for all countries – Australia included – but is perhaps most starkly obvious here in South Africa. In many respects, little has changed since the end of apartheid: white folk still have high-paying jobs, still live in the leafy northern suburbs and still own most of the land. Yes, the black middle class has grown rapidly in recent years. And yes, racial segregation is no longer legislated. But these facts do not alter the reality that those living in poverty are overwhelmingly black.

It really doesn’t matter whether Dutton apologises or the Australian government abandons its plan. As Ramjathan-Keogh, Msimang and others have pointed out, this whole debacle is less about South Africa and more about Australia’s entrenched racism. There is so much that Australia can learn from South Africa, both in terms of confronting its past and building a better future. Reducing the similarities between the two countries to a love of barbecues and sport is to miss our real shared history – that of colonial dispossession – and limit opportunities to learn from each other’s experiences. I am thankful to live here and be exposed to new ways of thinking, connecting and mobilising. Most of all, I am grateful to be a part of the radical imaginings being enacted in South Africa as we speak. I just hope that others get to experience the South Africa that has captured my heart.


Image via the Johannesburg People’s Pride Movement

John Marnell

John Marnell is a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Overland’s copyeditor. His writing has appeared in Overland, Sexualities, History Workshop Journal and the Mail & Guardian. His recent publications include Creative Resistance: Participatory Methods for Engaging Queer Youth and Home Affairs: Rethinking LGBT Families in Contemporary South Africa. In July 2018, his latest book, Seeking Sanctuary: Sexuality, Faith and Migration will be published by MaThoko’s Books.

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  1. You truly are living in a fantasy yourself if you think the ‘very necessary conversation’ about dispossession of farmers and expropriation of farm land will lead to a better country.

    These policies happened a few years ago in Zimbabwe. It didn’t end well.

    The people who had actually had long familiarity with farm land were dispossessed and turned out, and the farm land didn’t go to the most deserving. It went to those who had the best political connections.

    How much is the Zimnbabwean dollar worth now? A trillion Zimbabwean dollars equals a couple of US cents?

    This is not going to end well.

    1. Your article is brilliant! Australia is a very racist country and Aboriginal children are still being forcibly removed from their mothers. Around 13.000 Children have been stolen since 2007 until today. Check Also women and children have no human rights in Australia. They are all loosing custody to white fathers who abuse children. Check and in search type corruption of the Family Court

      1. What nonsense the system here is loaded against men. Not denying that many men have behaved abominably

  2. TimT, you’re twisting the author’s words. Nowhere did he say or even suggest that expropriation without compensation would lead to a better country, but that a meaningful discussion about the appropriation of land must be had.

    1. No I’m not. The African government have already made the necessary changes to the constitution for the expropriation to take place. The ‘necessary conversation’ is now being had not over the possibility of land expropriation, but the practicalities of it. And now we have this article in a socialist publication – Overland. Given the context AND the content, the author’s endorsement of the concept seem clear.

      1. Why are you lying?

        No changes have been made to the constitution. In fact, one of the members of the ANC who is on the investigative panel said it’s unlikely they will try to amend S25. Rather they will use the Expropriation Bill to try to test it more strenuously than was done under the previous president. Seriously. Calm down.

  3. …and I as a white from Germany have been waiting for the past 24 years naively believing that any black politician would put the interest of the people first to do anything to uplift the disadvantaged people! But what did I have to witness? Housing poor, job creation poor, health system dilapidated, policing poor, justice system poor, a volatile exchange rate, shocking crime rate, an ordeal with the last president that lasted for 9 years and so on plenty of more awful faults. An increasing fat middle class 3x as big as the entire white population! And now the accused racism?
    The whole land debate would not bother any white too much if the government would play with open cards and come out with a percentage of how much land they want to redistribute! But the government place with lethal arguments if any African can write on his t-shirt The land is ours! This creates unnecessary hatred. The land issue is on both sides a sensitive over emotional issue! That should be dealt with responsible!

  4. Good on you Tim. As a resident in a country with original landowners denied rights, and as a citizen still of this naïvely racist insular island my British ancestors escaped to for the promise of a ‘better life’, and having lived in one other African country in my youth, I say: Good for you. It is easy to ignore colonial dispossession issues in parts of the globe colonialists originated in. Nothing is left there but a sense of entitlement. I speak in broad generalities but what I really wanted to say is thanks for sticking up for the alternative. When I lived in Africa myself I received so many newspaper cuttings from frightened people at home. I was more frightened of the covert hostility I met on the streets in Melbourne than anywhere in Africa. I return as often as I can, to make a difference, however small.

  5. In my experience, South Africans migrating to Weatern Australia are bringing their racist attitudes with them and further polluting the minds of West aussies.

    1. The poison of arrogant lazy racist white south african kaffir budgies is rancid in WA and across Australia.They are slowly destroying all the progress made with reconcilaition, and were targetted as immigrants specifically for that purpose.
      most prolific where the level of indig population is greatest and that is no coincidence.Australias politicians thought racism attitudes needed a boost.They leant on SeffricaAAAAAAAAAAr.

  6. “the crumbling infrastructure inherited by the ANC government” is inaccurate. I despise racism, and loathed apartheid, but the author has gone too far in absolving the ANC of culpability for their (in)action over the last few decades.

    Yes, apartheid was the original sin, yes, the infrastructure was woefully inadequate, and the black population was under-served, but what existed was in generally good order.

    Instead of building on what existed, the ANC government allowed what did exist to crumble, while engaging in large-scale misappropriation of funds. 25 years on, not only is the infrastructure in a worse state than it was before the transition to democracy, but black people continue to live in squalor. The public healthcare system is overloaded, being looted, and filled with uncaring nurses. The education system continues to flail about, producing unemployable matriculants (there is also a huge high school dropout rate). The current large scale rolling blackouts that stifle economic growth are as a result of ANC greed and inaction: the huge new coal powered fire stations (I thought coal is bad?) that they built too late, seem to have been constructed with more attention paid to lining ANC pockets than good engineering, and break down regularly.

    I know border control is anathema to many, but black South Africans cannot compete with the numerous migrants from the rest of Africa, and the rest of the world, and the ANC has abrogated its responsibilities in this area as well. One of the few well-worn paths out of poverty for black South Africans: small business, is dominated by Somailis, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Interestingly, white South Africans take a decidedly left-wing view on immigration, condemning black South Africans for “xenophobia”, while enjoying the fruits of unregulated African migrant labour.

    I recently saw a picture from the small town where my grandparents lived. What was once a neat pocket of suburbia had torrents of sewerage in the crumbling streets, and (black middle class) children splashing about in the filth.

    The ANC did inherit a grossly unequal system, but instead of dealing with that inequality, it turned to large-scale looting, and increasingly turned to using populist rhetoric to placate the black masses.

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